One of the most important attributes of a good reader is humility. A person who reads with humility is someone who approaches a text with a readiness to hear what it says. Ironically, humility is hardest to maintain when a reader readers a great work of literature. Few expectations come with the opening of a Hardy Boys novel. One can simply read. But when one picks up a lauded book like The Brothers Karamazov one usually feels the need to show that he or she is an “intelligent” reader. Suddenly, a person becomes not just a reader but a critic. Yet criticism and reading and understanding a piece of literature are two different things.
Reading with humility is much more difficult when ones approaches the Bible. Those who believe that the Bible is inspired and without error (however they choose to define that), would never admit to reading the Bible pridefully. For this reason, lack of humility slips in subtly, disguised as something else. While growing up in church and going to a Christian college, I have listened to many conversations concerning the Bible. One of the things I like to do is not only to hear what they have discovered, but to try to understand how they came to the conclusion that they did. I find that when someone misunderstands or makes a misapplication of Scripture, it is almost always because they have brought their own understanding or unconscious bias to the text. Simply said, people find what they expect to find in the Bible. They go through the motions of reading, but are not actually reading. Instead, they take bits of past sermons or popular wisdom and read these into the words of the Bible. In my own life, I have seen how things I learned in Sunday School shaped how I understand certain passages in the Bible years later. Days come when the Spirit removes the blinders from me on a certain verse or passage. Then I ask myself how I could be so stupid as to misunderstand what I had read so many times. Sometimes unlearning proves to be as important and difficult as learning.
Reading the Bible with humility requires us to recognize that while Scripture is the truth, our interpretation of it is not. Our understanding of what the Bible says and what it actually says are not always the same thing. When someone offers a perspective on Scripture that we disagree with we need not respond as if they were challenging the Bible itself. Instead it is our personal understanding, which always needs challenging. There is actually a great benefit in seeking out Bible teaching from a variety of sources. This helps keep our understanding of the Bible from becoming myopic. Comparison among a variety of opinions can help us discover the one or a combination of ones that most closely matches what Scripture says. As I learned in college, this means seeking out an actually diversity of understandings, not just a handful of “safe” opinions. As someone who comes from a conservative background, I am thankful to liberal students of the Bible because they have helped me see a few of my blind spots in reading the Bible.
Reading with humility also requires that we put ourselves under the authority of the text. Every medium of communication has rules that one needs to follow if communication is to take place. Because the Bible is God’s truth communicated through literature, certain rules apply. Every thing must be understood within the context in which it is found. We hate it when people take our words out of context, yet Christians do it all the time with the words of Scripture. Verses are cherry picked and acquire a significance separate from the text they are rooted in. The reverse happens when we leap-frog over certain parts of the text. Sometimes they don’t fit our mental or theological framework, other times they are just plain uncomfortable. Frameworks are incredible useful, but we must never forget that they are artificial creations, made by human beings.
Reading this way also requires that we respect the genre. I get quite offended when Bible scholars take a piece of poetry in the Bible and try to read it as if it were passage in a book of systematic theology. Poetry must be read as poetry, narrative as narrative, and logical discourse as logical discourse. It would be foolish to watch Pride and Prejudice as a commentary on modern dating practices or interpret Schindler’s List as a comedy.
For a professor at Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t write many scholarly essays. When he wanted to though, he could write excellent ones. One such essay is called “The Monsters and the Critics.” It is notable both for what its says about the Old English poem Beowulf and the nature of literary criticism. In the essay Tolkien takes to task his contemporaries for the way they read Beowulf. The scholarship of the day said something like, “The Beowulf poet is a man of great genius but he has the weakness of ‘placing the unimportant things at the centre and the important on the outer edges.’ The allusions and references to other Germanic legends and heroes is the important stuff. Their tales of national conflict, of intrigues, and conflicting loyalties would have made much better material for an epic. Instead the poet spends most of his time centered on not one but three monsters.” And this was the attitude of people who had devoted portions of their careers to studying Beowulf.
Tolkien argues that the parts the critics consider to be poems weaknesses are really its strength and central theme. One might as well say that the New Testament would be a good study on 1st century Jewish culture if not for the Jesus figure who continually interrupts the narrative. He also gives an insightful allegory on the worth of the source criticism practiced by the critics. Humility involves approaching a text on its own terms.
It is always a danger when we come to Scripture that we will be like these critics. The parts we see as important are really only so because they are important to us. What we consider to be on the fringes may really be the central theme. We need to approach pieces of literature, the Bible especially, with an attitude of humility and a willingness to be taught by the text.