Drew Hart, as a guest on this week’s The Bible for Normal People podcast, discusses the way African American churches tend to embrace a certain “canon within the canon”– basically, certain biblical passages take on iconic meaning in these spaces that may be very different from many white churches. It’s possible, for example, that even though both white churches and black churches have more or less the same Bible in their pews and pulpit (depending on what our standards are for “same”), the passages that circulate the most in either of these types of churches might end up being significantly different.
This got me to reflect a bit more on what is my Bible-within-the-Bible? What are the key passages that I return to again and again? What passages do I consider the difficult ones? And what passages do I use to interpret the difficult ones? While some inerrantists might argue that, in theory, every sentence has equal authority, I imagine that there’s a disparity between sermons on Psalm 137 and Psalm 23. Might there even be a disparity between references to Romans 7 and Romans 14–depending on the church community? All this is to say, I believe that our communities all probably favor a Bible-within-the-Bible– all faith communities have their “pet verses” that take on more authority than the others.
Bibles-within-the-Bible may be one of the most important unnamed barriers that get between people from different theological contexts, frustrating their conversation, disrupting the possibility for shared meaning: even if we can discuss different approaches to the Bible, there still remains the possibility that we are working with different Bibles-within-this-Bible, and what’s more, it’s these “nested Bibles” that actually inform our actions and our beliefs on the most important levels– simply put, we aren’t organizing our churches around the passages we never cite.
Over the years, especially within the past few, my Bible-within-the-Bible has evolved. I’ve come to believe that I had based my actions and life on a few key passages in the Bible at the expense of others. This is what I had been taught to do. My early Bible-within-the-Bible committed me to certain interpretations of other passages. I would say much of my early Christian thinking was marked by a Proverbs-driven Bible, while these days, much of my Christian thinking is marked by a “liberation prophecy”-driven Bible. And either of these Bibles led to very different interpretations of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Proverbs-Driven Bible in the Bible
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” It’s not just that I like food, though that may be an important factor in why I’ve been so drawn to this passage all my life. But early in my life this passage took on a meaning for me that is very different from the meaning it has for me today. My early Bible-within-the-Bible interpreted this passage through a Proverbs perspective. Here’s what I mean: Take, for example the wisdom of Proverbs 11:30-31 (NIV)
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
and the one who is wise saves lives.
If the righteous receive their due on earth,
how much more the ungodly and the sinner!
As a teenager seeking to conform his life to God’s commandments, this passage and others led me to assume that much of the meaning of the Gospel and the Bible was in reference to my own personal righteousness; and as my culture seemed to define it, righteousness was something a lot like “purity.” As a middle school boy righteousness-as-purity meant being wary of my sexuality. Righteousness-as-purity meant being careful about the music I listened to. It meant not swearing. In high school and college it meant steering clear of alcohol and tobacco. It meant diligently finding a church once I got to college. And of course, it always meant BEING CAREFUL ABOUT THE COMPANY I KEPT– because bad company corrupts good character. I hunger for righteousness-as-purity in my personal prayer life, praying through Romans 7 over and over again, asking for forgiveness for my impurities involving sexuality, subtances, language, and friends. Righteousness as purity has its fulfillment in Christ’s death on the cross by washing me clean of all my personal impurities, and I can move forward with my day knowing that no matter what I did last night to my body, through my spiritual engagement with Christ (or his spiritual engagement with me) I can know in my mind and feel in my soul that I am truly and spiritually clean. That knowledge is good news.
Verses that allowed me to read this notion of righteousness ended up being the ones I defined my actions around. It was in this way that I approached Romans 7: “ For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” This epitomized what I imagined hungering and thirsting for righteousness meant. Being filled would involve my eventual conformity to a life of purity.
Liberation Prophecy-Driven Bible in the Bible
The Proverbs-driven Bible-in-the-Bible would have me read some sentences over and over and over again, meditating on them, allowing them to structure all my thinking; while other passages I’d read over quickly, because they didn’t exactly give me what I was looking for. So I didn’t spend a lot of my time allowing the Hebrew prophets to shape my thinking, because they didn’t exactly speak to the piety and purity I thought was central to the Gospel.
What about when we take into account the fact that the Proverbs passages in the Bible are often an object of struggle and tension, particularly for the Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah? For example, doesn’t Jeremiah call God out on the fact that real life does not resemble the simple wisdom in the Proverbs?
I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root;
they grow and bear fruit. (Jeremiah 12: 1-2 NIV)
This adds dialogic tension to the readings of the Bible that overcomplicated my simple understanding of the Gospel. How does this speak to my quest for purity and piety?
Or what about Isaiah? When something like fasting could be seen as a symbol or purity and piety, he asks:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58: 6-7 NIV)
These passages were a bit too heavy for a simple Proverbs reading– often leaving me with overwhelming boredom, or sometimes guilt (which would send me back to Romans 7, allowing me to rest in the peace that no matter how oppressive I am, God will forgive me). But what if I were to move on past a Proverbs reading of this? What if I took this passage as the Bible-within-the-Bible?
Well, for one, it would change my interpretation of “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Knowing especially that “righteousness” could just as easily translated it as “justice” (See Wolterstorff, 2006)
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.”
When I think of this justice as the loosening of chains, the untying of cords, my Bible-in-the-Bible starts to take on a new shape. When David prayferully reflects in Psalm 23 that “He leads me in paths of righteousness” I no longer think simply about my own purity and piety, but I think more broadly about justice and liberation for the oppressed. Psalm 137, which really has no place in a Proverbs-oriented Bible-within-the-Bible, now begins to take a central space in my Bible in the Bible– resembling what it means for the oppressed to hunger and thirst for liberative justice. And Romans 7 loses its prominence to Romans 14 which illustrates the way Paul placed more value of the social order of the church than each camp’s definitions of purity and piety.
So in our dialogue with one another, I think it helps to consider that we aren’t just dealing with different ways of reading the Bible or different ways of valuing the Bible; we are also possibly dealing with different Bibles-within-the-Bible. I think it is a fact that your church not only has its own cherished verses, but also cherished ways of reading those verses which impacts every subsequent interpretations of any other passage. If this is true, then it would help to begin to articulate and own our Bible-within-the-Bible. And maybe even allow our conversation partners to get us to consider other Bibles in the big and confusing book. We’re not, after all, reading all these words at once; and really, if we’re honest, we’re probably not even reading all the words.