This is so last month, I know, but I I think this article warrants mention. TimBeal posted an op-ed entitled “The Bible is Dead; Long Live the Bible” at the Chronicle website. This is a brilliant piece, and I resonate with much of it. I’m actually strongly considering having my intro students read it as a discussion piece for our sessions on what the Bible is (or, “how to read the Bible without throwing your brain in the toilet!”).
Here are a few notable quotables from Beal’s article, to give you a flavor, along with some brief commentary. He is, in my view, right on the money:
But you can’t fail at something you’re not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That’s a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. On the contrary, biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.
[ . . . ]
Given how many hands have been involved in so many contexts over such a long time in the history of this literature, can we honestly imagine that no one noticed such glaring discrepancies? Can we believe, for example, that the seam between the first and second creation stories in Genesis, as well as the many other seams found throughout the Torah, were not obvious? That if agreement and univocality were the goal, such discrepancies would not have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? That creation stories would have been made to conform or be removed? That Job would’ve been allowed to stand against Moses? That Gospel mix-ups concerning who saw what after Jesus’s resurrection would have been left to stand? That Judas would have died twice, once by suicide and once by divine disgorge? And so on. Could all those many, many people involved in the development of biblical literature and the canon of Scriptures have been so blind, so stupid? It’s modern arrogance to imagine so.
[ . . . ]
The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument—even, and especially, when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers. The Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to univocality.
[ . . . ]
Attachment to the cultural icon of the Bible is similarly debilitating. It’s a false image, an idol. If you see it, kill it. The Bible is dead; long live the Bible. Not as the book of answers but as a library of questions, not as a wellspring of truth but as a pool of imagination, a place that hosts our explorations, rich in ambiguity, contradiction, and argument. A place that, in its failure to give clear answers and its refusal to be contained by any synopsis or conclusion, points beyond itself to mystery, which is at the heart of the life of faith.
These lines get at what I think is one of the most important points I try to communicate to my students: the Bible is a conversation. It doesn’t “say” anything (at this point early in the semester I turn my Bible sideways, ask the class to be very quiet, and proceed to open and close the Bible repeatedly, showing that indeed it “says” nothing). The Bible does not settle the conversation; the Bible invites us into the conversation, asks to hear our voice, and presses us to wrestle with the topic and its complexity. The conversation is what is important. Indeed, the Bible is a “library of questions,” and to wrestle with them–and by extension with the very essence of who we are as individuals and as communities–is a supreme act of fidelity, not only to oneself, but also, I believe, to God.