How I Read the Bible: The Art of Soul-Making
Dr. Jim Goss
My aim in reading the Bible, or any great work of literature, is soul-making. I have not always believed this. I took many different paths to reach that understanding. Let me take you on the journey I traveled to arrive at my present destination, for maybe some of what I discovered may be of help in your own biblical readings.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian church where I was taught the Bible was historically and literally true. If the text says the creation took seven days and was created out of nothing, then that is what happened. If Joshua says the sun stood still, then it did. If Jesus is described as walking on water and reading other peoples’ minds, that shows he was filled with the power of God. The Bible was a book of wonder and magic, anything was possible if God wished it to be. While fundamentalists did not invent this view of scripture, they defended it with a new emphasis.
Saint Augustine says in his Confessions, “the literal sense [of scripture] is that which the author intends, and the author of Holy Writ is God, who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect.” The literal sense is not merely the meaning given by the human author; it is that, but it is much more. It is God signifying his meaning by words. Since God is the author of the Bible, the events related in its text are reliable and true. In addition, everything necessary for faith and salvation is found in the literal truth of scripture. Without this literal sense, the Bible would be meaningless. This ancient view of orthodoxy was supplemented by the fundamentalists in the nineteenth century.
With the development of the theory of evolution and findings in geology that put the time-line of the earth many thousands of years older than biblical account of earth’s history, the bible’s literalness came under attack. In response, Calvinist theologians and evangelicals developed the notion of the infallibility of scripture. This means that the words of the Bible, not just the ideas, were inspired. What is more, this is true of not just some, but all the words of the Bible. As a result, the Bible is free from error in what it says. This claim means that all the truth necessary for life is rooted in the past; the future has nothing that can add to the truth found within the Bible.
To confess that the Bible is infallible means that the Scriptures are incapable of teaching any error and can never be reformed. The prophets and apostles not only did not err—they could not err when writing Scripture. The Bible is God’s Word and it is perfect. This assumption was the background for the church in which I was raised, and it was instilled in me in my formative years. While I became somewhat skeptical of the Bible’s infallibility in high school, it was not until college that the whole edifice collapsed.
In the second semester of my sophomore year at USC, I enrolled in two classes offered by the religion department: Introductions to the Old and New Testaments. For the first time in my life I was exposed to the scholarly study of the Bible (called the historical-critical method). In the Old Testament course the first thing that was challenged was the Mosaic authorship of the first five books. We were introduced to the documentary hypothesis, proposed by Wellhausen in the nineteenth century, that four different traditions—the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly—were blended to form the Torah or Law books. It was made clear that the Bible was written by humans, who may have been very religious but were fallible. Furthermore, the stories in the beginning of Genesis were called “myths” that were created out of widely known tales in the ancient Near East. While this exposé should have been upsetting to my basic belief in the truth of the Bible, it wasn’t. I found all this information captivating and wanted to learn more.
One essay I was assigned to read was, “The Tower of Babel,” by Reinhold Niebuhr. While I no longer remember all the details of his article, its overall impact was penetrating. He called the tower a myth that reveals human pretentiousness, a desire to reach beyond ourselves and become godlike. He demonstrated this same tendency in social and political events in current history. While he admits there was never a time when there was only one language on earth, still the story has vital insight regardless of its mythic form. The multiplicities of languages are another indication of human finitude, and the difficulty of people and nations to find unity. Finally, he indicated the great lesson of the Tower is the great distance between the Creator and his creatures. For the first time, I realized the bible might not be historically correct, that it might contain myths and legends, yet it still contained profound insights. I changed my major from math to religious studies, for I knew that what I had discovered was what I wanted to spend my life pursuing.
For the rest of college, seminary and graduate school I delved more deeply into the cultures that produced the Bible, learning to separate out myth, legend and story from history. Each type required a different form of interpretation, but one aspect of this entrance into biblical criticism shared an assumption with my evangelical upbringing: the Bible, when understood, contained the essential truth of the Christian faith. But I discovered that some leaders in the history of the church began to disagree about what ought to be sacred scripture (the canon). During the Reformation, Luther argued that the Letter of James and the Book of Revelation should be removed from the canon, because they expressed views he found contrary to the central core of the Christian belief: “justification by faith.” Not all modern scholars accept the writings in the Bible as equally valuable either. Many advocate a “canon within the canon,” where the fundamental truth is to be found. For example, Rudolf Bultmann, the twentieth century’s most influential New Testament scholar, found the Gospel of John and the seven authentic letters of Paul to be the core of the Christian message. I found that some non-canonical literature, like the Gospel of Thomas, could be as enlightening as any of those the church decided were sacred.
Eventually, I came to view the gospels as historical fictions. I have always enjoyed fiction and works like Sir Walter Scott’s, “Ivanhoe,” Charles Dickens’s, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “The Scarlet Letter,” and Alexander Dumas’, “The Count of Monte Christo,” among others, were reminders of how fiction set in the past may be highly informative about the present. The goal of historical fiction is not to show readers literally what life was like in the past. Instead, its purpose, as I see it, may help us better understand the differences and similarities between then and now, and open up new possibilities for meaning and direction for our lives.
The authors of the gospels, who lived anywhere from forty to sixty years after Jesus, used some traditional materials about him they found within their communities, and then created stories about Jesus out of their own beliefs and imagination. Their purpose is not to describe “what happened,” or to give an account of “literal history,” but to tell a story that might entice others to experience new religious meaning and find new paths on life’s journey. Consequently, I am no longer concerned if the text does not accurately describe what happened. Rather I want to know what it evokes in a reader. In other words, how does what is written in the gospels open up the kinds of questions a person needs to wrestle with? How does the past open vistas into our present? Let me give two illustrations of what I mean, one from the Old Testament and one from the New.
The author of the first chapter of Genesis, thought to be a member of Israel’s priestly tradition, created a story that seeks to describe where God is located and what God does. At that time the dominant view of the cosmos is that it was formed by separating cosmic waters. A solid vault above the fixed stars keeps the waters at bay and the earth is supported by gigantic pillars rooted in the subterranean waters. In the flood story God destroys the earth by simply releasing the constraints holding the cosmic waters. The waters symbolize the chaotic, disorderly aspects of the universe that God must control if life is to thrive. In Genesis God sits above the vault of the sky, creates an ordered cosmos in seven days, and controls the waters of chaos. This view of the universe is so different from what we know in the twenty-first century that trying to defend it is foolish. Why not just jettison it as the beliefs of an outmoded civilization?
I find if I ask different questions of the text, I may find something meaningful to ponder. Instead of asking whether the account is literally true, what if we ask what is the storyteller expressing within his own culture assumptions? Since I also believe there is a God, I share the concerns of the Genesis account. These are: where is God located, and what does God do in relation to the world’s chaos? For me, God is everywhere and in everything, and influences, but does not control, the direction of history. I am stimulated to look at the chaotic elements in my social and personal world. How does God’s presence help me, I wonder, deal with life’s ambiguities? To answer those questions I have to dig more deeply into my self– into my soul. My answers will not be the same as those in Genesis. Yet the mythical images used in that account awaken my own imagination to find images that illuminate the world I live in. That process is fundamental to soul-making.
Examples from the New Testament that raise many of the same issues found in Genesis are the accounts of Jesus stilling a storm and walking on water. I would misunderstand the stories if I took them literally. I do not believe the gospel writers thought they were historical either. The stories deal with the natural element that represents cosmic disorder throughout the Bible: water. If Jesus is depicted as having the ability to control the demonic waters, then the early community finds in him the same struggle for order and meaning that it finds in God. The storyteller evokes something to contemplate. The wonder is not the miracle, but the implied meaning. If I am to find value in the gospel writer’s account, I need to ask: how do I view Jesus as an image of God?
My answers will not lie within the biblical account, nor in the archaic titles given to Jesus. I live in a different culture with different views of political, social, economic, and religious institutions than the first century. If I do not recognize the difference between the biblical world view and my own, I would have the tendency to impose my world view on the Bible, or try to impose the biblical view on modernity. In either case, that imposition would lead to erroneous and useless interpretations. My task is to translate one culture’s view into that of another by penetrating below the literal or surface meaning to unveil the deeper issues implied in the text. When I find myself struggling to deal with the issues a biblical writer does, I begin the process of meaningful interpretation that leads to soul-making.
Just as my evangelical tradition has its roots in the past, so does my concern for soul-making. In my work on the texts found at Nag Hammadi, especially the Gospel of Truth, I discovered that the authors of those texts reinterpret scripture that is akin to my own readings. In the Gospel of Truth 34:34-36 the author is reflecting on 1 John 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” The section in the letter continues to say that it is the Christian’s responsibility to walk in that light, since the death of Jesus has cleansed the world of sin. The author of the letter faces the reality of sin as the unethical acts of humans and offers a solution to restore humans to their proper place in the light—God’s own reality.
The author of the Gospel of Truth is also concerned about the problem of evil and the way to return to God: “This is the Word of the Gospel about the discovery of fullness, for those who await the salvation from above. Their hope, for which they are awaiting, is in waiting, and this is their image, the light in which there is no shadow.” Both John and Truth find light to be an appropriate image for God. But unlike 1 John, Truth believes evil comes from a deficiency of light, a forgetting of God’s reality within the self, not from unethical behavior. What is needed is not a sacrificial death, but an awakening of God’s inner truth. For 1 John Christianity is a new ethical life; for Truth the gospel is one of enlightenment. Both seek answers to the same questions, but their answers are different. The author of Truth never assumes a biblical text is to be read literally. Truth explores the depths of the issues at stake and then offers its own resolution to the insights raised by the biblical author. Consequently, interpretation is a process of delving deeply within one’s own discernment. Soul-making was intrinsic to some of the early Christian writers.
I believe the Bible contains the wisdom, the struggles, the joys and sorrows of peoples over long periods of time who wrestled with life lived under the reigning influence of God. But their concerns, their questions and their answers are all conditioned by the cultures in which they were embedded. Most of those cultural norms and assumptions are not viable in the twenty-first century. But those differences should not lead us to dismiss the insights they contain. Clearly, we need to understand, as best we can, the cultures of the ancient world in which those texts were written in order to discover in depth what they believed and envisioned. To discover their depths, I find, requires me to delve into my own inner depths. This has led me to use more of my right brain in the process of interpretation—more use of imagination, intuition, metaphor and symbol. When I do, I open myself up to a process of self-exploration and enrichment. That process is soul-making.
A gifted scholar and popular teacher, Dr. Jim Goss, serves as DCC’s Theologian in Residence. He is Professor Emeritus of the Religions Studies Department, California State University, Northridge.