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My Ultimate Good Read

June 18, 2013

What I let drop to the cutting room floor in putting together my last post never made it to my “For Future Consideration” drawer.  Over the past week, between traveling across the country and visiting with family and friends, I managed to gather up some of it and splice it together to my satisfaction.  The rest I will revisit in the coming week as I continue looking to the One who began a good work in me and will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus, forging ahead with my ongoing process of muddling through the implications of my relationship with God, working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.  For faith is always risky, sometimes downright scary!

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What is this thing I hold in my hands?  It is just a book, ink on paper.  Its very name, Bible, comes to us via the Latin and Greek for book or books.  Yet for me that vocative evokes majesty.  No other book draws me back again and again as the Bible does.

This is not just a book like any other.  Even setting aside its sacred nature, it is without parallel.  This compendium of 66 books was written over 16 centuries in three different languages by at least 40 authors on three continents.  It is an amazingly diverse collection of a broad variety of literary styles—narratives, dialogues, poetry, proverbs, parables, law, songs, allegories, letters, history and prophecy, and yet retains a remarkable unity, ultimately telling a single story.

In terms of sales, distribution and readership, the Bible stands head and shoulders over every other book. It was the first book to be mass-produced, and billions of copies have been printed.  Parts of it have been translated into more than 2,400 languages, almost ten times as many as any other book; in its entirety it has been translated into 475 languages, nearly twice as many as any other work.  Currently it has estimated annual sales of 25 million copies.  Its electronic distribution over the past several years is impossible to estimate.

Despite its antiquity, its preservation has been nothing short of miraculous.  Presently 5,686 New Testament manuscripts in Greek are known to exist.  In addition, there are over 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages.  No other writing is even a close second in number or in early dating of its manuscripts.  Remarkably, despite those huge numbers, reportedly the level of consistency among those manuscripts is 99.5%.

The Bible has had an immensely great and most valuable influence on Western society through its immeasurable enrichment of the English language. Over 22,000 English words find their roots in the Hebrew of the Bible.  That’s more than from Greek, Latin, and French combined.  We unconsciously quote scripture through the hundreds of English phrases and idioms lifted directly from the Bible.  (Although many attribute this to the King James Bible, careful study will reveal that very few of the “biblical” phrases and idioms that are part of our language are unique to the King James, but were borrowed by its Translators from earlier English translations.)  The Bible unquestionably holds a position of supremacy among books, shaping our imaginative landscape, lavishing its indelible marks on literature (especially poetry), art, music, culture, education, law and morality, and incredibly to some, even science.

The Bible’s historical accounts have routinely been verified by archeology.  Although it makes no claims to be a scientific book, science has discovered much of what it proffers as accurate.  Its wisdom has become the undergirding of our society.   It is a treasury of insights that rivals psychology in its ability to describe who we are.

The celebrated German philosopher Immanuel Kant had this to say about the Bible’s influence:

The existence of the Bible, as a book for the people, is the greatest benefit which the human race has ever experienced. Every attempt to belittle it is a crime against humanity.

Above all, the Bible reveals the invisible God, a God so powerful as to be unimaginable yet willing to humble Himself to suffer and die at the hands of men, a God in whom perfect justice is incomprehensibly married with tenderest mercy, a God whose terrible enmity toward sin is set against His prodigal love for the sinner, a God so generous that He us not just enough for our needs, but makes our cup run over.

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Reading is a creative process, a complex interaction between the text and me as reader.  I bring to the text all that I am—my prior knowledge, my experiences, my beliefs and my attitudes, as well as my cultural and social legacy.  Whether I am aware of it or not, I am constantly reading between the lines, going beyond the literal meaning of the words and ideas, reading in my personal understandings, assigning significance, inferring personalities, motives and intents. Therefore reading is very subjective, very personal, and as a consequence, I have a unique relationship with what I read.  I do not necessarily have the same understanding as someone else reading the same text.  My understanding may not match the author’s intent.  In terms of the Bible, without the Spirit’s guidance, my understanding may not be in line with the His intent.  [My gender reference to the Spirit follows the NASB translation.  Language is sometimes deficient to describe the sacred.]

Since every Bible in English is a translation, I am faced with the associated issues.  Translation involves interpretation.  Good translators take the problems of both the source language and the target language into consideration, but they inevitably must make choices regarding meanings, and their choices will affect the reader’s understanding.  I regularly use more than one translation, and in problem areas will almost certainly use several.   To me, word for word fidelity is unnecessary; I am far more interested in integrity of ideas.

When considering a verse, I read the entire paragraph or entire chapter to establish the context.  I try to ignore chapter and verse divisions as well as capitalization and punctuation in some translations, as these artificial constructs were inserted centuries after the text was written, and they can be impediments to clarity.  Chapter divisions first appeared in the early 13th century, verse divisions in mid 16th.   Capitalization (the original texts were written entirely in upper case) and punctuation are even later additions, and were often introduced more to satisfy the intents of the translators than to reflect the original languages.  When I think I understand a verse or phrase, I put it into my own words and insert it back into the paragraph.  If my proposition makes sense in context, it is probably correct.  If not, I reject it.  Good interpretation always makes good sense; God is not a God of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).  Further, I consider if an idea fits into the Biblical story.  If it seems not to, more study is indicated.  The Bible does not contradict itself; if it appears to, the problem is in my understanding of what I have read.

The 19th century American theologian Tryon Edwards, a collector of quotations like myself, had what I believe to besage advice for me as a reader:

Think as well as read, and when you read. Yield not your minds to the passive impressions which others may make upon them. Hear what they have to say; but examine it, weigh it, and judge for yourselves. This will enable you to make a right use of books—to use them as helpers, not as guides to your understanding; as counselors, not as dictators of what you are to think and believe.

If I approach scripture believing its meaning to be fixed, “carved in stone” as it were, it becomes fossilized, dead.  If I am limited by the impressions of others, my understanding constrained by the groupthink of the generally accepted interpretation, there is little room for the living Word to speak to me.  The Bible is not a paper pope.  There must be room for ongoing Christian experience.  There must be latitude for the work of the Spirit of God.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  John 14:26 (NIV)

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  1 Cor. 2:13 (NIV)

As I read, the Bible and I are engaged in a continuing dialogue.  I judge it, and it in turn judges me.  I interpret the Bible from my personal standpoint, but that standpoint is itself a response to the Bible.  I must take care here, for just as it is possible for me to remake God into my image, so it is possible to remake the Word of God into my image.  But if I listen carefully, the One who inspired it speaks to me in whispers, revealing Himself to me, shaping my attitudes and consequently my behaviour, and ultimately my character.  He moves me toward wholeness.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  Hebrews 4:12 NIV

My faith isn’t just about going to heaven when I die, but about entering into a relationship and partnership with God now and for eternity.  When I understand the connection between “the written Word” and “the living Word” the Bible becomes about relationship, rather than doctrine (which is always a human construction).  Jesus now has something to say to me through the Scriptures.  When I open the written Word, I come to expect a personal encounter, a vibrant dialogue with the living Word of God.  I no longer read scripture as a spectator, but as an active participant.  The Bible becomes my story, the ongoing love story between God and me.

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