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I don’t know about you but I grew up with this nagging thought in the back of my mind when I read my Bible: am I doing it right?

As a recovering perfectionist, I am learning that “doing it right” isn’t actually the point of reading the Bible. The challenge of course is that many of us read the Bible with different purposes in mind, so “right” is relative. If I am teaching at a university and am trained in biblical scholarship, my purpose for reading the Bible is often about trying to understand the history of the Bible, who wrote it, and under what circumstances. If my interests are about seeing how the Bible is literature, my idea of reading it “right” will look differently.

To state the obvious, most of us aren’t Bible professors or literary critics. 

What is our purpose for reading it then? 

If you’re like me, we grew up with this purpose: the Bible has information in it that will help me live like God wants me to and it’s my job to get that information and put it into practice. 

So, we want to know how the Bible applies to our life right now. But considering the Bible wasn’t written to us, to our culture, or to the modern-day, this poses a problem. How do we appropriate someone else’s story (the OT) and someone else’s mail (the NT)? Lately, I’ve been wondering if “respect” isn’t a helpful way of thinking about it.

That is, when we are trying to appropriate something that was primarily intended for someone else, getting it “right” might depend on how well we respect the process. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about three questions that help me better judge whether my reading of the Bible, when I’m reading it to discern what it means to be faithful to God today, is toward the “right” end of the spectrum or toward the “wrong” end of the spectrum.

Does it respect the original voice?

Unfortunately, when we read for what it means for us today, we don’t get to ignore the original voices. It is still important to take our time and energy to understand the historical, cultural, and literary contexts of the Bible. In this case, respect is given when we pay attention to the original author and their original hearers before trying to ask what it means for us today. Now, that’s not to say we have to agree with it all to respect it. See, for example, Phyllis Trible’s masterful book Texts of Terror. In other words, to read the Bible we can’t just “make it mean whatever we want it to mean.”

Does it respect my community’s voice?

This is where my tradition got it wrong, I might suggest humbly. I was taught that to respect the Bible was to lose your own voice, experience, feelings, and contemporary situation. As a community of faith in the 21st century, we are asking different questions, have different knowledge, and find ourselves in different challenges than the original hearers. How well does my reading allow for advances in science, psychology, ethics, and sociology? If it doesn’t then it might not be a good reading.

Does it respect my neighbor?

This is, of course, the best standard for reading the Bible. The challenge, of course, is coming to an agreement on what is loving to our neighbor. But if we don’t start with that as our goal, and keep it as the rubric we use to judge our reading of the Bible, we are transgressing the basic teachings of Jesus. For in Matthew 22, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied that it was to love God and that the second was like it, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Does our reading of the Bible consistently produce loving actions? If not, we may want to reconsider how we interpret.

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