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To Travis...About the Bible

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson dispenses kindly advice to Travis to be helpful and avoid the many, many frustrating things in the world today.

So, yeah, there's lots of fun and important things that I could write about: OBL, fake quotes from MLK, end of term, a new son, looking at houses, motorcycles....  Oh, I could go on and on, but I've really been wanting to do something helpful.

I was very thankful for Travis' post last week that gave me a chance to chime in, and rather than just post a comment, I'm choosing to use a column on it.

He's already had some great advice on translations/versions, programs, skipping Leviticus, and other reading tips and hints.  With all the suggestions, I can't but help to feel like it's some sort of Nintendo Power walkthrough.  You know,  "The Bible...the Original Video Game", and Travis is trying to go through Zelda in less than 30 minutes.

I must first disclose that I have never read the Bible cover-to-cover.  I've tried a couple of times, but there's just too many things against it as a practice. My problem wasn't Leviticus or Numbers; they had some cool stuff. It was the minor prophets. "Alright!  We get it!  Bad will be punished...we hope and pray.  Good will be rewarded...we hope and pray.   Yes, yes, G-d IS powerful and amazing."

Yes, there are all sorts of things that will come up.

  • There is the frustration with the minute subdivisions of paragraphs and sentences into chapter and verse when the prose just does not support that segmentation.
  • There's interminable poetry (LotR's strategy=skip poetry, not necessarily with the Bible), history, law, and prophecy.
  • There's a whole mess of some dude's letters that have, for some reason, been shoved between an early history of the Church and a final book of prophecy (You know, just for good measure).
  • There's the past 2000 years of use and abuse of the documents in this volume for both great good and great evil.
  • There's the present association of the Bible with conservatism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism.

However, if one looks at it as a wonderful archive, then things potentially begin to change.

  • Each book holds a glimpse into generations and generations of real people who struggled to find, understand, and live out some relationship to the infinite.
  • Each of  these glimpses comes with loads of historical context where we can really begin to see complex relationships.
  • Each one presents an experience into the core questions of humanity as an individual, a community, and a society.
  • Each of the books tries to engage in a very real and meaningful way with the questions raised by existence and yet tell gritty stories about hard lives in hard times

It grows easier and easier to equate The Bible with religion.  However, I'd argue that The Bible =/= religion, even though the Reformation used the book as a conduit between the person of faith and their God through their ability, right, and responsibility to read and understand it. I understand that this has morphed into a fascination for those who believe in strict inerrancy and infallibility of The Bible as the Word of God.  I'm not one of them, but I respect that as a position with a lot of power in the world today.

However, regardless of the objective truth of the words, the narratives and arcs that it contains describe the relationship between people and a view of the Divine at the very least.

Many people, therefore, emphasize the epic qualities of The Bible.  After all, it's about "GOD", right?  It's got to be SERIOUS and star Charlton Heston.  The must be heavy, serious music.  It must be in Panavision.  The emphasis has been on the weight and grandeur of a narrative about God and man.

Something about this, though, strikes me as idolatry.  Not in the normal sense, but it's almost like Christians are still competing with the Greeks and Romans to show that their religion is as cool,

"Hey, look!  We've got cool stories too!"

"Do you have a god in the form of a bull raping a woman?"


"Well, do you at least have Morgan Freeman?"


"Then I'm not sure how you can call it a religion."

I like to imagine The Bible more like if it was made by HBO or Showtime...maybe AMC, but only if John Hamm and Christina Hendricks were in it.  Imagine if David Simon wrote and directed, maybe with some help from Richard Price.

Connections abound between The Wire, Rome, and The Bible. Family struggles, sex, violence, political intrigue, captivity, and exotic locales abound, but those are points for another day.

Forget the theology for a bit and get to know the people and peoples behind The Bible.  Treat it like The Bible, maybe even the bible.  Think about their lives, thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams.  Midrash in your mind as you go, and don't be afraid to jump around.

As the Israelites are exiled, jump forward to their prophets who wrote in that time, and then jump back.  As David flees and starts a revolution, read the songs that he composed, perhaps at night.

Works in translation are always hard to really get and feel.  Additionally, the vast majority of The Bible lacks the punch and flow of Elmore Leonard.  However, the people and drama are there.

It's just a matter of letting the other things go, at least for a while.

Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University). In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and analysis of vampires and gods in terms of hospitality.