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Back in 2016, Al Mohler wrote about “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy” and some of the statistics he cites are difficult to swallow. For instance, a survey of “graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.” Yikes. This is especially cringe-worthy considering that in 2016, 73.7% of Americans identified as Christians.

However, for me, the real danger isn’t in not knowing the Bible but in not knowing how to use the Bible. For me, respecting the Bible isn’t just about knowing what’s in it but using it in a respectful way. As a kid, I got the impression that the Bible had some magical property whereby just simply reading it, you became more spiritual. What I didn’t realize is that no one “just reads” the Bible. We are always interpreting, always filtering, always “picking and choosing,” and ultimately, having to live our lives outside the pages of Scripture.

So how do we respect Scripture? Here are a few things to consider from my experience:

We respect Scripture when we acknowledge our baggage. In my tradition, the way to signal your respect for the Bible was to insist that you don’t interpret it, you just read it. This was respectful because it posited that the Bible is simple to understand. But as much as we want reading the Bible to be simple, it’s just not. And much oppression has occurred by thinking it is. Why? Because when we assume the Bible is simple, we don’t look at all the ways we have been shaped and conditioned to read it through a particular lens. We go about our lives thinking that there is only one way to read the Bible and it happens to be the way we were taught to read it.

Think of reading the Bible as a relationship. We wouldn’t call it respectful if someone in a relationship didn’t recognize what they bring to the conversation and the relationship. That’s called a lack of self-awareness and in its worst forms, can be toxic or abusive. The Bible is no different. If we don’t own our stuff, our relationship with the Bible can be toxic and can hurt others. 

Instead, when we acknowledge that interpreting and applying a literary text to our lives is a complex thing, and when we acknowledge that our background, upbringing, personality, and Christian tradition all color how we read the Bible, then we can respect the Bible for what it is (and isn’t). 

We respect Scripture when we acknowledge its context. Respecting Scripture is about acknowledging that it takes a lot of work to read it well. Why else do you think there are hundreds of “How to Read Your Bible” books out there? Why else would we respect the hundreds of biblical scholars who write commentaries and articles to help us understand the context? Finding ourselves in Scripture is difficult because it wasn’t written to us.

Perhaps it is for us, but it certainly wasn’t to us.

As we often say, reading the Bible is like reading someone else’s mail.

Again, thinking of the Bible as a relationship can help. When we think we know someone so well that there’s nothing left to learn, we can start to take them for granted. And for me, not continuing to learn about someone’s past, context, dynamics, patterns, what makes them tick and why, can be a form of disrespect. We respect Scripture when we admit we always have more to learn about the social, cultural, political, and historical contexts in which it was written. 

We respect Scripture when we acknowledge its limitations. Lastly, we respect Scripture when we accept its limitations. As we learn about all the contexts we talked about above, we recognize the Bible, whatever it is, is thoroughly a product of its time and place. The writers use the symbols, metaphors, politics, and ethics of a particular time to talk about profound spiritual realities. It was never meant to be a science textbook and it can’t possibly hold up to modern standards of historical accuracy. Just like in any healthy relationship, respecting the Bible isn’t about insisting it be perfect but learning to love it as it is.

Jared Byas, M.A.

As a former teaching pastor and professor of philosophy and biblical studies, he speaks regularly on the Bible, truth, creativity, wisdom, and the Christian faith. Tweets at @jbyas