The Reconstructions Course is all about our stories. Stories of loss and frustration, stories of joy and discovery. And the point of basing a course around stories is to deliberately shift the centre of the course way from debate — what is the point of that anymore? — and towards genuine discussion. When stories are shared, people lean in, when points are debated, people have something to lose and lean back. Our experience of running both sessions of Week Two is that people are so tired of leaning back and defending their views, instead, we are desperate to lean in.
This week was all about the Bible, how to read and how definitely not to read it. We all were able to share tales of mishandlings of scripture from our past and we even reached some kind of consensus across the two evenings that while there may not be a ‘right’ way to read the Bible, there certainly are ‘wrong’ ways. One of those damaging methods of reading is the sort that read immediately for doctrine. In this kind of reading the Bible becomes a the IKEA box full of parts that the able theologian can assemble into a beautiful, complete piece of furniture. We scrapped that notion. Instead, we all felt comfortable allowing for the complexity and nuance of the Bible. And while this makes building a perfect theological system out of the raw material of scripture almost impossible, some of us reckoned it is better to be uncomfortable in the absence of certainty than pretending to be comfortable pretending we have it all sorted.
We rejected a few metaphors of the Bible along the way. The rulebook, the instruction manual, the sword. All these metaphors have at least as much wrong with them as right, and we felt comfortable acknowledging how uncomfortable some of us feel when talking about scripture in these terms. Some of us do like the idea of the Bible as a signpost, though. A signpost isn’t the thing itself, but a pointing towards the thing. In so many churches, though, the Bible is somehow thought of as both a signpost and the thing being pointed to. The Bible is the answer to every question, be it pastoral or intellectual. And while this is often not a bad way of thinking in itself, many participants on the course are increasingly frustrated with how little thought goes in to recommending people ‘just spend more time with the Bible in quiet time’.
In the second half of the evening we read the Tower of Babel from as many different angles as possible. This was all to demonstrate the point that we, as individual readers, are always reading through a lens, whether we like it or not. We read in familiar patterns and look for the same things quite often. To disrupt that, each of our groups read the old story with three randomly assigned ‘frames’. We weren’t sure, as facilitators, if this would work. But wow! We ended up with over a dozen distinct ways of seeing the Tower of Babel story. And on paper this may seem like a waste of time: why bother doing multiple readings of a story? But you could feel the energy in the room as we layered more and more interpretations onto one another. There is something in reading a passage again and again together that is life-giving, that generates energy and cultivates active listening and empathy. This activity was an artificially constructed version of what an ideal Bible study ought to look like: a cacophony of voices and perspectives giving their take, listening to others and adding to their own.
And this is the point: we are meant to read together.
What is happening when someone reads the Bible? It is a collection of stories encountering a collection of stories. It is the most human of encounters. And the only way to improve on it is to include more people!
The Bible, read well, will always be read in community. And, even better, in diverse community. There is no other way to read a text for all it is worth.