Point of View
How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bible
by Becky Ankeny
"The Bible is inspired by God, both in the writing and in the reading."
As a child, I tried to read the Bible (KJV) through yearly and often made it, chugging through three chapters a weekday and five on Sunday. Psalm 119, the longest "chapter," meant a bleak day for a third-grader. I loved the stories, but the Bible was like a landscape photograph — all flattened out, no nuances — and more burdensome than inspiring. Learning to read with intelligence, imagination, and openness turned the Bible into a three-dimensional landscape well worth traveling through.
How did the Bible become full of height, depth, and breadth to me? Four books taught me how to read the Bible. The Meaning of the City by Jacques Ellul taught me to use intelligence to see that the Bible had "themes" that held it together as a single revelation, even through its multiple voices. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter taught me to ask imaginative questions about the stories I read: why is this story here and why is it told in this way?
Understanding the Old Testament by Bernhard W. Anderson opened my eyes to the complex relationship between text and cultural context and helped me find meaning I had missed by not knowing that dialogue. Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence challenged my idea that certain activities like reading the Bible were "spiritual" and others, like washing floors, were not; my daily life did not need to be compartmentalized between the sacred and the mundane; my family relationships, my housework, my teaching, my washing diapers were also acts done in the presence of God. This understanding removed the superstitious aspect of Bible reading, making the Bible more an invitation and less an obligation.
As an English professor, I notice storytelling — who tells the story, who hears the story, how the characters change, how the story gets repeated within itself and in other stories. When I taught Genesis to an adult Sunday school class, we set aside the divisive issue of the earth’s age; instead, we asked, "Since God inspired this story, and it is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction, what picture does it give of God and God’s relationship to humans? How do I learn better to do and be what God wants?" We had fun exploring Genesis, a sad, surprising, even humorous revelation of God’s constant graciousness to humans.
Recently, I taught Sunday school on the theme of marriage. From 1 Peter, we went back to Abraham and Sarah, worked our way through the record of levirate marriage, concubinage, polygamy, adultery, and other puzzles, and found no ideal marriages depicted in the Bible; every one has some sort of flaw. Because we read intelligently and imaginatively, we became more aware that God works with humans where they are, that God’s graciousness includes our imperfections, and that God has never faced the issue of how to reward that perfect marriage.
Reading in these ways uncovers unexpected truth that can broaden one’s understanding of God. While studying marriage, I realized that Hagar, the Egyptian concubine of Abraham, mother of Ishmael, met God personally two times in the desert, and God led her to water and promised to take care of her and her son and to make them a nation — demonstrating that God cares about every person, not just the chosen few. In a world where the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are at war, this points to right thinking about whom God loves.
The Bible is inspired by God, both in the writing and in the reading. God permits questions, encourages imagination, and works through historical and social context in order to invite the reader into relationship. The Bible consistently teaches and shows that God is unfailingly gracious to human beings, and that is good news.
Becky Ankeny is associate vice president for academic affairs.