How do you read the bible?
Three people whose interactions with scripture changed me
If Jesus taught that the secrets of God were revealed to the poor and the powerless and the uneducated, why do I so often turn to wealthy, educated, privileged voices to teach me who God is and how to read his word? Why do we tell ourselves the marginalized church needs our “solid teaching” when we won’t take the time to hear what God’s been telling them?
In this post1 I want to give three examples of interactions with the bible that have fundamentally shaken my assumptions of what the bible is, and how it works, and what a person can do with it. Each comes not from ivory towers or the power centers of Evangelical faith, but from scholars of color2 reflecting on practices they’ve learned from faithful Christian congregations with less access to the sort of education I’m used to.
I will quote very liberally from my sources here, who I think do a better job explaining their ideas than I would. I made an effort to represent their perspective fairly, which means I don’t necessarily agree with every sentence I’m quoting. The point is not that we need to fully adopt all their positions, but to humbly and genuinely engage with how they’ve experienced the God who’s bigger than any of us.
The three perspectives we’ll look at are:
The Bible as Power: David Tuesday Adamo on invocation of the psalms for protection, healing, and success in his West African (specifically Nigerian) context.
Is God really unfair? Justo Gonzalez on how actual day laborers see fairness and justice in the parable of the laborers.
“He’s not talking about heaven”: a transcript of a bible study with Ernesto Cardenal and several campesino churchgoers in the context of Somoza-era Nicaragua.
The Bible as Power
What is the purpose of the bible? Is it merely a source of information, that we read to learn facts about God? I’ve previously written about how the emotional and poetic sides of the bible get lost when we reduces passages to a list of facts. David Tuesday Adamo, in his papers “Decolonizing Psalm 91 in an African Perspective with Special Reference to the Culture of the Yoruba People of Nigeria” and “Decolonizing the Psalter in Africa” explores a different perspective: the bible as a way of accessing spiritual power.
Adamo points out that traditional African culture has been deeply aware of the presence of good and evil spiritual forces. “To indigenous Africans”, he writes, “the presence of witches, evil, sorcerers, evil spirits and all different kinds of enemies are painfully real. Therefore, all means are used to protect children, young and adult. Protection includes the use of human parts, animals, water, and whatever can be mentioned to help in safeguarding people.”
He explores a variety of historic methods of protection from evil spirits and healing, including powerful words, talismans, and traditional medicine that could be used to ward off danger. He continues:
When the Euro-American missionaries arrived and converted many Africans, it was an abomination for the converted Christian to continue the use of the above means of protection in African traditions. More unfortunate is the fact that the missionaries did not teach them what exactly could be a substitute.
But the African converts, especially in the indigenous churches, found out by reading the Bible that there are many miraculous events they could revert to and through the use of various means, such as the laying of hands, prayer and the mere pronouncement of words of God they were able to find a substitute. They therefore use the words of God in Psalms as substitute and even came to believe that the words in the Bible are more powerful, quick and sharper than a two-edged sword.
Africentric interpretation of Ps 91 sees this Psalm as a Psalm of protection against enemies, against all kinds of evils that may threaten the reader. When one is about to embark on a journey Ps 91 can be read over and over again for divine protection.
In the rest of the article, Adamo explores the use of psalms to be prayed for protection from evil spirits, for physical healing, and for success in the face of people and spiritual beings seeking their destruction and failure. This is rooted in a belief that God has filled the words of the bible themselves with power (in a way that, to me, seems parallel to the power we ascribe to sacraments like communion or bapism or (a personal favorite) exorcism), which leads to prescriptions like one he quotes from writer Clement Ekundayo:
Use [Psalm 91] to pray when you are about leaving home for a trip. Read it often before leaving home and commit your journey or mission to the hands of God.
The choice of specific psalms is intentional — in his other article Adamo lists Psalms 5,6,28,35,37,54,55,83,109 as psalms used for protection in West African Indigenous Churches, while Psalms 1,2,3,20, and 40 are used for healing (he notes that they are “said to be good for stomach pain), while a variety of psalms are listed for success depending on what you’re trying to succeed in.
This sort of practice is uncomfortably close to some American church practices I deeply object to (namely, the hesitancy to properly treat mental illnesses or certain physical illnesses in the belief that prayer should be sufficient.) But I think that’s mostly my gut reaction to seeing something I’m not used to — after all, I’m perfectly happy in my own life to pray for my problems and seek proper professional help, and this is just a specific setting for how I can be praying for my problems rather than a certainty that “God will heal me if I say this prayer and I don’t need to see a therapist.”
Adamo responds to similar objections:
The use of the “Bible-as-power” approach may seem fetishistic and magical (this is the opinion of many Eurocentric biblical scholars), but biblical scholars, especially of the Psalter, should ask the questions, “What was the intention of the original authors of the Psalter when they composed the Psalm orally? Were these passages recited repetitively? Was there any expectation, by faith, that when those words were recited they would achieve the desired effect? Were those words spoken and recited for fun, for aesthetic or scholarly purpose in ancient Israel?”
As an Old Testament scholar, my understanding of the culture of the ancient Near East makes me believe that the words of the Psalter were memorized and recited not for fun or aesthetic or scholarly purposes, but there was a faith behind the recitation or singing of the Psalms, with the expectation that they would achieve a desired effect. In ancient Israel, those words were potent and performative words that sought to invoke a particular result.
Like the ancient Israelites, who were the original authors of the Psalter, many African biblical scholars see the Psalter as divine, potent and performative words that can be used to protect one from enemies, to heal diseases and to bring about success. A few eminent biblical scholars (E. Jacob, W. Eichrodt, O Procksch, G. von Rad, G. A. F. Knight and R. Bultmann) agree with African biblical scholars that the spoken word in ancient Israel was “never an empty sound but an operativereality whose action cannot be hindered once it has been pronounced.”
African and Africanist biblical scholars must genuinely face the task of formulating further Africentric hermeneutics for the purpose of decolonizing, not only the Psalter but the Bible as a whole.
Is God really unfair?
One of the pieces of writing that’s most convinced me that our personal life experiences really do shape the way we read the bible is this interpretation of Matthew 20:1-16 (the parable where a landowner keeps coming back throughout the day to hire more laborers, and in the end pays those he hired for an hour the same as he hired for the full day) from Justo L. González’s Santa Biblia. Here’s an excerpt:
“When this story is read in most churches, there is a general reaction that the whole thing is unfair. It is just not right that people who worked more should be paid the same as people who worked less. In that social context, all that is seen is the injustice, and the sermon then usually argues that God’s grace is above justice.
In contrast, when the parable is read in some of our poor Hispanic churches there are people who immediately identify with the laborers, for they understand the plight of those who must go early in the morning to stand at a place where someone may come in a pickup truck and hire them. They may be lucky one day and find a whole day’s work. Other days, they may spend hours waiting, and find nothing to do, or be hired only for a couple of hours. They clearly understand, because they have experienced it, the conversation between the landowner and those still standing around at around five o’clock: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us.” Then comes the surprising finale, where the landowner pays those who only worked a couple of hours a whole day’s wage, and the reaction is not one of mystification and outrage, as in a middle-class congregation, but rather of joy and celebration. They can see that this is not an act of injustice, but rather an act of supreme justice. Those hired at five o’clock were not at fault in not having found work earlier. They were actually standing there all day, hoping against hope that someone would hire them. In a sense, they had more hope and stamina than those who were guaranteed a job early in the day. The fact that no one hired them does not mean that they will not have to eat, or that their needs will be lesser. They too need a day’s wages in order to survive. Thus, the landowner’s act in paying them a full day’s wage is not a show of grace that goes against justice, but rather of a grace that understands justice at a deeper level than is customary. The landowner pays them what they justly need and what they justly deserve, not what society, with its twisted understanding of justice, would pay them. Common justice would wash its hands of any responsibility for these unfortunate ones who did not find enough work to earn a living. This utterly just landowner, in contrast, pays them what they need, and what they would have been ready to earn had they been hired earlier.
In a way, the common reaction of most congregations is similar to the reaction of those who were hired earlier. They worked a full day; they had earned their day’s wage; they deserve more than the rest. The less fortunate do not deserve a full day’s wage. They may need it, but they have not earned it, and should not be paid for work they did not do. What we forget, and those laborers also forget, is that we have been able to work and make a living because, in a world that is still much as that described in the parable, we have been more fortunate than others. Thus, we are ready to limit “justice” to that which recompenses us and others like us for our full-time, hard work. If we are callous, we may even say that those who have no work should simply be left to fend for themselves. If we are more sensitive, we may argue that such people need help, either through private charity or through public welfare. We may even provide for them out of our own resources. And all of this is good. But still we shall most likely miss the point, that this parable is not speaking of God’s grace as the opposite of justice, but rather as a higher and more loving understanding of justice.”
“He’s not talking about Heaven”
Ernesto Cardenal was a Nicaraguan priest famous for his poetry, spiritual writing, and political activism. This passage is from Volume 3 of his “The Gospel in Solentiname”, a transcript of bible studies he held with poor farmworkers in rural Nicaragua under the dictatorship of Tachito Somoza. I find this book really wonderful because it’s such a lens into how ordinary people were thinking about their faith at the time — Somoza’s thoughts are certainly included, but his transcripts capture the thoughts and feelings and perspectives of many of the people who attended his church as well!
In the part I’ll quote, the bible study is reading John 3, about a religious leader named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night to ask him questions. Jesus tells Nicodemus if he wants to inherit eternal life he needs to be reborn of the spirit that, like the wind, “blows where it wishes.”
I’ve heard this passage preached on many, many times, almost always in a context that “we need to have faith in Jesus” in a fairly abstract sense. See how Cardenal’s church’s very different life experience leads them to a very different reading!
William: [The Holy Spirit] keeps going in history changing humanity, and we don’t know how far that change is going to get in the future. The Spirit is love, which is among us, and it’s changing the world; you can feel it, but it’s mysterious. And what’s born from this Spirit, the new person, is free like the wind is free. The Pharisees weren’t free; they were enslaved by their laws and their religious rules. Jesus is telling them to get rid of those traditions and be free like the wind that blows wherever it wants to.
Then Nicodemus asked him again: “How can this be?”
Jesus answered him: “You who are a great teacher in Israel, you don’t know these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know and we are witnesses of what we have seen. But you all do not believe what we tell you. If you do not believe me when I talk to you about the things of this world, how are you going to believe me if I talk to you about the things of heaven?
I said it seemed as though Jesus was speaking to him with a certain irony. It’s as if he said to him: “You who are a doctor of theology.”
Olivia: And in spite of what Jesus said we still go on with the same religion of not eating meat on Friday, and if they kill some poor guy somewhere, who cares! They see that the candles are lighted to pray the rosary. But if the people are going hungry, that’s the will of God! And that’s why Christ was telling them things couldn’t go on like that. It’s better to fight against injustice and not keep on with that false religion, all that praying and shouting, the way we used to have it and many people still have it in many places. A bunch of people fasting with hard hearts.
I: And it seems that Jesus is saying to Nicodemus: `We are speaking of the injustices that we have seen, of which we are witnesses, and you don’t believe us.’
[Name Redacted]: It seems that man was, as we say, a Somoza follower
[Name Redacted]: Well, wasn’t he an important guy there in Israel?
I: Jesus says that if they don’t believe him when he talks to them about the things of this world, things that they’re seeing every day, how would they believe him if he talked to them about the things of heaven? So Jesus is talking about the things of earth, about the change he wanted here on earth, of the new birth here. He’s not talking about heaven, because that would be useless and they wouldn’t even understand him.
Oscar: I see it this way. This guy was important, he was with the others of his own class, and he was defending injustice. And when Jesus speaks to him about that injustice that everybody can see, he makes out he doesn’t understand. And he asks and asks, and he was clinging to his religion, a kind of false religion, and that’s why he doesn’t understand him;.
Teresita: With simple people Jesus didn’t have that problem. This man who’s very educated is asking him a lot of questions because he doesn’t undersand him.
Oscar: Hell, it’s just like now. Some bastard is exploiting people, and somebody comes up to tell him he shouldn’t do that. He makes out he doesn’t understand and so he asks thousands of questions. That’s the way that bastard seems to me.
No one has risen to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, that is to say, the Son of Man [Jesus] who is in heaven.
Alejandro: He tells him nobody can talk about heaven if he hasn’t gone up there. There’s not a single one who’s gone up, there’s only one who’s come down, and he’s the only one who can tell how it is.
Olivia: And that’s a nice phrase of Jesus’ right? We really want to be saved by doing crazy things, far from God’s commandment to love our neighbor like ourselves, which we don’t like. And we do a lot of things that God doesn’t ask us to, many religious duties but not what he asks. That’s why that’s nice, that phrase that nobody’s been in heaven except him; and he’s not talking about the things of heaven, he’s talking about loving his neighbor right here on earth.
I: So it seems that Jesus is telling him that just because of their religious concerns (about heaven) they don’t understand things of the earth, how to change the world here. The only one who knows about the things of heaven is Jesus, and what he’s talking about is a change on earth, and that’s why he came down.
[skipping ahead a bit so that I’m not quoting an entire chapter of this book]
God did not send his Son to the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved through him. Whoever believes in the Son of God is not condemned; but whoever does not believe has already been condemned for not believing in the only Son of God.
Felipe: It contradicts a belief of old people, that the world, when it’s past mending, is going to be destroyed in a last judgment. But here we see that there isn’t any last judgment. Jesus came to mend the world and not to condemn it. Whoever is condemned, it’s because that’s what they want, those who don’t have love (they’re the ones that don’t believe) and right away they’re condemned by the people.
William: They separate from the people, they’re cut off from the union of humanity which is all one, and that separation is condemnation.
Those who do not believe have been condemned, because when light came to the world, they preferred darkness to light because their works were evil. All those who work evil hate the light and do not approach the light so that their evil works will not be discovered.
I: The judgment already exists in this life, as Felipe says, and the one who doesn’t believe in Christ is the one who doesn’t love, for somewhere else, speaking of this judgment, he says: ‘I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was homeless and you did not give me lodging, I was without clothing and you did not give me any.’ And Jesus says here that these oppressors don’t want their oppression to be discovered, they love the darkness, that is, they want the people to be kept in ignorance, and they hate the light: they don’t want their exploitation to be discovered, and thye make religion itself serve to cover up reality.
[Name Redacted]: I think the light is the truth, because the truth is what brings all the injustice out into the light, so the people can see it, right?
I: In the Gospel according to Saint John, Jesus says he is the Truth and he also says he is the Light; the truth and the light are the same thing.
William: Where there’s light there’s a gathering. Where there are people there’s light: a lamp, a fire. I see the light too as a symbol of the human community, the union of humanity. And darkness is separation and solitude.
Felipe: So not to be in darkness is to be in a gathering.
William: And Jesus says that those who work evil hate the light, because anybody who’s going to commit an assault, a robbery, does it in the dark. And so too people who now exploit us don’t want the truth to be told in the papers or on the radio, they even forbid books, so that the country is left in the dark.
[Name redacted]: The government has seen to it that the big strike in Managua won’t be mentioned on the radio or in the newspapers. They don’t want light, so they can cover up the evil they do. But the workers’ action, what it’s trying to do is clear things up.
I: And maybe Jesus has gone on now to speak of light and darkness because he’s speaking at night. That man has come to see him at night and surely in secret, because he was an important man, a member of the Jewish Supreme Council, and there was an antagonism between people of his class and Jesus like the one between darkness and light. Of course, in that night interview Nicodemus received the light, for afterwards he defended Jesus in the Supreme Council of the Sanhedrin.
But those who live in accordance with the truth approach the light so that it can be seen that God is a part of what they are doing.
[Name redacted]: If we’re in favor of a social change, we like what’s being said here.
[Name also redacted]: I see here they’re talking about practice. It says ‘what they are doing.’ So they’re not just praying.
Olivia: Jesus isn’t takling about a God in heaven who’s far from us, but a God hwo is love. To see that God is a part of what they’re doing is to see love.
I: And the God that Jesus presents is not in heaven, as Olivia says, but in what people are doing. If we want to look for God, that’s where we must look for him, in the liberating practice of people.
Shoutout to Kim, whose coment last time gave me the idea of writing it like this. (Unless this was a bad idea, in which case I have never heard of Kim and this was all my idea.)
These three are all men. I’ll make an effort to include women or nonbinary scholars if there’s ever a part 2 of this.