The Common Good
March-April 1997

Reverence for the Word of God

by Liane Ellison Norman | March-April 1997

Faith, interpretation, and The Good Book.

Since fifth grade, when I was presented with my very own King James Version, I have often thought I would read the Bible from start to finish. That’s how I read other books, which have beginnings, middles, and ends. I have continued to make occasional attempts, but I confess that I have never succeeded.

When I read a profile in a recent New Yorker about Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, I was impressed enough to go out and buy The Good Book. My intuition was rewarded, and I have started once again to read the Bible. I suspect Gomes may similarly affect other Bible reading. Gomes writes to counter "the crisis of biblical illiteracy," but also, I think, to convey his pleasure, enthusiasm, and profound respect for the "chief book" of his Christian faith.

The Bible should be understood to have three fundamental characteristics, says Gomes. It is first, public, "a treasure that is held in common"; second, "dynamic, living, alive, lively"; and, finally, inclusive. "Your story is written here, your sins and fears addressed, your hopes confirmed, your experiences validated, and your name known to God," he writes. Interpretation is inevitable, as is the case with any written word, and should embody these three characteristics. Of course, interpretative dangers exist, and idolatries arise—worshiping the text itself, giving the letter superiority over the spirit, and worshiping the norms of the prevailing culture and conforming the Bible to them.

Of course, there are what Gomes calls "hard texts," those that must be addressed by those who take the Bible seriously: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia. His practice is to read carefully to see what the Bible says in fact, and then to "seek after the lively Christian principle that transcends the particularities of the Bible situation and with which we understand both those situations and our own."

IN THE CASE OF slavery, "[n]owhere does the Bible condemn it; everywhere in the Bible it is the practice." In American history, "[r]acism is the mother of slavery, segregation is the child of slavery, and all were believed to be amply supported by the Bible." Gomes points out that the New Testament’s call for transformation trumps specific views and practices taken for granted in the Bible’s various historical times. "It is not scripture that has changed, but rather the moral imagination by which we see ourselves, and see and read scripture."

"The ‘original sin’ of Christianity is not so much the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and the consequent loss of innocence; for Christians the original sin of anti-Semitism has to do with the fact that in the name of the risen Christ and the loving Jesus, and in pursuit of the righteousness and virtue of his service, we Christians, in the name of good and of God, are responsible for the systematic destruction of God’s chosen and beloved people, the Jews." Gomes sees close reading and moral imagination undercut anti-Semitism. Similarly, many fear "a feminist initiative in the interpretation of scripture": That fear, Gomes argues, is that if those who experience it are wrong about the subordination of women, about what else may they also be wrong?

Gomes is both African American and gay. He examines the Bible’s few pronouncements on homosexuality and finds them situational rather than normative. "What is at stake is not simply the authority of scripture...but the authority of the culture of interpretation by which [homophobes] read scripture in such a way as to lend legitimacy to their doctrinaire prejudices. Thus the battle for the Bible, of which homosexuality is the last front, is really the battle for the prevailing culture...."

There is much more here that is well-written, funny, passionate, careful—if occasionally redundant. Gomes examines what the good life is, how the Bible understands suffering and joy, how it defines and presents evil, temptation, wealth, and science. Finally, he says, the Bible upholds the mystery of our relationship to God. "The deep things of God of which the Bible speaks in nearly its every breath are not problems waiting to be solved but a mystery into which we are invited to enter, discover, explore, and indeed to enjoy, forever. This is an invitation I believe we are able to hear for the first time in a very long time, and this is an invitation that I believe more and more sincere seekers are prepared to accept."

LIANE ELLISON NORMAN, a writer living in Pittsburgh, has a doctorate in English and American literature.

The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart. By Peter Gomes. William Morrow and Co., 1996.

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