Greg Garrett: Reading the Bible after 9/11

Two years ago, I spent a weekend lecturing and preaching in Cody, Wyoming, and my hosts and I built in a Saturday for me to do a long hike in Yellowstone. But the night before I left, when they heard I was planning to hike alone on a bear-laden trail, they warned me about the Swiss hiker who had been eaten on that trail, and it affected my whole Yellowstone experience.

The entire next day, I saw bears everywhere-this stump, that clump of bushy grass, those shadows deep in the forest. Bears. I was so jumpy seeing all these bears that it was hard for me to enjoy an amazing eighteen-mile hike. And while there were indeed real bears around-going up into the backcountry I saw bear tracks on the trail, and when I descended, there were tracks on top of my original prints going up-I never saw an actual bear.

Just lots and lots of things that looked like bears.

This is a story I tell sometimes to talk about how when we read, we tend to find what we are looking for. Last week, we considered how Americans tend to get their news from sources with which they agree, and thus are sometimes privy to something less than the full truth. This week we're going to consider how we read the Bible and do theology, especially in relation to our relationships with God and with each other, and again I'm going to encourage us to get out of our typical ways of doing things and consider the possibility that God may be moving in more than one way in the world.

Because the truth is, if you're looking for bears, you will most certainly see bears.

But bears may be all you see.

For the past three years I've been reading and reflecting theologically on the events of 9/11 for my book on terror, torture, and civil rights which will be out next year. In these weeks leading to the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I'm writing on the event, on our reaction to it, and on how religion has been used and abused in the process. This week I want to do with biblical study and theology what we did last week: suggest a wide range of resources that allows readers to talk and think with more sense of scope about the theology underlying what we do and say.


Those of us who are believers or who study the Bible all come to the text with a set of preconditioned responses-bears we will see everywhere because we expect to find them there. Some of our filters are salvation (everything in the Bible relates to our personal salvation by Jesus, the Christ), peace and justice (everything in the Bible relates to our participation in God's clean-up of the Cosmos), and piety (everything in the Bible is about how we are supposed to behave, or actions we are supposed to avoid in order to be holy). The problem with any filter, as we saw last week, is that it shapes our reading or hearing-we tend only to find what we already expected to find.

So I want to propose (or remind you of) some ways you might read the Bible that break it and us open to see it in a new light, and to read for what is on the page instead of just seeing our favorite bears everywhere. First, verses of the Bible need to be read in a larger context. Instead of picking and choosing a verse here or there that proves our point, we should read attentively in larger sections and ask what the Bible is saying.

Second, to break us out of our hermetically sealed present, we should be trying to understand how earlier hearers or readers may have understood these words, so accessible scholarship is a must. I have several different commentaries and general studies I consult when I want greater insight into biblical language, structure, or context, and perhaps one or more of these might be of value to you. (You could, of course, also suggest new materials in your comments.)

I employ Raymond Brown's magisterial An Introduction to the New Testament as a starting point; Walter Bruggemann serves a similar role for me with Old/Hebrew Testament texts. The Interpretation commentary series from Westminster John Knox is excellent for people who write, teach, and preach; I also like the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series from Intervarsity Press for insight into how the Church Fathers read the Bible. Amy-Jill Levine gives a Jewish perspective on the Gospels which often sheds new light on passages. And N. T. Wright is a scholar respected by conservatives and progressives alike for his thoughtful and rigorous approach to the Bible; if Wright says it, you can give his conclusions serious consideration.

Reading from several different perspectives-reading a range of scholars or hearing from a variety of different times-allows me to avoid simply imposing my bears on the text. Even if I wind up where I have always been before, I've considered other interpretations and opinions held and advanced by sincere believers. Along with my book The Other Jesus, Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally and Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity are works that take the hard and holy work of interpreting the Bible seriously, but don't attempt to read it verse by verse as a Christian cookbook. That's bad reading of any text, and certainly of a work we expect to shape the way we live, think, worship, and react in a post 9/11 world.

My bishop, Andy Doyle, has made it a priority to say that people in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas should do theology. Just as with news sources, too many people get their bible interpretation and their theology from a single source, one with which they're already in agreement, when, as Bishop Doyle points out, it is the responsibility of every Christian to wrestle her or his way to a useable truth. As I wrote about Joel Osteen recently, bad theology makes for bad religion, so settling only for the theology you hear from the pulpit or your radio speaker may mean you are not living out your life of faith as you might-and perhaps should.

To think theologically is to enter into an ongoing conversation about who God is, what God wants, and how we are supposed to live. Since the Bible is not a rulebook that can be easily understood, theological reflection is what helps us determine our answers to these and other ultimate questions. I mentioned the Church Fathers above; any serious entry into this conversation should include reading those who helped to shape our beliefs today. Augustine's City of God speaks to our current situation and wrestles with the question of whether we should be more concerned with earthly or spiritual matters. Many American Christians have never read Augustine and don't even know the names of the Church Fathers, yet their work shaped Christianity and could shape us as well.

I've found many insights this past year reading John Calvin, a Reformation theologian and Bible scholar with whom I expected to disagree continuously. Like other Reformation theologians, he was seeking a new way to follow Jesus faithfully, and in his concern for the interplay between human redemption and human behavior, he previewed many problems of our modern world. I return again and again to The Institutes of Christian Religion, and think you might find this work rich and challenging as well.

For my 9/11 book, I've also been reading more recent Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theologians (and secular philosophers) on war, violence, and society. H. Richard Niebuhr's Radical Monotheism and Western Culture makes a nice counterpoint to the Christian realism of his brother Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History. John Yoder's life-work of Christian pacifism, especially Nonviolence: A Brief History joins the books of Stanley Hauerwas in arguing for a peaceful response to conflicts. Rowan Williams' Writing in the Dust: After September 11 is a small but beautifully-written and argued reflection on Christian responses to violence. And Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War against Terror is the work of a Christian philosopher who, like Reinhold Niebuhr, suggests that the use of power to protect the helpless and to roll back evil is a faithful response.

Like the works we considered last week, the theological and philosophical texts I've mentioned here are in tension with each other, and perhaps with some or all of your beliefs. They come from different religious traditions, different time periods, and different political contexts. But reading and considering these and other works-even when I don't change my mind-has made me, I think, a more faithful interpreter of the Christian tradition, and a more thoughtful expounder of what I do believe.

Like all of you, I am still walking through the forest of our post-9/11 life. And experience suggests that reading widely and walking with an open mind is the only way to avoid seeing the same old bears everywhere.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.

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[Taken with permission, originally posted 8/15/11]