This article is for persons who use sacred texts like the Bible as a resource for their spiritual life and may not be of interest to persons who are agnostic or atheist..
In the book, Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs, describes how his peers sought guidance through a practice he calls "Bible dipping." Bible dipping involves asking a question and then opening the Bible and pointing to a verse. Once the verse is chosen, the dipper would interpret its meaning. The practice is hilarious as Burroughs describes it, but a text held as sacred deserves to be approached with more reverence than bible dipping or its cousin, "proof texting." Proof texting is using a verse or two to prove a theological point. It is reckless to guide one’s life by such casual approaches.
This blog will offer suggestions about how to approach a sacred text and will offer reasons why. (As a side note, I am most familiar with the Bible, but the principles will apply to the Torah, the Koran, the Bible, or any other text.)
1.) Learn how the book was compiled. Was it written over thousands of years? Was it written by multiple people? If the answer is yes, then each book within the book can be viewed as a stand-alone text. It is unreasonable to link books together and expect unity, when authors had different locations, centuries, and audiences. Many dangerous cults like to link passages from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation together, but each book was written for a specific audience and that audience was based in time and space.
2.) When reading a book within the larger text, ask, who was the author and who was author writing to? What was going on in that location that the author was trying to address? These are good questions. Without them one can read a statement like “women should be silent” and apply that mandate across all time and all space, but what if the author had a problem with a specific group of women in Corinth and was only addressing that one issue with those women?
3.) Understanding the context may require study aids. A good study Bible with notes will help you by offering an introduction to each book, and identifying the context of the book. Study aids can include Bible commentaries, a Bible with footnotes, and even the internet. A study aid is different from a devotional that interprets what the author meant. A study aid will give insight to when the book was written, the culture, the language, the manuscripts, etc.
Manuscripts are interesting. There are several ancient versions of the book of Mark, and in the oldest, the book abruptly ends. Another manuscript has a slightly longer ending. Then another has a longer ending. Study aids can explain the manuscript evidence. The story of the woman caught in adultery, is also in some manuscripts and not in others.
Going back to the statement “women should be silent,” in the oldest manuscripts it’s missing. It shows up in the margins of later manuscripts and moves around. If it is not in the oldest manuscript, then the question becomes, when was it added, and who added it?
4.) Learning about the language can bring thrilling insights too. Comparing various translations can show you when an editor decided how to translate. When I learned Greek, there were several occasions where the Greek was ambiguous and more than one way of translating was possible.
As an easy to understand example in English, sometimes we use the word them in a sentence, and it might mean a person or an object. If someone was translating a sentence like that into another language, a thousand years from now, there might be confusion as to whether the person or object is the focus. It is the same with translating a book whose original was Greek or Aramaic, then was translated into Latin (the ancient language of Rome) and later into English. Reading several versions can help you discover when these judgment calls are made.
5.) I learned a great way to avoid Bible dipping, and that was to back up and read two or three chapters before and after a verse to get an understanding of what the author was saying. I also learned to follow a chain of words throughout an entire book. For example, I once picked the phrase Holy Spirit and read through the whole book of Acts, to see what the writer of Acts had to say about Holy Spirit. I circled the words and then drew a literal line between each use. It helped me to see how it was used.
6.) I would also suggest reading the entire Bible to see what is in it. Many people like to use proof texts to prove their beliefs. I have participated in several types of Christianity, for example groups that believe in adult baptism and groups that believe in infant baptism, groups that believe in faith alone and groups that believe in faith plus works, and groups who accept homosexual persons and groups who do not. In each case, I discovered that a focus on certain passages had led to the group to taking one stance over another. I discovered there were legitimate arguments and texts to show each position. When people say they know their Bible, but haven’t read it entirely, I think they know one version of the text.
Rather than Bible dipping or proof texting, studying is a better approach. After years of having the Bible be used as a tool of oppression against me, I decided that I would be a preacher of grace and not condemnation because that is closest to how I understand how God is, and to love my neighbor as I love myself.
I read the Bible, studied it professionally, prayed over it, and searched my soul. I decided to speak of love and use Scripture to build people up. I would talk about the stories others passed over. I would give voice to the voiceless. I would use the tools that I discovered over the last 20 years to help others. I cannot go back to proof texting or Bible dipping. Nor can I use the Bible as a tool to oppress others.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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