Bible cheat sheet

I’ve been using the “Bible Study Cheat Sheet” below in my Unitarian Universalist Bible study groups. I’m about to put it through another revision, and thought I’d post it here and see what kind of reaction it gets from you, dear readers….

Bible Study for Religious Liberals ~ Cheat Sheet

Ask: Where are the women? Often, those who wrote the Bible tend to diminish the role of women. Yet often the women are there, if you just look for them. (And sometimes the Bible gives us the actual words women wrote or spoke or sang.) Our assumption: the Bible was not originally intended to keep women down, but later editors and commentators and churchmen have interpreted it that way.

Ask: Where are the poor and the dispossessed? Some of the stories in the bible are about kings, and queens, and rich and powerful people. But frequently Bible stories tell about ordinary people like shepherds, carpenters, and laborers. Our assumption: originally the Bible was written to be meaningful to all people, no matter what their socio-economic status, but later editors and commentators and churchmen have interpreted it differently.

Ask: How are the experts biassed? Various self-proclaimed experts have interpreted the Bible as supporting slavery in the United States, subjugation of women, ongoing racism, homophobia, etc. Such experts include: scholars who translate the Bible out of the original languages; preachers; pundits. Our assumption: any time you come across a person who claims to know something about the Bible (including Unitarian Universalist ministers; including yourself!), that person is going to have some kind of bias.

Above all, ask: What does this have to do with my life? Lots of people claim they have the exclusive right to interpret the Bible. These people will claim their interpretation is the only correct one and then try to shove it down our throats. But there’s no reason to pay any attention to those people. Great literature like the Bible does not have one simple-minded interpretation, because great literature interacts with the specifics of our individual lives. Our assumption: the Bible, like any great work of literature, is supposed to make our lives better — richer, more humane, more grounded in compassion.

Notes for Bible geeks: The first item is basic feminist theology, making the case for a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion. The second item is basic liberation theology, introducing the hermeneutical privilege of the poor to a First World audience. The third item uses tools from critical theory for a critique of domination and power in Biblical studies. The fourth item is standard Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutics. The whole cheat sheet comes out of a functionalist view of religion, and a critical theory perspective.

3 thoughts on “Bible cheat sheet

  1. fausto

    I think you should put the third question first, and use it to introduce the whole idea of hermeneutics, and the range of possible hermeneutical approaches, before introducing any specific heremutics such as feminist or liberationist. It will probably be an epiphany to many students just to realize that what they had previously been told about the Bible was probably only one narrow hermeneutical approach to the text, rather than the text speaking for itself.

    I think there’s a danger in broad statements such as, “the Bible was written to…”, or, “…was not originally intended to…”. One of the important points about the Bible is that it’s not a single seamless work; it’s a an anthology of the work of many different writers and redactors writing to different audiences and in different circumstances over the span of more than a thousand years. The original texts were written for many different purposes and with many different intentions.

    I also think there’s a danger in lumping “later editors” (presumably, you mean the redactors of the Hebrew scriptures, who placed the texts in their final form) in with “commentators and churchmen” (who, usually much later, applied their own hermeneutics to the texts).

  2. Dan

    fausto — Thanks for the great comments. Yep, third item could definitely go first.

    And yes, there’s a danger in making broad statements, there’s a danger in lumping together all the people I’ve lumped together — but in an introductory-level bible study, I believe there’s a bigger danger in introducing too much scholarly detail, to the point where the Bible gets lost in Bible scholarship. This is a pedagogical argument — I want people to get excited about the Bible, enough so that they actually read it and make it their own, and I am willing to generate that excitement at the expense of a certain amount of accuracy. Then you hope that people stick with Bible study long enough to learn the kind of details you’re bringing up.

    You could also make the argument made by the liberation theologians working with base communities in South and Central America — the Bible belongs to the people, not to the scholars. Facts about the Bible are important, but it’s far more important that the Bible be owned by the people, and used in daily life. Since I’m working in the “First World,” I will however not make that argument.

  3. will shetterly

    I agree with Fausto about “The Books” themselves, but many translations were written with a single purpose. The KJV is a prime example; James is on record as hating the democratic leaning of the Geneva Bible.

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