As a speaker at a festival like Greenbelt, you’ve got no real way of knowing what effect your talks are going to have. Although there’s the polite clapping and the couple of people who come up to you afterwards with questions, you’ll never hear the conversations that happen back at the campsite or over a pint that night.
So when I meet up with theologian and writer Paula Gooder, she naturally has no idea that a talk she gave here at Greenbelt back in 2008 had triggered the beginning of a seismic shift in the way I understand the Bible.
Were you ever tempted to consider Greenbelt as a bunch of wishy-washy liberals talking about how to be a bit nicer to one another, I’d send you straight to hear Paula. You don’t have to listen to her speak for long to realise she has a long-standing passion for the Bible, which blossomed during her time at university: “I can categorically trace the love affair back to my first tutorial with [New Testament scholar] Tom Wright, where my jaw dropped and I went, ‘Ohhhh!’” That spark is clearly still well and truly alive.
When as a teenager I heard Paula speak, I’d grown up almost worshipping the text of the Bible as a sort of fourth person of the Trinity. The Bible being the word of God had meant to me that God must have chosen each word of it Himself, and carefully positioned it so as to be directly relevant to me in 21st century Britain. It had to be that way so that I would know what God was saying to me by simply reading the text, no interpretation required.
And the thing that really threw me in what Paula suggested was that perhaps we can’t be sure that we’re reading the Bible ‘correctly’, perhaps that shouldn’t actually be our ultimate aim. By introducing me to the idea of human authors and particularly human readers interacting with divinely inspired writings, she opened my eyes to a far less black-and-white, yet far more exciting and challenging book than I’d known before.
Seven years later, I still struggle with the ambiguity of the Bible – faith was so much easier when I could simply lift a verse from a page and take it as speaking directly to me. Now I’m on shakier ground. So I ask Paula what she’d say to 17-year-old me, just starting out on this journey of understanding the Bible for what it is, rather than what I wanted it to be.
She says: “What I’d want to say for a start, is read what the Bible actually says. Part of the problem is that in very conservative churches, you don’t read what the Bible actually says, you read what you “know” the Bible says, which can be a very different thing! I like to get people to tell me a story from the Bible, and then we read it together. Often they remember whole loads of stuff that they think the Bible says rather than what it actually says. One thing I’d want to say to a very conservative church is, I don’t think you take the Bible seriously enough.”
That would have stopped me in my tracks, I think.
But surely if the most important thing is to read the words on the page, we’d all come to similar conclusions about what those words mean? Apparently not. Paula gives me a fascinating example of cultural differences in what we might think of as a pretty straight-forward story. People from the US, Russia and Tanzania were each given the story of the prodigal son, and asked to look at the point in the story where the son is alone in a foreign land having taken his father’s wealth. They were asked the question, ‘what made the prodigal son poor?’
Paula explains: “The United States audience said that he was poor because he’d just been profligate, he’d spent too much, it was his own fault. The Russian audience said he was poor because there was a famine in the land. The Tanzanian audience said he was poor because the people of the land in which he was a stranger didn’t help him. And they’d all taken this from the text. None of them are wrong. But they’re all reading the text through their own experience, and we begin to recognise that your own experience causes you to read the text in a different way.”
The challenge here for me, and I think for all of us in what Paula calls “a culture that likes a yes or no answer”, is to hear those other interpretations alongside my own, without assuming mine is the obvious way to read it. Paula demonstrates this to me with characteristic humility:“We need to take seriously the idea that the Bible is everybody’s document, and listen to everybody’s voice on the Bible. I’m very clear that mine is only one voice. Mine isn’t the right voice, it’s just trained in a certain way. Even people who would say they’re not educated, their voices are trained in other ways and they see in the Bible things that I could never see. One of the real challenges for conversation is that ability to hear, to respect and to venerate voices that are often not heard about the Bible.”
There’s our mission then, if we choose to accept it. For me as a theology graduate (prone to thinking I’m right about most things), it’s not the easiest pill to swallow, but when I get back to my own church this weekend, I know what I want to do. Over coffee, I want to sit down with an unlikely type and ask what they made of the Bible readings. And then I’m going to listen. The Bible is everybody’s.