The Texts We Face

by Earl Schwartz

The Bible is a tradition with a history. Its reputation precedes it. It is rare that someone reads from the Bible without first having heard something about it. Martin Buber, in an essay entitled "The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible," discusses the ways in which the Hebrew Bible's reputation may undermine its message. He writes,

The man of today has no access to a sure and solid faith, nor can it be made accessible to him. . . . But he is not denied the possibility of holding himself open to faith. . . , He can absorb the Bible with all his strength, and wait to sec what will happen to him, whether he will not discover within himself a new and unbiased approach to this or that element in the book. But to this end, he must read the Scriptures as though they had not been set before him ready-made, at school and after in the light of "religious" and "scientific" certainties. . . . He must face the book with a new attitude as something new. (Israel and the World, p. 93)

The approach to Bible recommended by Buber is grounded in the conviction that Bible addresses the reader. It speaks face-to-face, as between persons. This conviction, that the Bible is, at its heart, a spoken word between persons, is also the essence of an evangelical attitude towards the text. Much of contemporary biblical scholarship belies such an attitude.

The recent revival of interest in literary analysis of biblical texts, for example, has enriched our appreciation of biblical artistry. However, the 'literaturization' of Bible has also contributed to its reduction to entertainment in the eyes of many. T. S. Elliot wrote, "I could fulminate against men of letters who have gone into ecstasies over the 'Bible as literature,' the Bible as 'the noblest monument of English prose.'...the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered the Word of God. And the fact that men of letters now discuss it as 'literature' probably indicates the end of its 'literary' influence" (Selected Prose, Penguin 873, pp. 33-34).

Much the same can be said of contemporary historical-critical analysis of biblical sources. Here again, the value of recent research should not be underestimated. But if Bible cannot be fully faced as entertainment, neither should it be seen as an anesthetized patient, face draped, passive under the critic's scalpel.

Nor should we be misled by fundamcnRist claims on Bible. Here the text is made to wear doctrinal grease paint and dance to the proof-texter's tune. There is no meeting "face-to-face" here.

If we are to meet biblical texts face-to-face, we must fully face the text "with a new attitude as something new" and allow the texts to fully face us. The biblical text as revelation is neither artifice nor science. It is a collection of voices who have spoken, and may yet speak to us, face-to-face.

See all articles by Earl Schwartz