How to read a religious text

One of the nice things I got at the Big Orange Book Festival was my own copy of the Qur’an. I’ve always been interested in reading it, so I’m glad that I now have the opportunity.

Before I dive in, I understand that there is a right way and a wrong way to read any religious text.

For starters, I can’t read a religious text in a certain part of the house where I can enjoy some quiet reading time. I don’t think John Green would object to me reading his stuff there, but it’s not a proper place to read a religious text.

I also can’t read a religious text like any other book. I once made that mistake when I received a copy of The Book of Mormon (the book, not the musical). So, I read it cover to cover. I could have used a musical accompaniment the fourth or fifth time that the Lamanites smote the Nephites and some prophet urged his followers to “gird their loins.” My takeaway from the experience is that people should read religious texts for spiritual enlightenment or moral guidance, not for plot and character development.

But the worst way to read a religious text is to have someone read it for you.

This was the way religious texts were disseminated for thousands of years before widespread literacy, and it continues to be done that way in some parts of the world. A religious leader would “read” the books for his followers and tell them what the book says. Since the followers can’t read the book for themselves, they have to trust what he is saying is true. And since these followers need to know what is in that book so they can avoid eternal damnation (as well as severe punishment here on earth), they have to trust their religious leader completely.

This gives the religious leader an incredible amount of power and opportunity for abuse. The leader can make the religious text say whatever he wants it to say. Since the religious leader often seeks favor and financial support from political leaders, he can twist the text to back them up. That’s how we got ideas like the divine right of kings and how religious and political leaders can whip their followers into fighting holy wars. Obedience to God became obedience to the state, and questioning the government became blasphemy. Making the Bible accessible to common people was an act of treason.

Even in the United States, where literacy is widespread, people continue to have their religious text read to them. They get their Bible read to them by their preachers or ministers on TV, some of whom say bizarre things. You can buy editions of the Bible with extensive political and social commentary that often takes more of the page than scripture and discusses issues that couldn’t even be imagined in Biblical times.

So with all of the wrong ways to read religious texts, what is the right way?

I think my religion may have the right idea. Read scripture in small chunks and take the time to understand it. Question it. Discuss it. Challenge it. See how it can be applied in your life and today’s world. Don’t settle for someone else’s interpretation. Make the text your own.

In this respect, you can’t read a religious text passively. You need to have a dialogue with it — even an argument. This way, you can get the true value from the book. You may even become a different person from the experience.