I said ages ago (in relation to the posts about Andrew Motion and public ignorance of the Bible) that I would write something about how we maybe should read the Bible. Since then my head has been too full of other things; but, today is my day off and I am alone at home with the space to think.

The problem with this is that whatever I write will be open to challenge on the grounds that an explanation in ordinary language about how to read the Bible requires not a few paragraphs, but a few books. I believe the Bible to be inspired and strongly affirm it as ‘the word of the Lord’. But, what does that mean? Here goes.

1. If the Bible is to be accepted as ‘the word of God’, it can safely be assumed that the form of it is necessarily as significant as the content. Indeed, the form will shape the content. Given that these 66 books comprise all sorts of literary forms (poetry, narrative, letter, ‘history’, gospel/biography, polemic, etc.), written over a period of around 1500 years in varying contexts and different languages, the text remains incomprehensible unless the form is taken seriously. This means that you cannot read Hebrew poetry (Genesis 1-11, for example) as if it were scientific text and you cannot read a Pauline letter without recognising that we don’t have the ‘other side’ of the correspondence. We use our research and imagination to fill in the gaps, but this makes claims of ‘plain reading’ or ‘pure doctrine’ at least a little suspect.

2. Those who think you can simply read a verse devotionally out of context and without reference to anything other than ‘my subjective experience today’ will have a problem here. If God has given us a book in particular forms as a way of pointing towards himself, can he also endorse doctrine or theology built on particular texts that are clearly misinterpreted or plainly misused?

3. Tom Wright has made the point (more articulately and intelligently than I can summarise here) that it is misguided to use the language of ‘the authority of Scripture’ – which is usually a way to close down any reading that doesn’t conform with my own unassailable hermeneutical (that is, interpretative) model. It is God who has authority and the role of Scripture is to point to it. This is similar to the other misused phrase which sees the Bible as ‘the Word of God’. The Bible itself makes it clear that Jesus is the ‘Word of God’; the Bible points to him. In other words, the Bible is not an end in itself, but the means to a greater end: the person of God as seen in Jesus Christ.

4. So, how should we read it? I have a problem with churches that print the Bible readings for services on the service sheet. It takes the readings out of any context and means that people can go to church regularly and never handle a Bible – which hardly encourages them to read it at home. It is a big and complicated book and encouragement is needed as well as teaching, if people are to read it properly. And this leads me on to what I think is a crucial task for preachers: offering the ‘big picture’ of the biblical narrative in order that the particular detail being read at any one time has a context in which to be set. We all know the danger of reading a ‘story’ into a photograph only later to find that the cropping of the picture had changed the potential ‘message’ – seeing the whole ‘canvas’ makes sense of the smaller detail.

5. This means that we need to constantly offer the ‘bigger picture’ – a sort of metanarrative that holds the ‘story’ together and makes sense of the bits. This is what I am trying to do in accessible language for ordinary people in most of my books. One way might look something like this: God created all that is and thought it was brilliant – something he hasn’t changed his mind about since then. Human beings(made to reflect God’s ways and character) mucked it up, setting a trend that continues to this day. God called a particular people to show a forgetful world what the character of God is like, if necessary laying down their own life in order that the world might see. This people took their special calling to be a privilege that the world should recognise and lost the plot (literally). The prophets saw through all this and reminded the people that they were called to lay down their lives that the world might see what God is about: they were ignored and the consequences (in terms of politics, economics, military power, identity, worldview) followed. Exile and loss of the plot once again became the experience and formed the context of the people who had thought themselves to be ‘God’s’. Jesus came and embodied what had always been the calling of Israel, to lay down life to show what God is about. He took his friends with him and then left them to live out what had been fulfilled in Jesus and had always been the calling of God’s people: to show what the character of God is about and to live like him in the world.

And what is the character of God about? He is the creator who plays the creation into being and, in the words of Dr John Polkinghorne, creates a world that creates itself. He gives himself away and trusts his people to do the same. He shows in real history that death, destruction and violence do not have the final word in this world and that death does not negate the life that went before it. It also says that human beings are accountable to him and one another and must relate to him both individually and collectively.

Or, in the immortal words of Bishop David Jenkins: ‘God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope.’

6. The early books of the Old Testament describe a people learning over time who God is and what it means to be his. But they can’t run before they can walk – so we get all the rough stuff that now looks a bit odd or brutal. The historical books of the Old Testament tell the history of the people from the perspective of a people trying to make sense of the discrepancies between what they believe and their actual circumstances. The prophets see through the religious veneers and political shenanigans of a ruling elite and speak truth to society. The Gospels tell the story of what people experienced of Jesus of Nazareth and ask the reader to draw a conclusion about who he was/is. They also ask us to ask why some people responded well to Jesus and others got him executed. The Acts of the Apostles tell how the early church was dispersed and grew. The letters show how the churches were trying to be faithful in differing contexts, but facing unique challenges, contradictions and competing personalities and theologies. Plus ca change…

So, that, in a 1203 word nutshell, opens the batting on how to read the Bible. Over to you.