Can the Bible survive its friends?
That question occurred to me again after Mike Johnson of Louisiana was elevated to Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Asked about his approach to governing by Sean Hannity of Fox News, he said, “Someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘It’s curious, people are curious: what does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it — that’s my worldview.’ That’s what I believe, and so I make no apologies for it.”
He didn’t mean the Bible exactly. He meant his reading of the Bible, a reading of the Bible guided by assumptions that are dubious and of recent origin. These assumptions include the notion that anyone who can read can pick up a Bible—in translation, of course—and find in it directives for matters of contemporary controversy. It’s the Bible as rule book. Or better, as a handbook for Christians. In his “Answers for Our Times” seminar, Johnson says that the Bible is an “‘owner’s manual’ for ‘how things are supposed to operate’” (quoting from David Corn, Mother Jones, October 28, 2023).
As it turns out, Johnson’s Bible seems to support a panoply of right-wing positions: for individual responsibility, capitalism, limited government, and the traditions of the white European West; against same sex marriage, divorce, abortion, and governmental support for those in need. He is an unabashed Christian nationalist (see, among many recent writers making this point, Katelyn Fossett’s Politico interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez: Du Mez).
If you have read the Bible, you know it isn’t actually much like this. The only way to make the Bible into a screed for right-wing politics is to read it selectively, picking texts here and there that, devoid of context, seem to support Johnson’s views. Jesus didn’t wear a MAGA cap. He was on the other side of things: a member of an oppressed people living in a land occupied by a foreign autocratic empire.
In the earlier testament, the prophets measure the faithfulness of ancient Israel by how the society supported the poor and dispossessed. It’s Amos who says:
Hear this, you who trample the needy
And do away with the poor of the land. . .
Buying the poor with silver
And the needy for a pair of sandals. . . (8:4,6)
But then the Bible is not so much a rule book as a conversation. Even in those sections of the Bible that seem to consist mostly of rules, there’s an internal conversation about just what the rules are: Deuteronomy rewriting Exodus, the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) with its emphasis on purity contrasted with the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:19) and its emphasis on relationships, Jesus contrasting his righteousness with that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), and more.
And there are broader conversations. Much of the Old Testament is arranged around the fall of Jerusalem in the early 6th century BCE. From that period and after comes a rich variety of theological commentary, from the prophetic perspective found in, say, the books of Deuteronomy and Micah, to the wisdom perspective represented in the book of Job, to the reinterpretation of the prophetic perspective in Isaiah 40-55. And, of course, the broadest conversation of all takes place between the Old and New Testaments. And within the New Testament, there is a lively conversation among the four gospels.
As interpreters of the Bible, we are invited to join these conversations. I’ve long illustrated this by contrasting Genesis 1:2, where darkness is said to be uncreated—the absence of light, the primordial chaos—with Isaiah 45:7, where it is expressly said that Yhwh creates darkness as well as light. In the first case, God does not bring bad things into our lives. Bad things are the absence of created order, a tear in the fabric of the created universe. In the second, God does the ripping. God creates both s̆ālôm (shalom, “wellbeing”) and ra` (evil). We enter this conversation on one side or the other whenever disaster strikes. Is it, as some will have it, all in God’s plan? Then your text is Isaiah 45:7. Or is it, as others will insist, the intrusion into God’s good universe of forces outside of it? Then your text is Genesis 1:2.
Perhaps in some sense we need both explanations. And any theology that would exclude one or the other of these ways of understanding God and evil is therefore too narrow, narrower, at least, than the Bible itself.
The likes of Mike Johnson seems to have little room in his understanding of the Bible for these intra-biblical conversations and complexities. He seems to regard the Bible as divorced from history—a divine artifact inserted into the time-bound world by God but not itself subject to time. This view of revelation suits Islam better than Christianity. In the Christian view, the Bible is fully human, written over a long period of time in ordinary language by ordinary people, some of whose names we know and some not. Its concerns are addressed to time and place. As readers of the Bible we must constantly carry on a dialogue between that time and our time, those assumptions and our assumptions, that history and our history. And in that dialogue—so we believe—the Spirit speaks, and we hear the voice of God.
The church has always known this. From the earliest reflections on biblical interpretation in the church, the church has known that the Bible must always be read in two ways. One is focused on the text as we have it. The ancient called this sort of reading historia. It does not mean “historical” but rather “ordinary,” reading as one would read any book, following the rules of grammar and meaning. It takes the text for what it seems to be saying.
Contrary to what may be preached in the average evangelical church, huge advances have been made in this sort of reading over the past five centuries, since the Renaissance. Scholars have applied the tools of historical and philological research to the Bible, and as a result, we understand the Bible in new ways. Modern biblical studies are a product of this approach to reading the Bible.
But the church has also always understood that a second way of reading the Bible is also required. This way of reading the Bible bears many names—”allegory,” for example, in the past or “literary” today. I prefer another ancient word, theoria. Theoria means “contemplation,” but the emphasis should not be on the reader, on what we do. This way of reading is not so much we do as what the Bible does. If one is open to it—being open is the theoria, contemplation, part of this sort of reading—then the Bible in ways quite strange and unpredictable will speak directly. This is not only true of the Bible. All good writing has this characteristic. It speaks to us, we say, not quite sure what exactly that means. But for us, Christians, Jews, when the Bible speaks, it speaks with the voice of God.
That is, and this is important—perhaps the most important thing that I will say in this piece—it sometimes speaks with the voice of God. Or, perhaps better, it speaks with the voice of God but only sometimes do we hear it for what it is. And so, we are required for this way of reading the Bible to ask constantly of what we hear in the Bible: “Is that you, Lord?”
It’s this question, the “Is that you, Lord?” question, that the church has been asking for all the years of its existence—a long and rich tradition of listening to the Bible. Over the years, we have heard God say to what we thought we heard in the Bible: “No, that’s not me.” We have heard God say that with regard to slavery, for example. For a long time, the church heard God to say that slavery was part of the structure of human society, as much a part of it as, say, marriage. But the church kept asking the question: “Is this you, Lord?” And more and more over time, the church heard the answer from the Lord: “No, that’s not me. Slavery has no place in my world.”
Now the church is asking the same question for what it thought it heard about homosexuality: that God abhorred gay sex and perhaps queer people. But now at least some of us have heard the Lord say: “No, that’s not me.”
How do we decide such things? We decide them in conversation, conversation with the Bible and conversation with what we have learned and continue to learn in our time, and conversation with each other, the readers of the Bible. This conversation includes both historia—reading the Bible carefully with all the tools of reading available to us—and theoria—assuming the stance of listening, always asking: “Is this you, Lord?” Over time, if are faithful to this way of reading the Bible, the answer will become clearer and clearer. Or so I believe.
So let me come back to my question: will the Bible survive its friends? When people like Mike Johnson assert that their viewpoint is what the Bible says, then those who deeply disagree with what he believes are likely to think that the Bible along with Mike Johnson stands opposed to them. And if they believe that the Bible is on the wrong side, they will be inclined to dismiss it. And with their dismissal of the Bible, they will also dismiss the God who speaks from its pages.
Even so, I’m sure that the Bible will survive the likes of Mike Johnson. I believe so because some people will do what he suggests: read it. And when they do, they will discover in the Bible a world quite different from the world of right-wing politics and quite wonderful. And if they are invited into the conversation that has continued around and with the Bible for some two thousand years, they will discover that with the Bible and within that long conversation is an uncanny voice, a voice saying to us: “Yes, this is me.” And they will hear in that voice, an invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).