I have inherited a Bible my Father brought home from work. It was a Gideon Bible, one of the hundreds of millions provided to hotels and hospitals etc. The hotel this Bible was donated to had been damaged by fire and demolished and a new hotel was being built in its place. The labourers who had stripped the furnishing and fixtures before starting to demolish the brickwork had carefully collected the Bibles and moved them from place to place as work progressed. As the new hotel neared completion, they lay neatly stacked in a corner of the Site Office. My father brought it home as a testimony to the way rough irreligious building workers had treated these Bibles with reverence. Even for someone who has never read it and would be unlikely to believe most of its stories, the Bible still retains their respect.
If two people come knocking on your door trying to sell religion, then they will most likely use a Bible to give authority to their words. In all probability, they will not be Christians. If you do not turn them away, they will try to win your friendship. Most of their prey are ignorant of the Christian faith and unlikely to notice that the doctrines which come with their friendship deny the Christian experience in which God reveals himself as Farther, Son and Holy Spirit. For those who have a mind to go into matters and understand new ideas, they will carefully justify everything with reference to their bibles: their well thumbed bibles.
But suppose they encounter someone who knows the Bible and is in the habit of looking things up for themselves. It soon becomes apparent that while there might be a lot in common between their bible and the Bible; there are subtle differences which completely alter the meaning of the passages they quote in support of their non-christian doctrines.
It is no different within the Churches. Christianity comes in many flavours and denominations. There is no universally accepted translation of the Bible and subtle differences between different versions allow different interpretations of the Christian Faith. A far greater breadth of interpretation of Christianity is afforded by our understanding of the nature of the Bible and theologians vary in opinion from those who regard much of it as myth to those who believe that every single word of their translation was written by God. One thing is certain, more effort is now put into academic study of the Bible than ever before. Like the theologians, university academics vary in opinion from those who believe it is the "Living Word of God" to those who regard it as a quaint collection of ancient documents.
A rational person should have the same regard towards the scriptures of all religions. We can define scriptures as books (or other means of preserving and passing on information) which have been passed on down the generations because people have found them of value in their relationship with God. That is quite a loose definition and deliberately so. I would argue that there is as much Christian Scripture to be found in hymn books as in the Bible. One only needs to look in the indexes of a selection of traditional and modern hymn books to see the editorial process at work and realise that thousands of years ago, a similar process determined the content of the scriptures of the world religions.
Anyone interested in reading the Bible is best advised to find a version written in a style which suits their own use of language. For me the Jerusalem Bible (JB) reads most naturally, and if I suspect its Roman Catholic origin to be biased, I can quickly check with the New English Bible (NEB). A quick look at the contents pages of these two Bibles reveals that the Jerusalem Bible has five more books than the New English Bible: something I only discovered after I had read the whole of my (JB) Bible. The reason for this is that councils of Rabbis and church councils have had a very considerable influence on what was included and what was left out. As recently as the reformation, Protestant scholars decided to include only those parts of the Old Testament which are found in the Hebrew version discarding the five extra books found in the Greek version.
Taking all things into account, having read the Bible and having worshipped among Christians with widely differing views of its nature, it seems to me that the Bible contains a mixture of history, myth, spin and inspiration. The scholars tell us that the whole of Bible reveals a consistent editorial policy of not choosing one account of events over another, but of presenting both, or all. Once we understand that the Bible is not a single narrative, we can see this right from the start in the story of creation. My favourite example is the crossing the Red Sea. One account popular among artists and film makers describes the waters parted to form two walls of water, one on the left and one on the right. The other description is more easily identified with the action of a tsunami.
The main use of scripture is to give authority to whatever doctrines religious and secular leaders wish to use to control and manipulate people. This abuse is only possible because, whatever the nonsense they preach, scriptures are a collection of material which people have found helpful in developing their Faith.
Reading scripture is an act of setting aside time for God. This is true regardless of how tenuous ones own relationship with Him may be. Since God loves each one of us and desires to bring us into a deeper relationship, time spent reading scriptures is never wasted. It always results in our being touched by God's love regardless of our belief or lack of belief. Often that touch is so gentle that we are unaware of it and it only becomes apparent through comparing one's general feeling of well being over months when one has read from scripture regularly with months when one fell out of the habit. This is true for all people of all religions and and scriptures.
But generally speaking, scripture is more effectively understood within the context of religious belief, so for the rest of this section, I will mostly limit my scope to considering the Bible. I want to illustrate my understanding of the nature of scripture with an example from my own experience. A group of us were preparing a church service following one of the published schemes of worship and in one of the passages from the Bible for that Sunday, Paul writes:
Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God. (JB)
We first read this from a less eloquent translation and I missed the point. It remained just words. Reading it latter from my own Bible, I suddenly realised that this was not an eloquent description of God's love, it was a man grasping for words to describe the indescribable. This was not an academic description of an abstract idea, this was a man trying to describe the reality of his experience of God's love. And as I came to realise this, I felt that love creeping through me and I remembered the first time I had experienced it during my conversion. I remembered Paul's account of his suffering, five times beaten with sticks by the Jews and three times flogged by the Romans for his faith. How could he, who had suffered so much, still proclaim the love of God. Then it dawned upon me that it was because this was his daily experience of God. Then is occurred to me that this should be the normal experience. That the extent to which one can feel God's love is a barometer of the state of one's relationship with Him.
This experience is entirely consistent with what we might call the Protestant experience of reading the Bible. Scripture is scripture because it is composed of literature which God has been able to use to inspire people. Collected together over the ages to form the Bible, they are there waiting for a reader open to the influence of the Holy Spirit. The Protestant experience is that when ordinary people are free to read their bibles, inspiration follows. Unfortunately, the entire power base of any priesthood lies in convincing their followers that God only works through them. So any movement of the Holy Spirit using scripture to open people to the experience of God's love is quickly resisted by the established religious hierarchy.
The editorial process by which literature is turned into scripture is insensitive to its very nature, It is only possible to understand that nature if one has written scripture. St Paul writing his letter to the Ephesians had no idea that the Church would adopt it as Scripture and even rate it above the Torah in importance. He was just writing to them. At times, he would have been quite clear in his mind that what he was writing was being dictated by the Holy Spirit, but mostly, he would have been drawing on the experience of his relationship with God. In chapter 7 of his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote "For the married, I have something to say, and this is not from me, but from the Lord... ...The rest is from me and not from the Lord..." In writing to the Colossians about communion, he wrote "For I received from the Lord, what I also deliver to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night of his betrayal took bread....." It is apparent from this that Paul was quite clear in his own mind that a lot of what he wrote came from his own thoughts; some quoted from his memory of previous inspiration and some was directly inspired at the time of writing. It is not up to the editor to pick and choose those parts of one of Paul's letters which he thinks come from the Lord. He can only decide whether or not to include the whole letter. This is true of all scripture. It is a mixture of bits that were inspired and bits that were not inspired.
We also need to understand that if God speaks to people, what He says to each individual is conditioned by what they need to hear. So if we read part of the bit I left out of the first quotation, "a wife must not leave her husband. Or if she does, she must either remain unmarried or else make it up with her husband" it would be wrong to assume that this is a command to all wives for all time. I would suggest that it is addressing the crucial problem faced by the early church in which many of the converts were married women torn between their new love of Jesus and their duty to a husband quite unsympathetic to their new "madness". The most important thing to understand about scripture is that it remains literature until read under the influence of God. Or as we Christians would say of the Bible: until read under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
As good protestants, we should only be influenced by our personal experience of reading the Bible under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We should never take the word of some preacher that this is what the Bible tells us. As soon as the Bible is elevated in status and believed to have been written by God, we lay ourselves open to manipulation by other who would impose their own meaning upon its passages. We also run the risk of falling into the same trap ourselves and so reading the Bible in search of justification for our own ideas.
The Bible contains a passage which defines itself: "All scripture is inspired by God". My Evangelical friends read that as "Every word of this translation of the Bible was dictated by God". I prefer to see it as defining the nature of scripture to lie in each moment in which God uses one's reading of it within the living personal relationship He has with oneself.
Much of my reading of the Bible is as literature. The moments when I read it as scripture are less frequent, but they can change my life.