Reading realistically: embracing the sacredness and humanity of the Bible
The woman’s guide to reading the Bible and staying sane: Part Five
When I come to the Bible these days, I come accompanied by a number of concepts, ideas and perspectives that (usually) help me to experience the texts I read as a blessing and not a kick in the teeth.
I’ve been exploring in this series the difficulties that women, in particular, encounter when reading the Bible. This book of ancient, sacred texts is dotted with passages that make incredibly difficult reading for people in the twenty first century, particularly if you’re a woman. Even leaving aside the obviously difficult bits, it doesn’t take long, if you’re reading with your eyes open, to realise that the Bible is quite sexist.
Some people — and I completely understand why — have made the decision to have nothing more to do with Bible. I didn’t want to ditch the Bible altogether. It has been an important part of my life for far too long. After some considerable wrestling I have come to the place where I can read the Bible again as part of my spiritual practice and not only enjoy reading it but sometimes even encounter the Divine. Here are some thoughts and ideas that have helped me to do that.
Firstly, I find it helps to have in mind that we can look at it through two lenses. We can look at what it meant for the people who wrote it at the time. Why was it written? What was the context? What was it trying to say at the time? For the people who first read it, what was the revolutionary thing it was saying? How was it pointing forwards towards more love? I am not a professor of biblical studies. I don’t always have the knowledge I would like or the time or inclination to discover all the details of when and why something was written. But sometimes it really helps just to acknowledge that it was written in a different world to the one I inhabit. That’s the first lens.
Then there’s the lens of here and now. This is where the story and poetry of the Bible come into their own. What does this mean to me, in this moment? Where does this touch my heart and chime with my experience? Sometimes I can really identify with the patriarchy and misogyny in the Bible. We do, after all, live in a culture that is recovering rather than recovered from the legacy of patriarchy. Some of the women that I meet feel like my sisters, facing similar prejudices. The lens of here and now prompts me to listen to the ways that the ancient text I am reading is speaking to my heart today. To ask what God might be wanting to say to me through it, in this moment.
Having these two lenses helps me to keep some perspective. It helps me to not take personally things that are not relevant to my life and culture now. And it adds depth and interest to my reading.
Secondly, I have decided that I just need to be realistic about the fact that the biblical authors were ancient misogynists who saw the world through patriarchal lenses. Obviously, God did not cure the authors of the Bible of their inbuilt misogyny before they set pen to paper. If I’m going to continue to approach the Bible as sacred scripture and find it helpful, I need to forgive them for being of their time.
Thirdly, I need to resign myself to the fact that if I am going to find female experience within the Bible to relate to, I am going to have to read between the lines and explore the little nooks and crannies and peek round the corners of the narrative. For instance, the gospels read as if the women just appear, suddenly, as if out of the woodwork, in the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection. Why? Well, because the men had almost all scarpered at this point, so this part of the story cannot be told without including the women. But I can read backwards from that moment. If the women were part of the story at this point, it is reasonable to assume that they were a central part of the action during the rest of Jesus’ ministry. They had to have been close to Jesus to have gone with him to Jerusalem, to be there, at the crucifixion, and to take on the role of dressing his body. We don’t see the women because the writers’ gaze is on the men. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. It just means that they don’t get mentioned very much. Because the authors were steeped in a male dominated culture that didn’t regard women as worth mentioning.
I am so sad that we never hear the stories of women for their own sakes. I wish I could read the prayers of my ancient sisters in the Psalms and hear the voices of the women who prophesied. I would love to travel with Phoebe and Junia as we do with Paul and Peter. To hear them preach and read their writings. I grieve their lost voices. But it is what it is.
The more honest I am about how male-centric the Bible actually is, the more I realise what a huge impact that this maleness has had upon my own spiritual growth. I have spent the last forty years and more being shaped by a male gospel, taking men as my inspiration and my template, without even noticing that I was doing it. Nurturing my feminine soul in this context is going to take a bit of work. And alongside the Bible I am going to need to find other women who have navigated this path, whose stories and writings can help me forge my own path.
Finally, it is becoming more and more important to me to let go, for good, of the idea that the Bible is ‘God’s Word’. It sounds good, but it’s ultimately unhelpful. Unhelpful being a classic piece of English understatement. All the metaphors that flow from this idea lead us down blind alleys.
At a kids’ club I helped out at once, the word Bible, we were told, stands for Best Instructions Before Leaving Earth. That’s fine, unless you start reading the actual instructions that are in it. Like the ones about mildew and menstruating women. Or sometimes the Bible is described as God’s love letter to us. To be frank, as love letters go, it’s pretty lousy. If God really wanted to write us a love letter, God might have done a better job. Or at least edited out the endless genealogies (never a turn on) and the rape scenes.
All these ideas that the Bible is a direct communication from God’s heart to yours, is exactly what can make the Bible so painful and damaging to read. Because if this is what God wants to speak into my woman’s heart, then God is a deranged mysoginist and I am hurt and insulted and diminished and, quite frankly, running for the hills.
Here’s a more helpful metaphor. Imagine you’re rummaging through your grandmother’s attic and you come across a big wooden chest. When you open it up, you discover a huge array of documents, written and collected by different members of the family over generations. There are diaries and letters and bus tickets and photographs. There are family trees and school reports and instructions that your great grandmother wrote for running a field hospital. There are recipes and hints for household management from the 1920’s and love poems. As you read through the various papers you’ve found, you find yourself eavesdropping on the lives of your ancestors. Sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it’s dull. Some things don’t make sense because they relate to a time long gone. Sometimes you’re appalled. Like when you discover that your great grandmother’s sister was sent to an asylum aged 19 because she got pregnant out of wedlock or that one of your ancestors bought shares in a slave ship. It might be interesting and inspiring. It might be boring and confusing and sometimes it might disgust you. It would certainly give you an insight into what it has meant to be part of your family over the generations. But whatever it’s like, you won’t, at any point, assume that any of it was written specifically for you. Of course it wasn’t. It was written by people a long time ago because it was important at the time.
In the same way, when we open the Bible, we’re opening a chest of sacred writings that enable us to eavesdrop on the journey of faith of a nation. There are stories and law books and poems and letters. All of it is of its time. All written because it was important to the authors and to the people. All kept because there was something about them that was important to the people of Israel or to the early Christians. It’s the keep-ability of the scriptures, their ability to continue to have relevance and to speak to us at deep levels that make them sacred writings. This is where the metaphor of the chest you found in the attic breaks down a bit. These aren’t texts that were accidentally preserved. These are texts that have been deliberately preserved because they were precious when they were written and have continued to be precious to generations that have come after. If they hadn’t continued to inspire they would have been lost along the way.
The incredible thing about the Bible is that despite the fact that it’s so ancient, and human and sometimes odd, God speaks through it. It continues to console and inspire and challenge and connect us again with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. But if we lose sight of the fact that these are ancient texts, written a very long time ago, from the perspectives and world views of their authors, we will run into trouble. If we forget that God allowed the human authors of the Bible to write their story of journeying with God in ways that made sense to them, we will run into the rocks.
So next time you pick up a Bible, remember that you are opening an ancient chest of writings that were considered important enough to write down and to keep passing on. As you eavesdrop on the lives of faith of the authors and characters, you might choose to ponder why it was important to tell this particular story or write this particular letter in this particular way. Or what it is about this particular piece of writing that has helped it to endure. Or what it might have to say to you today. Through all of those questions we get to hear God’s voice.
So reading the Bible and staying sane, means letting go of the idea that God chose every word in the Bible and instead, embracing its human origins, forgiving its creators for being unreconstructed iron age misogynists, and letting God speak to us through it anyway.
To start this series from the beginning:
Three suggestions for how not to read the Bible
The woman’s guide to reading the Bible and staying sane: Part One
The next part of this series:
A couple of other series that might pique your interest. First, one about facing the sexism in the Bible honestly:
The (Violent Misogynistic) Elephant in The Room
Facing the misogyny of the Bible honestly: Part One
And secondly, a series looking at the ways in which the Bible shows us the Divine Feminine:
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