Anyone who has ever taken an English class can appreciate the need to figure out what a text means. In high school, our teachers taught us about symbols, metaphors, settings and unreliable narrators while we worked feverishly over our copies of The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, trying to crack the code. But if you studied those texts closely enough, you may have come across something surprising—something, perhaps, that your teacher didn’t tell you. Every time you “answer” a question about the text, that answer—whether right or wrong—only serves to open up new questions. Rather than getting closer to the meaning of a text, you only seem to get further away from that single, self-contained interpretation you so eagerly sought.
Now don’t get me wrong; I am not about to suggest that all the methods of literary criticism should (or can) be applied wholesale to biblical exegesis. The Bible, of course, is revered by millions as Scripture—the revealed Word of God—and to my knowledge no one has ever made such a suggestion about The Great Gatsby. But it seems to me that whenever we press the Bible with our own most urgent questions, we encounter the same difficulty we had as high school kids, when we tried to make all the symbols and allusions we found add up to whatever we thought the book was supposed to mean. No matter how well we know the text, some questions just keep getting more complicated and unanswerable the longer we (good detectives that we are) shine a light in its eyes trying to make it talk.
To make matters more interesting, the Bible itself is full of stories like this: stories about people who encounter God or Scripture in a meaningful way, but whose questions only deepen when God begins to answer them. In Exodus 3, for example, God meets Moses in the burning bush. Reluctant to rescue the Israelites without some badge of approval, Moses asks: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (v. 13) Moses wants a name, an identity, something that makes perfect sense so he can easily classify his experience when explaining it to others. Instead, God replies with an enigma. “I am who I am” (v. 14), he declares. Or, as some scholars claim it ought to be translated, “I will be who I will be.” Moses began this dialogue with one basic question: “Who are you?” He left, presumably, with many more.
Let’s look at another example. Few characters in the Bible could have more questions for God than Job. But when God finally speaks to Job and his companions, he does not simply take Job’s list of questions and fill in the blanks. Instead, he asks Job questions of his own (three chapters’ worth), ranging from: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4) to “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord?” (41:1). In this passage, God reminds Job of who is really under scrutiny. Likewise, I think, if we return to our Bibles with a bit of honesty, we’ll find that Scripture really doesn’t have much to say about our petty 21st century questions. But if we’ll look closely enough, we may find that the Scriptures, much like God in the story of Job, are persistently questioning us.
Whenever I hear anyone discuss the need for a “biblical worldview,” or when people champion a politician who espouses “strong scriptural ideals,” I can’t help but think of Moses and Job. And I also remember myself, as a high school student, trying to make sense of a profound work of literature; those books that always seemed to overrun the interpretive boundaries I made for them with my little lists and diagrams.
So often, in our attempt to make the infinite more palpable, we reduce the Scriptures—and our faith as a whole—to a simplistic outline of things to believe in, a legal compendium for moral behavior, or an operational manual to the meaning of life. But when we do this, aren’t we just dumbing it down to our own level of cultural and individual expectation? We should stop using Scripture as a commodity for our own colonization, cherry-picking whatever text supports what we want God to say. Instead, we ought to allow our Scriptures, our traditions and our communities of faith to exist as the place where the conversation begins. After all, these do not exist simply for us or for our questions; rather, we are a product of what came before us. Scripture, tradition and even faith itself is not the sort of entity that we can properly call “ours.” Rather, our responsibility is to carry the discussion further, responding with humility and respect to the questions posed by the scriptural and historical traditions that we have inherited.
Consequently, when someone asks questions like, “If God is so powerful and so loving, why does He allow suffering?” we would be fools to respond with a simple, determinate answer or explanation. We would be hypocrites to close down the conversation with a cliché, because closing the discussion and locking the questions away is something you will never find in the Bible. Even when one book seems to give you a neat, smooth conclusion, another book will open the question right back up again. Compare Proverbs with Ecclesiastes, for example, if you have any doubt that this is the case.
The Bible can be a slippery book. Much more so, in fact, than the classics we pored over in high school. But to make this suggestion is not, as some will noisily contest, to “cheapen the Word of God” or to “water down Truth.” It is, rather, to appreciate the Bible in all of its beautiful complexity. Would you want to live in a two-dimensional world with neither colors nor shades of gray? Certainly not. Then why should we clamor for the instant gratification of a one-dimensional, black and white belief system that leaves us with no room for discussion, no margin of error and absolutely no lingering questions? In my opinion, the questions we’ll never answer (even as often as we answer them) are the best part, because this is where an authentic life of faith truly begins.
Ray Horton is a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University, completing his master’s degree in English. He is interested in exploring how the connections between faith, culture, literature and philosophy can help individuals and communities live in a more sincere, reflective and meaningful way.