The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 4/14/2009
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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"The Bible and the social and moral consequences that derive from its interpretation are all too important to be left in the hands of the pious or the experts, and too significant to be ignored and trivialized by the uninformed and indifferent.

Table of Contents

Apologia ix
PART ONE Opening the Bible
What's It All About?
A Matter of Interpretation
The Bible in America
PART TWO The Use and Abuse of the Bible
Hard Texts and Changing Times
The Bible and Race: The Moral Imagination
The Bible and Anti-Semitism: Christianity's Original Sin
The Bible and Women: The Conflicts of Inclusion
The Bible and Homosexuality: The Last Prejudice
PART THREE The True and Lively Word
The Bible and the Good Life
The Bible and Suffering
The Bible and Joy
The Bible and Evil
The Bible and Temptation
The Bible and Wealth
The Bible and Science
The Bible and Mystery
Afterword 348(6)
Notes 354(23)
Index 377


The Good Book
Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart

Chapter One

What's it all about?

Many years ago when I began my service as minister in Harvard's Memorial Church, an anonymous benefactor offered to present as many Bibles as were needed to fill the pews. No particular translation was specified, and no objections were made to the Revised Standard Version. Before proceeding 'too far along the road of this benefaction I felt it wise to take the advice of some colleagues, and I found their reaction to be apprehensive, and in fact quite suspicious of the motivation behind the gift. "What does the benefactor want or expect?" I was asked, and warned that placing Bibles in the pews would create an invitation to steal them. Further, I was warned that "people will think that this is a fundamentalist church. If they see Bibles in the pews you will have an image problem." My colleagues and counselors meant well, I knew, and wished only to protect the church from secular and religious zealots. These concerns notwithstanding, however, we accepted the gift, placed the Bibles in the pews, and, happily, over the years we have lost quite a few to theft.

A Nodding Acquaintance

One of the more embarrassing social situations, upon which even Miss Manners and other arbiters of social etiquette have failed to provide a useful strategy, is the one in which you have more than a nodding acquaintance with someone. At the point of introduction you got the person's name, forgot it, asked it again, and forgot it again. Meanwhile you go on meeting this person, chatting and being chatted with, but you have clearly passed beyond the point where you can ask for the name again. It is easy enough to maintain the facade of friendship until that awful moment comes when you are required to introduce your nameless friend to a third party. What to do? I have seen artful evasions such as "Surely you two know each other?" followed by a discreet withdrawal while they got on with the job themselves, leaving you unexposed. Another stratagem is to avoid the risk of introduction altogether by declaring emphatically, "Ah! Here's an old friend!" What we should know, pretend that we know, and wish that we knew, we don't. Worse still, we do not know, without risk of embarrassment, how to ask about what we need to know.

This, I suggest, is the way it is with so many people and the Bible. Once, perhaps a long time ago in childhood or in early youth, or even as late as in college, you were introduced. You have a nodding acquaintance with the Bible, or at least you feel you ought to, and you can recognize some familiar phrases, especially if they "sound" like the King James Version of the Bible; yet, to all intents and purposes, the Bible remains an elusive, unknown, slightly daunting book. It is awkward to concede that you don't know very much about the Bible, given its cultural prominence, and it is difficult to figure out how to get reintroduced without conceding your illiteracy. Perhaps the lament I have heard more and more frequently in recent years is the one that says, "I wish I knew more about the Bible."

Poll after poll continues to find the Bible atop every best-seller list, and one survey after another confirms the fact that an astonishingly high percentage of American households claims not only to own a Bible, but to read it on a regular basis. Hardly a hotel room in the world is without a copy of the Bible in the bedside table, placed there courtesy of the Gideons; and through the unremitting efforts of the Wycliffe Society the Bible has been translated into nearly every language on earth. There are Bibles for women, Bibles for children, Bibles for Asians, Bibles for African Americans. There are so many translations, paraphrases, revisions, and editions now available, many of which are the products of the last twenty years, that the market for the Bible may well be saturated. In the introduction to their 1983 study of twentieth-century English versions of the Bible, So Many Versions?, Sakae Kubo and Walter F. Specht observe, "Some people are of the opinion that there is a 'glut' of translations on the market today. Some feel it is time to call a halt to the work of translation for a while until we absorb the flood of recent translations."

Despite the ubiquity of the Good Book, it is increasingly clear that the rate of biblical literacy has gone down rather than up. A recent American poll conducted by the Barna Research Group discovered that 10 percent of the sample of more than one thousand persons polled said that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, 16 percent were convinced that the New Testament contained a book by the Apostle Thomas, and 38 percent were of the view that both the Old and New Testaments were written a few years after Jesus' death. These replies are worthy of the old Sunday school howler in which the epistles are defined as the wives of the apostles. The president of the polling firm commented, "Clearly, most people don't know what to make of the Bible. Adults constantly gave us answers which contradicted or conflicted with previous replies." It is not that people lie about their knowledge of the Bible; it is that they often feel that in order to maintain their moral credibility they must reply in the affirmative when questioned by pollsters, since most believe that they ought to read it. Many of these modern Christians are much like the Emperor Charlemagne who, it is said, slept with a copy of Saint Augustine's magnum opus, The City of God, under his pillow in the hope that this passive proximity to a great but difficult work might be of some benefit to him.

Hearing the Word

Hearing the Bible in church presumably helps people become better acquainted with it...

The Good Book
Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart
. Copyright © by Peter Gomes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter J. Gomes
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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