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Studying Sacred Texts Online to Encounter Another View of God

Martin Luther King, Jr. --ON Scripture

by Matthew L. Skinner

Research consistently shows that people—and I’m thinking primarily of those in my home country of the United States—know alarming little about the basic contours of the world’s religions.

Runaway ignorance about the foundational tenets or central writings of religions, whether of other religions or even one’s own, threatens to undermine the prospects for constructive inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. But a corollary ignorance should generate as much concern. Consider how widespread is misunderstanding of or unfamiliarity with the ways that religious beliefs and texts are interpreted or put into practice.

People of faith can promote religious literacy and better acquaint our neighbors (and ourselves) with our beliefs; but to do so without showing them how our faith is meaningfully lived out, how it helps us makes sense of our lives and our world, accomplishes little. Worse, it risks reducing the notion of “religion” to a list of definable assertions or a set of historical processes.

In my vocation as a scholar who educates students to serve in Christian ministry, I emphasize the need for biblical interpreters to be more forthcoming, more public, about their hermeneutical presuppositions and tendencies. Pastoral leadership, I believe, is less about transmitting “what the Bible says” than it is about attending to the ways faithful imaginations get shaped through attentive, critical, and corporate interaction with the Bible. Other Christians may approach scripture out of a different set of values, but I would expect them to agree that the goal of having and reading a Bible is not to amass more information so much as it is to meaningfully indwell and practice their faith.

Given these convictions, it makes sense that I became part of an editorial team responsible for launching nearly six months ago a Web-based resource called ON Scripture—The Bible. Produced weekly by Odyssey Networks, the multi-faith media coalition, and published on their website, Huffington Post Religion, and the Protestant preaching site Day 1, ON Scripture—The Bible is simply an investigation of a biblical text, offered in a way intended to show readers how the Bible might affect people’s interactions with the trends and events that inform our lives. An accompanying video follows the biblical themes or a current event, making for a richer exploration into lives of faith.

I knew ON Scripture—The Bible would, as it has done, provide Christians a forum for learning more about—and vigorously discussing—how the Bible is faithfully interpreted in light of current news and social realities. My pleasant surprise has been discovering that it brings others, especially those interested in reading the Bible over Christians’ shoulders, into the conversation, as well. Whether out of curiosity, worry, or respect, others want to see what Christians are doing with their scriptures.

By making the study of scripture more public, ON Scripture—The Bible welcomes others into discourse around the nature of the Christian Bible, hermeneutics, and practices of faith, whether they realize that this is what they are doing or not.

Having glimpsed the potential for a resource like this to attract and promote not just intra-faith but also interfaith conversation, Odyssey Networks expects to launch ON Scripture—The Torah in early 2012. This will feature rabbis and Jewish scholars writing weekly on Torah passages. The possibility of a third ON Scripture resource, dedicated to interpretation of the Quran, sits on the horizon.

These resources cannot make up for our culture’s shortcomings in “religious literacy.” But they do much to promote “religious fluency,” which consists of a curiosity and ability to be in informed, constructive conversation with a religious tradition, whether one’s own or someone else’s. It is about becoming familiar with people’s ways of living their faith.

The focus on sacred texts provides a fitting arena for welcoming others to observe a religious worldview in action. At the same time, it affords anyone with a computer the opportunity to examine other religious perspectives. For in doing so, I do not just read another’s sacred text; I watch another person enter into creative and expectant dialogue with this text. The encounter becomes personal, and a clearer window into a lived faith. To peer inside other people’s scriptural interpretation—and inside another religion’s scripture—is to gain a better sense of their understanding of who or what God is, and their understanding of what it means to respond to this God.

Matthew L. Skinner is Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN, and a contributing editor to ON Scripture—The Bible.