Hearing Voices in Scripture

As I’ve suggested many times, I believe that the standard Protestant and Evangelical methods of reading the Bible suffer greatly for denying or ignoring the polyphonal nature of the texts. By assuming a perfect consistency of voice and perspective (and technical “inerrancy”), we effectively silence the human conversations and arguments that characterize the Jewish tradition which produced the library we call “the Bible.”

Anyone who spends a good amount of time with the texts will inevitably encounter these disparate voices, but our traditions have trained us to respond in different ways. Some deny the subjective human dimension as far as they can, preferring to see God as the primary author of all scripture; any appearance of disagreement or problem being merely a cautionary demonstration. (“God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it!”) Others weave complicated apologetics designed to soak apparent discrepancies in reason until they dissolve together into a mush. (“Nothing to see here, folks!”)  Still others, unsure how to navigate surprising diversity and apparent dissonance, demote the Bible to secondary status. (That is, they just don’t read it.)

Readers grounded in these methods risk missing out on the defining human disagreements of the Bible (usually about the nature and character of God), and – most ironically – end up with a “perfect” Bible that isn’t very useful. The inevitable crisis of this approach is “what about this verse?” syndrome, whereby detached, out-of-context passages are used to challenge or even trump one another for appearing antithetical. “Don’t get too excited about that verse, what about this one over here?” The people who most loudly deny that scripture contains contradictions are the ones most likely to battle each other with contradictory verses.

Once we come to terms with the diverse threads of human opinion that run through the Bible, we can contextualize and explore them, we can discern and compare them, and we can work toward a holistic and robust understanding of the larger world that gave birth to the scriptures. Nowhere is this more urgent and crucial, I would argue, than the sayings and teaching of Jesus in the gospels. A flat, tone deaf view of the Bible will quote Jesus, a Psalm, Leviticus, and 2 Corinthians on an equal plane of authority, with the often deceptive qualifier “the Bible says!” Among the many problems with this approach: it doesn’t allow any of the texts to breathe and speak in their own space, and, what’s worse, it threatens to muffle and temper the voice of Jesus, the one voice in the biblical chorus that all Christians consider to be authoritative above others.  Heard on its own terms, the voice of Jesus should be free to harmonize, rhyme, contrast or disagree with any other voice we hear in the Bible.

These thoughts make a fitting backdrop to the post I published earlier this morning about Jesus and Christian Karma.