Medieval ScrollI am often asked how I read Scripture, what my guiding principle is. The most recent occasion was one Sunday afternoon after I delivered this message to a church in Massachusetts. I usually kind of stumble over the question, because I haven’t actually given much thought to it, and because I know that my approach to reading Scripture is not at all consistent. Sometimes I read it “academically,” sometimes devotionally, sometimes homiletically, sometimes as lectio, and so on. But I’ve been thinking about it since Sunday for some reason, mostly because the gist of the question I was asked was along the lines of “is there any difference between reading the Bible as an academic in the field of religion and the Bible and the way you read it when you’re working on a sermon?”

After reflecting on the question for a few weeks now, I still don’t really have a good answer, but in trying to come up with one I’ve been able to give some some serious self-examination on it. This is still pretty much all off the cuff.

I think that what it comes down to is that many, many people think that we all read in just one way, and that this way is the way we all read. That way, of course, is to read to gather “information.” But the problem is that we simply can’t read everything that way with any production, and in fact we don’t; most of us do not read novels the way we read a newspaper or an encyclopedia entry, or a self-help book, or a technical manual. When we read for “information” we have no investment in the material itself. There’s no spiritual investment, and no emotional investment, and perhaps not even any physical or material investment, given the preference that most seem to have for electronic and virtual media for informational reading.

Because of this, people are under the impression that information and data and facts is all that reading counts for. But not every book is an encyclopedia of information, and this is especially so with sacred works and scriptures. We can’t read the Bible like an encyclopedia all the time, although of course we might have reason to do that for various purposes (like Bible classes or church indoctrinations, and so forth). But even in these environments, reading the Bible only in the way we would read an encyclopedia article really is to distort and misread it, because it overemphasizes the literalness of the ipsissima verba, the actual words on the page, at the expense of the vox or “voice” of the text that is only revealed through a different kind of reading.

This kind of reading is poetic and metaphoric. In order to get to what the Bible says in any given passage, we need to read it as if we’re reading poetry. We have to be able to hear its voice and not simply see its words. Realizing that Jesus’ parables are metaphors that draw from the stock of the real life of a first century agricultural society dominated by imperial forces in both local and regional governance opens up his parables in ways that “informational” and “factual” readings cannot. Realizing that the Revelation’s descriptions of armies of locusts are neither literal nor analogical (meaning they’re not real armored bugs or John’s misunderstandings of what tanks look like) but a metaphorical, poetic stock description of massively sized destructive armies that comes from the Hebrew Bible frees us from wooden and deterministic readings of the text.

So the way I read the Bible, and other scriptures like the Qur’an, the Mishnah, the Vedas, Avesta, and whatever else, is mostly a poetic reading. Whatever “information” these texts contain is largely incidental. The ancient writers and compilers of Scriptures did not focus on our modern ways of persuasion by information, facts, and data, and while this type of rhetorical persuasion is probably the dominant strategy of authors today, we can’t expect their ancient counterparts to have cared about the same.