I've had an interest in bible study since I was a kid. It was cool to see Sunday sermons and the selected biblical passages get researched, analyzed, and discussed. I remember conversations about the relative merits of various translations and hearing about archaeological discoveries and historical research "that could change everything!!" about how we interpret the text.
Today as a grown-up, I'm interested in that stuff because I study the history of religions within an academic context. Given how difficult it is to get people to show an interest in most historical documents and ancient histories, it surprises me that so many other people show an interest in (or feel an obligation toward) study of the bible. Sure, it is a lot of fun if you're into exegesis, but who apart from dorks like me is into that kind of thing? Those who think the bible has the power of perpetual revelation serving as a direct link between God and the reader (like Tom Riddle's Diary in The Prisoner of Azkaban), clearly have reason to study it in depth. But what of people who do not view the bible as inerrant? Why are liberal Christians and non-Christian Friends drawn to figure out "what it means to us today." The answers are varied and diverse.
What follows is only my own approach to the role of the bible and its meaning.
The first question I ask is: Does it have to mean anything in particular? Why should this ancient text have any more power to speak to me than any other? Of course, one can easily and appropriately argue that the bible has had such a long history of strong influence on my culture that it is sensible to continue to study its meaning, agenda, and influence. I agree with this. However, I do not understand why we feel that there is a spiritual significance that resides in the text apart from its cultural significance.
I do not think we can ignore the bible's influences, both positive and negative, on our cultural history. I do not, however, believe that the bible continues to speak to us today apart from our entanglements with its ancient proscriptions, most of which are no longer appropriate for our own situations. The biblical texts were not written for us therefore attempts to make the book speak to us today corrupt the original meaning and motivation of the authors and prevent us from engaging in rational exegesis. I make an assumption that when viewing an ancient text my job is to ascertain, as closely as I am able, what sense it made within the context of the community that produced it. I cannot expect it to speak to my situation for the simple reason that it was not written to address my situation. At times there may be resonance. Human beings are human beings after all. But largely, the socio-cultural differences between 2nd Century Rome and 21st century New York are too profound to warrant expectation of continued relevance. Are we so arrogant that we think that they were all wrong about their own beliefs and context and that God was really using them as a conduit to speak to us? Or are we so silly as to believe that the Bible just keeps changing its meaning with each generation so that a text that condones patriarchy in one generation suddenly means marital equality in another?
So why continue to study the bible if
A) we don't believe the bible was an Inspired-with-a-big-"I"
B) there are so many deeply spiritual texts written in our own time and context that we can understand without outrageous amounts of cultural compromise and apology?
I do not advocate against the attempt to find useful material for social change in the bible or in any religious text. The bible has tremendous poetic and metaphorical authority in our culture. That I can't deny. Simply because it has been used to promote spiritual equality so frequently in the past is reason enough to continue to employ its language so long as that language is useful. Perhaps my attitude here will seem opportunistic. Here is the point where I must disclose that I continue to quote from the New Testament books with particular emphasis on things Jesus said about mercy, compassion, and basically not being a prick to the poor and powerless. I'll also quote from Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Gandhi as well although I certainly do not accept any of them as ideal representations of human virtue. Likewise, while the idea of the Christ is a concept I accept as a sacred archetype, the historical Jesus is not. After studying primitive Christianity, I am convinced that I would not have joined the movement. Still, I am spiritually bound to the idea of Agape whether or not Jesus preached it. The concept of such love existed independently of his particular articulation of it. While I accept that the writers of the canon were inspired, I do not accept that the inspiration was from "God" or that it was somehow more inspired than the latest clever or lovely thing I might hear from my grandmother. (Don't scoff. My grandmother is effing brilliant.)
Now don't get me wrong. I do believe that Friends should study the bible and that they should have a very strong foundation in biblical and religious history. When I went to seminary, I met a woman who wanted to be a Unitarian minister who couldn't find the New Testament if you set it on fire in her hands. That was sad. Let's not be that way. We need to know about the bible if only so we won't look like damn fools when the Methodists and Episcopalians call us out to play.
I do suggest that we study the bible in an attempt to understand what the original Christian communities felt about God. Here's my selfish motivation: I think it is important for people to understand historical texts in their own context so they don't say stupid things about them in front of me. When my students talk to me about the Shakers or the Oneida Community Utopians as if those folks were 21st century people with 21st century problems, resources, and solutions, it makes me crazy. You can imagine how much more crazy it makes me feel when someone suggests a biblical solution for a contemporary problem or expresses a belief that somehow biblical authors were writing for us. They weren't. They not only weren't writing for us and our time, they didn't think we would ever exist.
Now it does seem to me that in order to understand what it means to be a Quaker, we have to understand how past Friends understood the bible. For the earliest Friends, Christian language and tradition was the only show in town. The bible was therefore the most important document although I would maintain that this was not by choice. They didn't have any choice in the matter. Go try finding a New Age bookstore in 17th century England. So as it turns out, much to my disappointment, one cannot understand Friends without understanding both their general historical context and the prevailing biblical interpretations available to them. As history drags on, they'll start to comment on Buddhism, Hinduism,and indigenous spirituality as they would relatively early into their development as a religious body. (Have you read the Letters of Paul and Amicus? I nearly peed myself with delight when I saw "Amicus" talking so positively about Native American and Hindu spirituality.) But apart from fleeting glimpses of awareness and experimentation of cross-cultural spirituality among Friends and their contemporaries, it took the general Western world a long-ass time to discover that other people had more to offer than servitude and woe. Even for the open-minded Quakers, the bible was pretty much it. We have to understand them within their spiritually limited Sitz im Leben. We must be mindful that they didn't have the archaeological and historical research that "could change everything!!!" and they didn't live in the fertile multi-cultural intellectual world in which we live. So we have to cut them some slack when they seem intolerably ignorant. Maybe I'm deluding myself but I personally very strongly doubt that if they were blessed with the wealth of spiritual literature available to us today, they would not have ignored it back in the day. I don't think we should either.
So, as much as I hate to say it, we need to understand the bible because it is a foundational document in our history as a religious people. In fact, Quakers don't make any kind of sense without it. (And this is a Pagan saying this!) But I'm not convinced that contemporary non-Christian Friends need to understand "what the bible means to us today." It doesn't have to mean anything to us today. We have to understand what it meant to our ancestors and how our ancestors' legacy affects us. We need to be able to mature into the finest of their expectations and deliver ourselves from their failings.
They had the bible and they had themselves. We owe much to our ancestors but we are given our own calling in our own context. Our spiritual wellsprings are more numerous and I pray, just as deep.