“How to Read the Bible”

August 16, 2009 at 10:53 pm (Christianity, God, moral issues, morality)

I have finished reading “How to Read the Bible” by Richard Holloway, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has given me lots of scholarly insights that I didn’t know, as well as some of the author’s own interesting thoughts. His writing style is very readable – it’s as formal as it needs to be, with the freshness of well-placed informalities lifting the tone. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the Bible – it’s very short and easy to read. And don’t be put off by him questioning the existence of God quite early on – it’s not written with an atheist agenda. 🙂

There are 5 “topics” that have come out of it for me and I think I’ll squeeze them all into one post:

  1. Idolatry
  2. Suffering in God’s cause
  3. Writing theology into history
  4. Morality in religion
  5. Psychology of Paul

1. Idolatry

“Jerusalem… became God’s greatest rival [for the affection of the Jews].” This brings back memories. Loving God’s gifts more than God himself is a danger that I was taught to be concerned about. In my church, worship just meant adoration, and so anyone or anything that we had a strong liking for became a potential idol. I put away a Lauryn Hill CD for the 40 days of Lent, for this reason. It seems like there could be other definitions of worship, though. I would love to hear yours, readers (if I still have any!)

The book describes Jesus as preaching a strict monotheism, which is a defining feature of Judaism and Islam (and arguably Christianity too). In Islam it is known as tawheed. I am interested in what violates it – to Christians, the Trinity (a 3-persons-in-1 view of God) does not, but to Muslims, it does. I think there is a difference between saying that Jesus was a human incarnation of God, and saying that there is more than one God. Even polytheism can bear some resemblance to monotheism when, like in Hinduism, there is one ultimate overarching reality known as God above all lesser deities. But all of these are categorically wrong from the points of view of Judaism and Islam, where God is utterly transcendent and nothing may be compared to him. I suppose what it boils down to in Islam and Judaism is that the worship of created things – nature, people, blessings, heaven, human creations – instead of the Creator offends God greatly. But again, it begs the question of what worship actually is.

2. Suffering in God’s cause

The book discusses the problem suffering poses to all faiths, which is beyond the scope of this post. I just wanted to note that it occurred to me lately that one of the huge obstacles to my submission to God, namely, fear that it will require me to suffer in some way beyond what I can deal with, makes a lot of sense in the face of a belief that even God’s own perfect son had to die for the sins of the world. Muslims say that God does not test us beyond what we can bear, but I don’t think I dare believe that. I know my own weakness too well.

3. Writing theology into history

The book discusses the aim or thesis of each of the gospel writers, and how this influenced their story-telling at the expense of historical accuracy in some cases. Christian theology as we know it today didn’t emerge until Paul converted, and it was then worked into the gospel stories retrospectively when they came to be written down. This sounds very dishonest, but I don’t get the impression from this book or from Idris Tawfiq the other day that it was intentional. It makes me wonder how easy it is to be faithful to history when we have a well-developed retrospective understanding of it. What might this say about hadiths for example?

4. Morality in religion

The link between God and goodness happened around the 8th century BCE. It was not always obvious that God cared about ethics. Previously people just made animal sacrifices to win the favour of God. But eventually an ethic of compassion emerged, which Holloway says Jesus later emphasised as the “universal human ethic”. In other words, our selfish side is bad and our altruistic side is good.

“Though he probably wasn’t a Marxist, God was certainly a socialist who wanted more mutuality and less competition in society.”

I think this is worth some more thought. Another post maybe.

The message of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Holloway says, is not some naive platitude but a subversive reversal of the existing brutal order of things. Jesus congratulates and values the destitute, the utterly powerless, those outside the “system”, and proclaims that they are innocent precisely because they are not implicated in a system of power which victimises people. They can turn the other cheek and so on because they have no need to react as those who have something to protect. That is still a hugely subversive message today, and something of an antidote to the Darwinian capitalistic mindset that has pervaded our societies.

In regard to religious moral codes and law, Jesus has a “general but not unconditional acceptance” of the temple cult. He is not a letter-of-the-law type. He is criticised for his relaxed approach to observing the Sabbath, for example. Holloway clearly approves:

“It is true that we need moral and religious systems to protect us from the chaos of our passions; but if we give them transcendent and unchanging authority they become a greater danger to us than the unfettered passions they are supposed to curb. An unalterable code can close us against ordinary pity for our fellows, and cause us to treat them not as humans, but as abstractions, as things.”

5. Psychology of Paul

A complex psychology lay behind Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity. What interested me was the idea that, as a zealous Jew with a strong and tortured sense of his own weakness and failure to live perfectly by the religious law that he so revered, he projected his self-hatred onto those who didn’t even try to live up to the letter of the law – i.e. the followers of Jesus. I can actually see something of myself in that. Paul could not be moderate about anything, and was clearly a perfectionist, which are tendencies I can relate to. I can also relate to the frustrated sense of failure and weakness, and so I can understand the projection of that self-loathing onto others who have similar failings or even worse, yet don’t seem to care.

Of course Paul then converted, and arrived at a solution for his angst in the idea that Jesus had fulfilled the law for him, something he could not do for himself. In taking Christianity outside of Judaism, Paul divorced the ritual from the moral, leaving the ritual behind, so that the “law” for Christians consists of moral exhortations only. This goes some way towards explaining why Christians regard themselves as “not under law” but at the same time make huge efforts to live up to a moral standard.

This 5-posts-in-1 has become pretty long, so I’ll stop there! I may repost this on my other blog at some point, so for anyone that reads that, apologies in advance for cross-posting.



  1. susanne430 said,

    Seems like an interesting book with lots of thought-provoking topics.

    So you think God is transcendent meaning you cannot know Him? Or that nothing can be compared to Him? I understand that to an extent, but how can we ever know anything about God and even how to reach Him if He is so far above us that He – in His grace and mercy – doesn’t make Himself known to us in human terms? It’s not like we are going to understand “Godspeak” if He fails to speak to us in ways we can relate. Even in the Old Testament God often compares Himself to things that we humans can understand (e.g. a Good Shepherd who cares for His sheep). I wouldn’t understand if God said, “I am soerifadsofajerswer,” but I do understand a Good Shepherd’s care and tenderness and protection over His flock. It’s God’s grace that let’s us know about Himself in terms we can understand in our limited minds.

    About suffering, we are promised that life won’t be easy, but God also promised He will never leave or forsake us and **His grace** is sufficient to meet our every need. Also when we are weak (in our flesh) then we are strong (because HE gives us strength to endure the hard times.)

    I agree with Holloway’s views on Jesus not being a letter-of-the-law type. It seems often times we get so caught up in all the externals that we forget about grace, mercy, kindness, forgiveness and unconditional love for others.

    I agree that Paul was a perfectionist. I think he kept the law pretty well when he was a Jew. At least he thought he did. (See Philippians 3:5,6) He was on his way to Damascus to persecute these heretics who DARED to worship Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

    I enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing these points for us to discuss.

  2. Sarah said,

    Hi Susanne,

    I wasn’t really presenting my own view of the nature of God, but yes, I think that creation can never really know its creator except to the extent that the creator reveals himself. So I also agree with you that it’s in God’s grace and mercy that he makes himself known in ways we can understand. All descriptions are ultimately inadequate, but they are all we have, and they do help us. In the same way that science is always an inadequate description of nature, but it is all we have to describe how nature works, and it does have some success in doing that. I’m sure we are in agreement!

    “when we are weak (in our flesh) then we are strong (because HE gives us strength to endure the hard times.)”

    This doesn’t always feel true. But maybe sometimes when it seems like we are not being given the strength to continue, it is because we are not supposed to continue: we are supposed to stop and ask ourselves how we got into this mess and then make some necessary changes. In other words, maybe sometimes we have to break. Maybe if God shielded us from that, in some cases, it wouldn’t benefit us.

    It seemed to me as if the Christians I knew expected life not to be easy, and perhaps even put up with more hardship than they needed to because of this expectation. For example, the people who remain unhappily single late into life and don’t do anything proactive about it, assuming God quite likely wants them to endure loneliness for some time and waiting for Him to clearly guide them to a partner. I respect the dedication, but I think sometimes we have to make changes ourselves.

    I do wonder where this idea that unhappiness is to be expected comes from. Is it because following Jesus means taking up your cross? I must say it made me weak at the knees. It’s odd because from the outside, Christianity is all about testimonies of blessing and joy.

    I hope this doesn’t offend you in any way, as I really appreciate your insights into things I’ve been puzzling over for a long time!

  3. susanne430 said,

    You wrote — “This doesn’t always feel true. But maybe sometimes when it seems like we are not being given the strength to continue, it is because we are not supposed to continue: we are supposed to stop and ask ourselves how we got into this mess and then make some necessary changes. In other words, maybe sometimes we have to break. Maybe if God shielded us from that, in some cases, it wouldn’t benefit us.”

    I’m not talking about messes we get ourselves into by our own wrong choices. I’m talking about suffering for Christ because the world system or people are against Him. One example that comes to mind is the suffering that some believers have endured because they dared to tell others about the salvation offered by Jesus. And still others have suffered because they have turned to Christ for their salvation. This is to what I was referring. NOT suffering we endure because we had an affair and now our family is torn apart or we got an STD and so forth.

    Not sure what to tell you about those you knew who were unhappily single. I’ve never come across those types. I think some people “like” to go around as if they are suffering because they think it’s godly. I think that’s really pride on their parts. When Jesus told his disciples to fast, he said NOT to go around like the Pharisees, but to wash their faces and to look normal so people wouldn’t even know they were fasting.

  4. susanne430 said,

    You wrote — “I do wonder where this idea that unhappiness is to be expected comes from. Is it because following Jesus means taking up your cross? I must say it made me weak at the knees. It’s odd because from the outside, Christianity is all about testimonies of blessing and joy.”

    If you reread my first comment, I never said anything about enduring **unhappiness**, only that we should expect to suffer. But we can suffer with JOY, in fact, that IS a characteristic of one who is abiding in Christ. From what do I base these things?

    Paul tells Timothy that all who “will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (II Timothy 3:12)

    He gets this from Jesus who tells us in John 15:20:

    “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

    and also in John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

    But then we are promised: Romans 15:13:

    “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”

    The fruit of living close to Christ is righteous, peace and JOY in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)

    We should not expect life to be easy and that God will make everything in life good since we are now following Christ, but we do have promises that in whatever we face, we can have the peace and joy of God that passes all human understanding. (see Philippians 4:6,7)

    This is why a true believer in Christ can go through horrible circumstances and still have that testimony of blessings and joy that you mentioned.

    You were not offensive at all. Thank you so much for sharing your honest thoughts with me. I enjoy discussing these things with you.

  5. Sarah said,


    I guess the kind of suffering I was thinking of was slightly different to what you meant, but not entirely different. I was thinking of hardship that is a result of trying to live a life of faith; suggesting that *sometimes* we actually find it to be very hard because we are doing it wrong. And that hardship can be an opportunity to learn that we are doing it wrong, and correct ourselves.

    I think I had a radical, out-of-context understanding of turning the other cheek and thought I had to be a doormat. I think the unhappy singletons had an understanding whereby God wanted them to remain single that long. I now question both of these understandings. I would venture that the suffering was caused by trying to serve God, and not doing it quite right. It doesn’t feel like God always gives us strength to endure… but maybe that’s because if He gave us strength to endure things we were not supposed to endure, then we’d stay in a bad place. That’s what I concluded at the time, to make sense of this.

    It’s a matter of interpretation though, and it occurred to me that if Jesus had to die on the cross, then maybe I *was* expected to be a doormat. I certainly believed something like that for a while. I tend to be a little immoderate like that! But as I say, I got weak at the knees. 🙂

    I know you didn’t say anything about enduring unhappiness, those were my words based on my observations, but of course they may not match your observations. I think it takes tremendous faith to find joy in suffering! And I think it must be fantastically liberating.

    Thanks again for interesting discussions!

  6. caraboska said,

    I think the taking up of one’s cross is even more radical than what is commonly thought. It means dying to our expectations, desires, beliefs and idols. Just think: what makes us ‘unhappy’ if someone subjects us to physical violence? It is that we have a certain sense of human dignity – which in and of itself is good – but we have an expectation that people will treat our human dignity with respect. And a false belief that if they fail to do so, it somehow reduces our dignity. We have an expectation, in general, of a ‘pain-free’ existence, and we believe we can’t live with our existence if it is other than pain-free. We idolize that pain-free existence, we idolize that human dignity, and then we are unhappy when we do not get that thing we idolize.

    Taking up our cross means taking true responsibility for that which is ours, instead of shoving the burden over on someone else. Drawing rightly that line of responsibility. People who see the results – that we do not react as they do – may call us inhuman, but that is their problem.

    Why are we afraid to die? Because we are overly attached to our own lives. We think that we cannot live without them – when the truth of the matter is that God is iultimately the one who decides whether we do or don’t live, and He didn’t have to give us life at all.

    I could go on, but I think I’ve given a sense of the train of thought.

  7. Sarah said,


    My thinking has progressed a bit since I wrote this post!

    One problem I have with “taking up my cross” is that I believe strongly in alleviating the suffering of others where possible. Religions all teach that we should do that. So if I have to help others out of suffering, why shouldn’t I help myself out of suffering? Jesus said “love your neighbour as yourself”, not more than yourself. No-one would question it if I was unhappy to see someone else subjected to physical violence and I tried to defend them. So why shouldn’t I defend myself?

    Besides, letting someone walk all over you doesn’t seem to help them. I certainly believe non-retaliation can be effective and good but I don’t think it needs to be applied in a literal extreme.

    We cannot avoid all suffering and suffering often helpfully indicates that something is wrong, like for example an undue attachment to the world as you say. Additionally I believe that God ordains suffering because it can draw us close to him. We know we are really surrendered to God when we can accept the suffering that we can’t change.

    I think I have a long way to go before I reach that level of acceptance, but I feel less afraid of my failure to accept it now, less afraid of what suffering God might ordain for me, and inspired to work towards that kind of surrender.

  8. caraboska said,

    Let’s take an extreme case: two people are dying. One is dying due to no choice of their own, does not want to die, won’t accept it, won’t accept the physical sensations that may accompany it. The other is dying voluntarily, knows there’s a reason for it, accepts the loss of life, accepts the sensations that may accompany it. That second person has taken up their cross (or perhaps even been literally taken up on a cross 😉 ). There is going to be a WORLD of difference between the death experiences of these two people.

    What bugs me here is that much is made about the sufferings of the second person – I have in mind in particular Jesus Christ – by those who have no idea what his thinking really was concerning his death experience, and think it must have been just like their own, when in fact it would have been very different. There’s an insidious guilt trip laid on people – see what suffering you caused him, you dirty sinner? – with the aim of gaining control over people by then presenting one particular organization as possessing the sole remedy for that ‘shame’.

    Or let’s take another example: someone has an operation that normally is considered to be extremely painful – so that morphine is normally given afterward to manage the pain. But they just accept that there might be physical sensations associated with the healing process; it any sensations occur, they focus on breathing deeply and making sure plenty of oxygen gets to the place that was operated upon. And they need no painkillers at all. Indeed, the sensations are well-managed enough that they never reach a level that could be called pain. And within a week, they are dancing at someone’s wedding. And it seems to me that in this situation, it was their thoughts about the physical sensations in question that made all the difference in their experience – I mean, what other option is there, if they were not using any pain medication?

    Bottom line: the elimination of suffering has first of all to do not with ridding human life of certain experiences, but rather with changing how we think about these experiences, while they are still present. It may or may not be desirable after that to take extra action to remove the experiences themselves.

  9. Sarah said,

    I totally agree the experience of suffering depends on your thoughts around it. In the UK the national health service has even started running mindfulness (meditation) courses to help people deal with stress and pain etc. I believe this is done in America too.

    But it still doesn’t mean that I want to go to poverty-stricken communities in Africa and teach them mindfulness meditation rather than feed them and clothe them and bring them medical aid.

  10. caraboska said,

    I think there is a certain minimum that people are entitled to as a matter of human dignity – although they do not lose that dignity by reason of not having it – and so yeah: if we see someone who doesn’t have that certain minimum at least, then the right thing to do is provide it if we can. But I think it’s even better to find out how they are dealing with their situation, talk about mindfulness if need be. Although many people in those circumstances know far more about this than the vast majority of people in the developed world, because it has simply been a matter of survival.

    In far worse condition, I would say, are those from failed Communist systems who perhaps spent their lives feeling secure that Mother State would take care of them from cradle to grave, without their having to even lift a finger – and then, say, just before retirement age, or even after that, finding that that trust was misplaced… It has been very difficult for people to survive that change – I think many people are broken.

    Communism killed many people’s initiative – and now that initiative is crucial to survival. It is nearly impossible to make a decent living here, enough to pay for a minimal apartment and the associated utilities, healthy food, etc. – unless you have your own business, i.e. are an entrepreneur. Oddly, those who ‘did well for themselves’ in the Party were the ones with that entrepreneurial spirit, and they are even doing OK now. But for the average citizen who didn’t rise in the ranks of the Party… Another matter entirely.

  11. Achelois said,

    I would like to read the book. Interesting book, post and comments!

    Oh Sarah, if only I could borrow all these yummy books from you when I’m home!

    • Wrestling said,

      I borrowed this particular book from someone else, but you can borrow any others of mine you like!

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