The Bible in America: What Is the Bible For?

The questions we’ve been wrestling with for the past few weeks here at ILYBYGTH concern the nature, function, and meanings of the Bible in Fundamentalist America.

As I’ve admitted, I do not get it.  But I make no claim to be a Bible believer, at least not in the sense most conservative Christians mean.  I do know that if we hope to understand life in Fundamentalist America, we need to understand the ways Fundamentalist America understands the idea of “the Bible.”  Many of the non-Fundamentalists and anti-Fundamentalists I meet assume that reliance on the Bible as a source of morality and knowledge must imply a certain closedmindedness.  For many folks outside the boundaries of Fundamentalist America, the two sides in America’s rumbling culture wars are precisely that: on one side are openminded intellects who rely on Science and Reason; on the other side are militant Fundamentalists who depend on Scripture and Tradition.

If we want to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to probe beyond those political stereotypes.  Yesterday, Peter Leithart shared some thoughts on the use and meanings of the Bible on First Things.  My hunch is that Dr. Leithart would reject the label “fundamentalist.”  Nevertheless, his exposition What is the Bible For? will help outsiders understand what the Bible can be for in Fundamentalist America.

As Leithart agrees,

The Bible rarely lives up to our ordinary standards of practicality. Page after page is given over to genealogical lists of obscure people whose only role is to be a human bridge between famous ancestors and notorious descendants. A third of Exodus is nothing but verbal blueprints for building the tabernacle and the first quarter of Leviticus contains detailed regulations concerning sacrifice. Two lengthy chapters of Leviticus diagnose the varieties of skin disease that cause impurity. It seems so tedious, and even when the Bible holds our interest, it doesn’t seem very useful. Stories of plagues, exodus, and wars of utter destruction make for juicy reading, but how do they help one become virtuous? Why can’t the Bible be more relevant?

Both the problem and the solution, Leithart articulates, come not from the text but from the reader.  To understand the Bible, in his telling, we need to look at it as more than a old book:

Scripture is ethical paedeia, not an ethics manual. All Scripture is practical because God breathed all of it to form people, both individuals and community. God tells stories to stock our memory with a common moral past that projects his people into the future. God’s word expands our imagination to grasp more of what’s really there and to envision what might be there in the future. The Bible is useful because it opens our eyes, and because it’s highly impractical to walk through life with our eyes closed.

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