The world's bestselling book may not be the best read

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Her well-to-do suburban family attended church regularly, but Ann Monroe wasn't brought up reading the Bible. She discovered it as an adult, and while she's still not sure she likes it, she says, "the Bible has gotten its hooks into me."

So much so that the former Wall Street Journal reporter determined to find out what the Bible means to others in the United States, and just what kind of experience they have with it. She shares what she found in "The Word: Imagining the Gospel in Modern America."

"Despite the complaint ... that America is becoming biblically illiterate," she says, "the Bible has huge power in this country, both among those who read it and among those who don't."

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The perennial bestseller, in fact, dwells in more than 90 percent of US homes, and some 47 percent of Americans claim to read it at least once a week. Yet a Gallup survey also reveals that only 49 percent can name the first book of the Bible and only 34 percent know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Monroe's focus isn't on such statistics, though. This is an intriguing book about Christians of all stripes - liberal and conservative, black and white, believers and doubters - engaging with the Bible and finding their way to God (or not). For many, including Monroe, coming to terms with the Book-of-books is incredibly demanding, often confusing and irritating, and sometimes illuminating and astonishing. (She tells, for example, of her own Bible group grappling for six weeks with the book of Revelation.)

Whether she is talking with pastors, sitting in on a seminary class or retreat, or visiting Bible-study groups, Monroe is clearly on her own journey, and her passion for the subject and her perceptiveness make it stimulating to tag along.

Bible groups have proliferated over the past decade and have boosted the number of people reading the book regularly. The small sampling she visits (this is not a broad picture) suggests many people are hungry for spiritual insights, but that classes aren't always satisfying.

The question that drives her most is: "Is there a way of reading the Bible that recognizes all that we have learned about it - its many strands, its complex history, the human intricacies of its development - and allows it, in and through all that, to be a place of encounter with God?"

In our rationalist, scientific world, she points out, the culture tends to equate truth with "facts," and scholars have had a field day with the Bible's contradictions. Her visit to the annual convention of the Society of Biblical Literature shows how far removed the academic world is from any sense of the Bible as revelation. A visit to Union Theological Seminary in New York reveals almost an avoidance of the Bible in a class on preaching.

Monroe is perhaps most distressed by what she finds on her travels among "her own" people, those who are liberals in the theological sense. For them, she says, the Bible seems to be whatever the reader makes of it. Too often, they don't read the Bible at all, or when they do, they tend to project their own perspective onto the pages and latch onto it as truth.

Returning to her childhood church in Winnetka, Ill., when she learns the pastor has invited Marcus Borg, a member of the Jesus Seminar, to speak on the Bible, Monroe grasps why she grew up biblically illiterate. "Everyone I met insisted the Bible was important," she says. "None of them read it.... Over and over, I heard people say how grateful they were to Borg for teaching them you can discount all or most of the Bible and still be religious." (Even though that wasn't his point.)

In the heart of Christian conservatism in Colorado Springs, Colo., she encounters a fascinating range of religious expression, breaking some stereotypes of the religious right. Indeed, she comes to have an affection and even admiration for how much they care about God and often study the word with a passion.

But for them, she finds, the Bible is a book of rules - and the point is to learn how to please God and get into heaven (and most important, avoid hell). Thus the penchant to produce "guided-tour Bibles" and video courses that make sure you get it right. The give-and-take in Bible classes often involves throwing around "talismanic phrases" based on the Bible but not necessarily reflecting an in-depth encounter with it.

Running the Bible through a theological filter isn't an answer for Monroe. What she wants is a way of reading that holds in balance the Bible's integrity and the reader's.

"The Bible is not God's declaration to us," she insists. "It is God's conversation with us." That conversation may be a convoluted one, but there's no substitute.

Others on the same journey won't necessarily share all of Monroe's perspectives on her experience, but her insights and enthusiasm are likely to spur a genuine reconsideration of one's own approach to the Bible.

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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