By Paul Buckley
Originally published as the introduction in Buckley, Paul, ed., The Quaker Bible Reader (Richmond: Earlham School of Religion Publications), 2006. Used with permission of the author and publisher.
Modern Quakers do not neglect books in general. Professionally, Friends are found in academic and other intellectual professions well out of proportion to their numbers in the population. In any moderately sized collection of Quakers, there is likely to be at least one librarian. Nor are Friends uninterested in spiritual matters. A quick review of the materials offered in the various Quaker bookstores reveals long lists of books on spirituality, Quaker biography, other religious biographies, devotionals, guides to spiritually-based social action, and a variety of religious study materials for all ages. But listening to conversations, especially among more liberal Friends, might give the impression that more copies are sold of the Gnostic gospels than those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
While the Bible used to enjoy a privileged position in the English-speaking world, today’s world is vastly different. Even beyond the constant and unavoidable impingements of non-print media in our lives, the competition for a reader’s attention is enormous. Our lives are flooded with books, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, mail, email, text-messages, and more. In modern America, discarded print material is the single largest source of consumer garbage. As a spiritual resource, the Bible competes with abundant other sources, from traditional writings to the products of self-help gurus. Within the category of sacred works, the Bible now shares shelf space with the scriptures of other religions. This diminished role makes itself apparent in everyday life. While in the seventeenth century, scriptural quotes and allusions were the commonplace of daily conversation and literary works, today’s popular culture recycles lines from songs, jingles, slogans, and advertising.
Competition with other resources aside, however, I believe one of the principal reasons many Friends do not read the Bible is they do not have any idea how to approach the Bible as Quakers. Some have never been introduced to it. Other may have learned at an earlier time in their lives to read the Bible in a particular way. For various reasons, they have come to reject that way of reading and, in rejecting the interpretation, they have thrown the text out with it.
Many people had their first encounter with the Bible in a Sunday School (or, as Quakers call it, a First Day School) class. In this setting, the stories are reformulated to present a simple lesson for a young mind. Complexity is rooted out, and a single, simple message—appropriate to a child’s understanding—is emphasized. Only a small sampling of the whole is presented: Adam and Eve, the flood, Moses parting the sea, and Jesus feeding thousands with a few loaves and fishes are popular; Joshua conquering the Canaanites and the vivid images of the Apocalypse are not. There are implicit or explicit theological assumptions underlying the selection and rewording of the Bible stories, but these are invisible to a child. In fact, a young child hearing a Bible story is not likely to be taught that there is any interpretation involved. Children do not interpret stories, they just listen to them. It would never occur to them to deconstruct Dr. Suess, so why should they treat Bible stories any differently? As he or she grows, such hidden assumptions may or may not become more apparent. In any case, they are often very different from the theological assumptions and beliefs that an older child or adult holds. For some, it is easy to believe that, just as they no longer read picture books, they have likewise outgrown the Bible.
Other Friends learned to read scripture within another faith community before coming into our Society. This may mean reading the Bible as literally and infallibly true or as a book to be understood only in the light of church traditions and teachings. (Being brought up Catholic, I fall into the latter category.) The distinction between the words of scripture and the meanings ascribed to those words is often lost. Leaving ones spiritual community for another entails giving up certain beliefs, perhaps including those about how to read scripture. Where text and interpretation have been thoroughly entwined, it may seem to a newly-convinced Quaker that the Bible can no longer speak to his or her spiritual condition. The God who directed the flood (at least as they were previously taught) cannot be the God who leads them to embrace the Peace Testimony.
Special attention is due to those you tell you that they have “wounded by scripture.” I have frequently heard women, people of color, poor people, gay men, and lesbians refer to instances when various passages have been used to attack, demean, and belittle them. Over the years, the Bible’s words have been used to justify verbal, spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. These attacks do not always issue from the mouths of bigots or intransigent reactionaries, but may come from loving, kind people who were taught “the right way to read the Bible.” In response, many of those who have felts so assaulted have denied the validity of the claims made in the name of the Bible. Others, however, accept their attackers’ interpretation as a true reflection of the scriptures themselves. They then see themselves as faced with a stark choice: to deny themselves or to deny the validity of the book. It is no surprise that many of these people have chosen to turn away from the scripture.
Others see the Bible as no more than a set of legends and fables, offering insight into the minds of an ancient people and a foreign culture—much like Beowulf or Aesop’s Fables. The Bible presents western civilization’s myths, but for truth about the world we live in, they turn to science. Or they may look at the rich variety of other spiritual books and question the special status accorded to the Bible. Why, they ask, grant it pride of place instead of reading the Koran or the Upanishads or the sacred works of the Druids?
The Goal of This Book*
It may be useful at this point to introduce one technical term: hermeneutics. Every time someone tells a Bible story, they are engaged—consciously or not—in interpretation. There is a set of rules that they use to ferret out the meaning of a text. For example, while “serpent” may just be a fancy name for a snake, to many people the serpent that tempted Eve into eating forbidden fruit is more than a common snake—but what? Some will tell you the serpent is a devil in disguise. This interpretation contributes to and supports a particular meaning for the story. Others consider the role of the serpent as minor and come to different conclusions. Each set of rules—implicit or explicit, known of subconscious—constitutes what Bible scholars call hermeneutics.
There is no one set of Quaker hermeneutics. As well be seen in the chapters that follow, there are a number of techniques and approaches to understanding scripture that are consistent with Quaker beliefs and practices. I hope that this book will provide readers with a sense of the varieties of Quaker hermeneutics—assorted, Friendly ways to read and understand scripture. But this isn’t the goal of the book. As Manuel Guzman-Martinez says, “Unfortunately, no one learns in someone else’s shoes.” Our goal is to help you find your own shoes and put them on.
Find the “Quaker Hermeneutics” that speak to your spiritual condition may allow you to engage the Bible in an honest conversation. Then you, too, can do “Quaker exegesis”—not passively accepting someone else’s interpretation; not looking for “the good parts” and skipping the rest; not contorting scripture to support predetermined ideas—but entering into a dialogue with this ancient book, exploring your own assumptions about God, and deepening your relationship with the divine. In the process, I believe you will also come to have a more grounded understanding of who Quakers are and why we believe what we believe.
*(A note from the bloggers--this piece was originally the introduction to an anthology of essays on different ways modern Quakers read the Bible, a purpose clearly referenced in this section. We have left references to this larger context because keeping the original words and intent seemed better than extensive editing.)
Paul Buckley is a writer and translator of Quaker thought. His book Twenty-First Century William Penn has made Penn accessible to many, and he is the editor of the recently re-published Journal of Elias Hicks.