Summer Bible Reading

Summer reading lists have appeared in the last few weeks, giving readers (especially beach-going ones) suggestions for enhancing their leisure time. As strange as it might sound, I’m using today’s blog to recommend adding the Bible to your summer-reading list. One of the most significant trends of biblical scholarship of the late twentieth century was a renewed interest in the literary aspects of scripture. Scholars focused on standard questions raised in high school or college literature courses--What metaphors pervade this passage? What does this narrative say about the main character? What significance does this symbol have? Probing the Bible along these lines helped reinvigorate biblical criticism and open up a new appreciation for biblical artistry. The great promise of a literary approach to the Bible is that it tears down some barriers between reader and text. Oftentimes, when people open the pages of the Bible, they feel a need to "get something" out of their reading, whether that be guidance, inspiration, knowledge, or moral instruction. Of course, these are all worthy goals of Bible-reading, but sometimes they can be daunting. The goal-oriented approach can make reading the Bible a serious task, undertaken only with a serious mindset. Contrast that mindset with what we expect from our summer novels. If we think at all about "getting something" from our reading, that something would be pleasure. My contention--a claim supported by my own experience--is that the Bible can provide pleasurable reading, if we allow it. Two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New: Read Jacob’s story, from Genesis 25:19 to 37:36. (If you can find a Bible without chapter and verse divisions, so much the better.) Jacob is one of the only characters in the Bible that we get to see mature from boyhood to old age. This narrative of his lifespan has mixed-up family dynamics, treachery, divine intervention, sexual attraction, comedy and tragedy. It presents some of the most intriguing marriages in the Bible and raises fascinating questions about parental roles. I can never decide, for example, if Rebecca did the right thing. Is it ethical to trick one’s spouse and favor one son over another? What if the favored son is obviously superior and the spouse has lost his faculties? These and a host of other issues present themselves to the reader in the short span of twelve chapters. In keeping with the family issues, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) rightly deserves its status as one of the most beloved stories of the Gospels. The genius of Jesus’ parables is tied to their ability to provoke. Jesus never intended to teach simple moral lessons through them (Mark 4:10-13); he wanted to awaken a new sense of what the Kingdom of God entailed. The Prodigal Son story certainly does that. The three characters of this short story each represent certain familial characteristics--the doting father, the wastrel younger sibling, and the moral but resentful older sibling. We are programmed to side with the father, but most of us would certainly call his actions bad parenting. We also like to think that the younger son has learned his lesson, but suppose he’s just play acting? Doesn’t the older son have plenty to grouse about? The interplay between these characters gives the story its power, and its open-endedness allows us to ponder how it illustrates the Kingdom. The questions I’ve posed in these two brief examples are intentionally provocative, but they arise from the wonderful stories themselves. The Bible deserves its place on the beach towel next to your mysteries and romances. (For that matter, the Bible itself contains mystery and romance.) Start with the Old Testament narratives (Genesis, Exodus, Samuel and Kings), move to the Gospels (and read each in as few settings as possible) and Revelation. Then go back to the Prophets and Psalms for poetic appreciation. Reading the Bible literarily can be, in the ancient poet Horace’s words, "profit with delight."
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