Only 36 percent of Americans say they engage the Bible on a daily or weekly basis, even though 6 in 10 claim they want to read it. The disparity is due, in part, to people claiming they don’t understand the language, background, or history of the Bible and feel too busy to sort it all out.
But Harvey Cox, 85, an iconic theologian who taught at Harvard Divinity School for more than four decades, is trying to remedy this. In “How to Read the Bible,” reveals three primary ways of reading the Bible. Many lay people read it devotionally, attempting to extract inspiration and guidance. Bible scholars read it critically, attempting to excavate the meaning through historical and literary approached. Between these two are those who read the Bible contextually, combining criticism with history and spiritual significance. While there is no single right way to read the Scripture, Cox says, some ways are better than others. Here we discuss his thinking and how it can help every day Bible readers.
RNS: You say that the ethos of the 21st century is a mingling of the sacred and secular. Explain.
HC: Not long ago many thoughtful observers confidently predicted that by the end of the 20th century religion would either disappear or shrink to a marginal shadow in a world of science and technological advance. That did not happen. Instead, for blessing and for bane, we have witnessed an unexpected and global resurgence in nearly every religious tradition. Yet key values of the modern secular world such as human rights, democracy and freedom of religion remain powerful, if often threatened. Increasing numbers of people seem able to combine religious and secular elements in their own lives. Many refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Popular music, films, literature and political movements exhibit both religious and secular qualities. The old sharp opposition between the sacred and secular seems less distinct. Possibly we can now see the former dichotomy as belonging to one passing phase of history and recognize that we now live in a sacred/secular era.
RNS: You talk about reading the Bible as narrative. What does this mean and how is this different from the way most people read it?