by Reverend Christopher M. Leighton
During the last twenty years, I have studied Bible with men and women; believers and nonbelievers; the young, the aged, and those who fall in between; Jews and Christians; laity, clergy, and academics. I have discovered that this book continues to exert an almost irresistible gravitational pull. Nearly everyone I meet, like me, feels the dual forces of attraction and repulsion. Some want to break its grip. Some want to move more fully into its orbit. But to come to terms with the Bible requires flights of imaginative daring that few anticipate.
The single greatest obstacle to the study of the Bible, most particularly the Book of Genesis, arises from our presumed familiarity with the stories. In my experience, nothing deafens us to the provocative insights that echo within the Bible more than the assumption that we already know the stories and have nothing new to learn from them. It is only the people who return to the stories over and over again who hear the contrapuntal melodies of the Bible. These individuals have all at one time or another endured that awkward silence, inspired by the text or perhaps by the One to whom the text points. It is a silence broken only through persistence. A sacred story only seems to sing after the inquirer has stood waiting, disoriented and empty-handed, stripped of everything but those questions, desires, hopes, and fears that are joined to the soul.
For his televised series of conversations on the stories of Genesis, Bill Moyers has assembled a diverse cross section of thinkers, all of whom attend to the clash of conflicting interpretations and delight in the interplay of divergent traditions. They are able to hear the harmonic rhythms beneath the dissonance. This receptivity to disparate readings is indicative of important developments within contemporary biblical scholarship, developments that hold both promise and threat. Here is a living conversation that not only features some new directions in the study of Genesis, but illuminates the intellectual and spiritual ferment of the culture at large.
The modern era has produced the conviction that the Bible will divulge its secrets only if squeezed by professionals. The governing contention of most nineteenth-and twentieth-century biblical scholarship is that every passage is reducible to a single meaning. When subjected to the press of philological, archaeological, historical, and literary scholarship, the story will yield its "real" truth, namely the unchanging meaning locked within the original historical context.
While modern historical criticism has produced many indispensable insights (some of them richly evidenced in this project), a growing cadre of scholars is convinced that this approach makes inflated claims, and moves the Bible out of the public square, confining it to the ivory tower. The appropriation of the Bible by the academy has convinced the laity and a good many clergy to abdicate their claims on the text. As Bill Moyers, among many others, suggests, this estrangement from the Bible deprives us of common ground and strips us of a key resource that might enable diverse peoples to speak across differences. A new conversation is demanded, one that demonstrates that the studies conducted within the academic guild by no means exhaust the meaning and power of the Bible. It is time to encourage a diverse readership to struggle with a collection of stories that has in such large measure shaped the landscape of the Western imagination.
Although Moyers's groups include individuals who are learned in the arts of biblical scholarship, the participants offer a range of possible interpretations that undermine parochial positions, including those of historical criticism. These stories will support multiple readings, because in the words of the Talmud scholar Judah Goldin, "text and experience are mutually enlightening." Each of us brings a wealth of experience that enables us to discern truths within the story that others cannot readily see or hear. The interplay of the Moyers groups shows that the truth of the biblical narrative is larger than any single individual, perhaps any single tradition, can imagine. This is one of the most significant aspects of the Moyers series, and it is our hope that readers of the guide will discover for themselves the transformational power of examining Genesis from different vantage points. What begins on camera is intended to initiate an inquiry that will hopefully continue in living rooms, board rooms, community halls, and sanctuaries across the country.
The receptivity to different readings of the Bible promises to enlarge the horizons of our understanding, but an unbridled curiosity also poses vexing problems for people who regard Genesis as sacred scripture. The Bible is inescapably refracted through particular cultural lenses - specific traditions of interpretation, as well as the individual's personal experience - and therefore necessarily produces multiple meanings. How can we resolve the tensions between competing interpretations and determine the authoritative reading, the one that can best help us to define the ethical and spiritual content for our lives? When we are confronted with conflicting alternatives, do we choose an interpretation on the basis of personal opinion, individual conscience, or appeal to tradition? Doesn't this kind of inquiry destabilize the authority of sacred scriptures and undermine the integrity of our religious communities?
These confounding questions have haunted the church, synagogue, and mosque for centuries, but today as never before the reality of religious pluralism makes this challenge not simply a problem of interpretation, but a fundamental problem of religious identity. Distinctive ways of reading and understanding Genesis have evolved within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. Our indissoluble differences are made plain in terms of the way each of us lean into and lives out of the biblical stories. But the question that remains open is this: Do we Christians, Jews, and Muslims - and those without an attachment to any particular tradition - have anything significant to teach or learn from one another? In reading a common scripture, we share a common border. To what degree are the boundaries sealed? Should they be? Are there ethical and spiritual truths that we can exchange which will enrich each of us? What dangers follow a dramatic increase in interfaith traffic?
Most of us are acutely aware that the battle for the exclusive rights to the Bible has left deep scars. We have only begun to confront the legacy of distrust and contempt that has pitted Jews and Christians against on another for nearly two thousand years. We have yet to fathom the continuation of these complex dynamics in terms of Islam and more recently in the polarization of believers and nonbelievers. To avoid the dreadful excesses of the past, there is a tendency among many Americans to gloss over our differences and to reach for an easy consensus - to pursue a conversation that enables everyone to walk away feeling pretty good about the other - after all, we muse, "they" are not all that different from "us." Yes, we acknowledge, each of us climbs the mountain along a distinct path, but eventually, we will all converge at the top. Yet, do we? In the scramble to achieve a harmonic convergence, many who champion an inclusive theological agenda end up denying the very pluralism they claim to affirm.
The living conversation hosted by Bill Moyers provides us with an alternative model for interfaith dialogue. It tells us that our task, first and foremost, is not to achieve agreement. Indeed, we need to remain highly suspicious of any absolute solutions. To begin, it is more than enough to huddle around a handful of stories and to ponder the ambiguous promises - delivered to our ancestors and now handed down to us. If we can learn to listen to ancient memories and hear how divergent interpretations resonate in different traditions, we may fortify those habits of the mind and heart that will help us to maintain our civility in the midst of intense disagreement.
The stories of Genesis provide a precious, in many ways unique, meeting ground. Taking a fresh look at these foundational stories offers us unexpected opportunities to come face-to-face with both the affirmations and negations that define us - our doubts, our fears, and our hopes. We may find that in a country overwhelmed by its diversity, a dialogue that cuts across religious, ethnic, socioeconomic, and educational divides is not a luxury, but a matter of life and death.
Reverend Christopher M. Leighton is the executive director of the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.
"A great many people think they are thinking when they are rearranging their prejudices."
"The Bible: a book which either reads us or is worthless."
---Malcome de Chazal