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Our Sacred Documents Read Us As Surely As We Read Them

Our Sacred Documents Read Us As Surely As We Read Them


(OPINION) When learning to read and interpret literature effectively, a reader should keep in mind that often the novel you’re reading reads you as surely as you’re reading it.

At least that’s what I learned in grad school.

To me, this insight is not just useful for, say, interpreting “The Sound and the Fury,” but for reading the U.S. Constitution, the latest news flash or the latest political screed.

It’s also very much true of how we understand the Bible, which is my literary work of choice.

Here’s an example of the latter: My congregation’s Wednesday night Bible study group is studying the Gospel of John, which includes the story of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus.

The story’s setup is this: Jesus gets word that Lazarus is desperately ill. But instead of rushing to Bethany to heal his beloved friend, he dillydallies around for days. By the time he finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is already dead and buried.

Both of Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, separately say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I asked the members of our study group, “What do you think Martha and Mary meant by that?”

The responses were interesting. Some folks suggested the sisters were expressing their faith in Jesus’ mercy and healing power — Jesus absolutely would have healed Lazarus if he’d been present.

Others thought one or both of the sisters said this angrily, or at least passive-aggressively, as in, “Hey, if you’d come when we sent for you, you could’ve stopped this tragedy!”

The trick is, John the gospel writer doesn’t tell us how or why either sister said what she said. He doesn’t even offer a clue.

So, as I suggested to my fellow Bible students, John’s story might be reading us as much as we’re reading it. It’s possible our interpretation of the sisters’ statements reflects how we ourselves might have responded to Jesus. Maybe it shows whether we’re overflowing with faith or struggling with bitterness.

Again, this analytical maxim of the text reading the reader isn’t just true of the Bible.

Some U.S. citizens can read the Second Amendment and walk away certain the Constitution’s framers intended for Americans to privately own all the guns they want. Yet others read it and come away convinced the framers weren’t saying that whatsoever, that they only meant we should support a well-armed, regulated militia.

Both sides are reading the same words — but they’re each reading those words as they’re predisposed to see them. Their responses tell more about them than about the amendment.

I think the way we read the Bible and other sacred texts, and the way we practice our faith generally, tells us who we are more than it says who God is.

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of — oh, your father,” says Miss Maudie in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The father she’s speaking of is Harper Lee’s virtuous lawyer Atticus Finch.

Miss Maudie suggests that those who are by nature hard, judgmental and punitive are only made more so by their religion. They seek out churches and preachers that encourage their predilections, and they’ll always find them.

The opposite is also true. Those who are at heart merciful, open-minded and gracious tend to find those qualities in their Bible, their church and their God.

If we’re not careful, all of us recreate God in our own image. Our religion can become no more than a confirmation of how right we were all along.

I don’t claim to be an authority on how we can correct this chronic human flaw. I can’t even cure it in myself. But I have thought about it a lot.

If there is a solution, that solution might start with us becoming honest about our own capacity for self-deception. Given that self-awareness, we might next approach God by trying to become as nearly as possible a blank slate.

Thomas Merton said the goal of prayer is to forget ourselves. I’d add that this should be the goal of Bible reading, worship and just about every other spiritual pursuit.

We might surrender, to the extent we can, our own agendas, dogmas and dreams. We might simply say, “OK, Lord, I know nothing except that I know nothing. Now, show me the ways that are truly yours. For once, deliver me from myself.”

It’s occasionally been my experience, imperfect as my experience is, that when we want to know God rather than just have God confirm our “truths,” God will actually grant us clarity.

How do we gauge whether we’ve begun hearing from the Lord and aren’t still lying to ourselves?

It’s when the answers we receive startle us and unsettle us and break our hearts, yet elate us. When the Bible and our prayers start turning our former verities on their heads. When we find we’re being transformed — for the better — in ways we didn’t even know to ask for. When all our old churlish cronies start telling us we’ve lost our minds.


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