Read the Bible Like It’s Your Family’s Story

COMMENTARY: We try to live the family’s life, which reflects their teaching, and we eventually understand, or maybe not. But we live it, because it’s our family’s life.

A parishioner reads the New Testament at the Pinganqiao Catholic Church on Dec. 24, 2009, in Chengdu, China.
A parishioner reads the New Testament at the Pinganqiao Catholic Church on Dec. 24, 2009, in Chengdu, China. (photo: China Photos / Getty Images)

“As our blessed founder said,” the priest at the retreats would begin, and then relay some complete banality, on the level of “Look both ways before crossing the street” or “Brush between meals.” He offered some better quotations, too, and I benefitted from the talks, but I felt like I was being fed a lot of tasteless rice cakes along with some treats.

The friend who invited me explained this one night when the priest had offered more rice cakes than usual. He wasn’t trying to be profound, my friend said, but was giving us messages from Dad. He felt a real, personal connection with his movement’s long-dead founder, and the members like my friend did too. 

Even the banalities meant something to them, because they didn’t look to their founder just as an authority, a dispenser of wisdom and instructions they could get from his books. They felt him to be their father, someone at whose feet they sat. They heard what to me were banalities as loving instruction for their good. They may have found more in the banalities than I did (though I doubt it), but they did feel them more keenly, in a way that helped them live the sayings with more attention and more care.

The story illustrates a lesson I learned only belatedly about reading Scripture, which with another insight changed  how I saw it and helped me to read it.


Dauntingly Thick Book

I encountered Scripture as many people do: as a dauntingly thick book you couldn’t just sit down and read for the story. It wasn’t like a novel or even a book of short stories, or a code of law, or a history, or a philosophical work, or a book of poems, or any other kind of book organized in a rational way.

The Bible was an apparently random collection of stories, lessons, lectures, proverbs, long writings called “prophetic,” though what was prophetic about them wasn’t very clear, some mind-bogglingly strange bits, like God telling Hosea to take “a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom,” often dense if not impenetrable theology, with a fat book of poems that don’t rhyme in the middle and that weird fantasy story at the very end.

It all seemed a bit too much. It felt like a bin into which people tossed random stuff they wanted to keep, but they treated it like a safe deposit box used only for valuable documents — but if so, what made those documents so valuable?

And then when I started reading it, I found that I could understand some parts, especially the stories, but could make nothing of other parts, like the ritual laws in the Old Testament and St. Paul’s theological works in the New. If God inspired the Apostle to write, I thought, he could have inspired him to write better, or at least inspired him to hire an editor.

Clever teachers and preachers made that feeling stronger, because they were always explaining that a passage didn’t really say what we mere readers thought it said. I enjoyed learning more, and finding out that Scripture included really interesting complexities and subtleties.

But this also meant that we mere readers needed an intellectual caste standing between us and the Bible — who, as I quickly saw, disagreed a lot. We need them because we don’t know enough to get all the readings right, but which ones should we trust? If we knew enough to know which experts we needed, we wouldn’t need the experts.


What Does It Mean?

On top of that was the question of what it says and how we could be sure we know what it says. Christians of all sorts called the Bible “the Word of God” and said it had a message for mankind, the most important message anyone could send. But if so, the apparently random collection seemed to me a terrible way to send it. A book telling people about their eternal destiny shouldn’t be so opaque in so many places to so many people.

Making the Bible even more daunting, was noticing that people who agreed completely on what the Bible is — the inerrant Word of God — disagreed radically on what it said. Christian practice didn’t support its theory. And these were good people, serious Christians, whose witness I couldn’t deny, which meant I couldn’t really choose between them.

Protestants found in Scripture various ideas of the Eucharist as a symbol, and different ideas of whether it mattered much. Catholics found in Scripture the understanding of the Eucharist as Christ's body and blood, and the belief that it mattered as much as anything in the Christian life.

The Amish got the Amish movement out of it. The Catholics got the Catholic Church out of it. The Calvinists got a Presbyterian structure. Some others said that it doesn’t say anything about Church structure. Everyone reading the Bible as sincerely as human beings can manage came to different answers, completely incompatible, on the essential matter of how Christians live together.

Even many of the writings that seemed clear weren’t so clear. The Ten Commandments offer a set of short, simple rules put into order. “You shall not kill,” for example. What it means seems obvious, but isn’t.

Anyone? Anyone but someone you need to kill to protect others or yourself? Anyone but them and your country’s enemies in a just war? What exactly is a just war? Anyone but them, your country’s enemies in a just war, and criminals who’ve committed a capital crime? What should be a capital crime?

You may call the Bible deep. You can’t call it simple or clear. There’s too much going on.

Two Answers

As I said, two insights helped me understand what Scripture is and helped me to read it with interest, and more importantly, investment. 

The first was that the Bible simply isn’t the kind of book I expected. The problem, explains the Dominican theologian Father Bede Jarrett, is that “we make the confused mistake of supposing the Bible to be a book. It is not a book, but a literature.” If it’s a book, it should synthesize its teachings, put everything together into a single message. A literature doesn’t do that.

A literature is like a library that takes up the same broad subject in many different ways. Each section tells us something about the subject the others don’t and can’t. We don’t read the books in a library for the synthesis, but to see the subjects from many different angles, to get not just an understanding of the subject but a feel for it, a vision.

The Bible is not just a literature, Father Jarrett explained. It’s the Church’s literature. “Scripture thus in the main tells us what to do, but not how to do it. Scripture gives us the sacraments, but the Church adds their formularies, prayers and setting. The Scripture most often shows us the spirit; the Church describes the body in which that spirit is lodged.”

That was very helpful to me when I finally saw it. What was even more helpful to me was another insight into the nature of the Bible, the insight my friend gave me into the priest’s rice cakes. It’s not just the Church’s literature, it’s a family’s correspondence. We’re listening to Dad, Granddad, Great-Great-Great-Great Grandad. We’re listening to the family’s thinkers, poets, pastors, historians, prophets, story-tellers, mystics. It’s a big jumble, of course, but the jumble tells our story. 

This settled for me the apparent problems I’d seen with reading the, like our need for experts when we don’t know enough to choose which experts to follow. We’re in the family, and that’s the main thing, the crucial thing. Family first, then book. In his essay “Private Judgment,” written when he still a Protestant, St. John Henry Newman pointed out that Scripture itself teaches us that the question for us is not what to believe, but whom to believe.

The insight also settled the problem of figuring what it all means. We don’t need to completely understand Scripture in the way we can master a regular book, because we don’t need to know everything our family knows. By trying to live the family’s life, which expresses the teaching given in the family’s book, we will gradually understand more and more. Family’s life first, then book. The longer we do this, the more we’ll feel the books authority.

This makes it easier to read the obscure and confusing parts. We don’t have to puzzle our way through an authority. We can work our way as best we can, the way we might read an old family document. We’re reading Grandfather, and Grandfather did not speak very clearly, but he was wise, and we read him with affection and family-feeling to get what we can, and we can get help from members of the family who know more than we do. 

And, finally, this understanding of Scripture makes us want to read it. When Christians told me I had to read it, because it’s the Bible, I confess I couldn’t do it very energetically or consistently, because it’s not really a readable book in the sense I expected. Seeing it as my family’s story brought me into it.