Faithful Questions: How Should I Read the Bible?

Sam Ryan
Sam Ryan

I chose to model this blog post after C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an epistolary novel recording the correspondence between two Tempters (demons) named Screwtape and Wormwood, wherein the former instructs the latter in how to properly lead “patients” (humans) away from Christianity.

While reading Faithful Questions, I had a number of ideas and observations about how to read the Bible that seemed post-worthy. Gunn and Shobe make some excellent points; namely, that the Bible is a collection of incredibly different documents which ask us to read them in different ways: “It is important to understand that the Bible contains all these different things, so that we stop trying to read the Bible as only one thing  … If we read the laws as though they are prophecy, we will be confused” (pg. 74).

After giving it considerable thought, I concluded that from my own personal experience with Scripture, it is sometimes best to convey how it should be read in the negative–that is to say, how not to read it. I could think of no better avenue for doing this than by a Screwtape letter. Below is a communication between an elder demon, Myope, and his nephew, Scrant, on how to ensure one’s patient misreads the Bible.

Screwtape LettersMy dear Scrant,

Since receiving your last correspondence about your Patient’s conversion to Christianity, I’m assuming you’ve received your due punishments. Some of our forebears, dear nephew, would consider this the end of your career as an Tempter. But times have most definitely changed, and I think you’ll agree the punishments are most edifying in any case.

So fret not, m’fiend! Our Father Below, in conjunction with many of our esteemed associates, has engineered a religious and cultural climate most conducive to treating our Patients after they have fallen into the hands of The Enemy. Traditionally our peers, when finding their Patients in similarly dire straits, would resort to the wond’rously ignoble (but very advanced) treatment of developing in them a sense of religious pride and pretension. I am afraid, however, this is beyond both your pay grade and skill.

Instead, I would urge you to leverage the many assets her culture offers us. I recall from our earlier correspondences that your Patient was a rather vehement anti-theist (some of your better work, I confess), perturbed by the ferocity of the Old Testament and deeply skeptical of its authority. What you had best remember, nephew, is that these anxieties are very much alive, and you would do well to make use of them. Given your dearth of experience in treating Patients who have succumbed to The Enemy’s wiles, nurturing her skepticisms, fears, and woes about That Book is presently your ‘best bet.’ I have taken the generous liberty of composing for you a list of ways in which you may do this:

1)  One fact about new converts, which many of our senior-most colleagues can attest to, is that they harbor a truly entertaining contradiction in their minds concerning matters of ‘faith.’ They at once believe themselves to be very devoted to and enamored of The Enemy, and simultaneously terrified by everything they read about Him which, at first glance, may contradict their beneficent image of Him. This solution has come pre-packaged for you, my dear Scrant. Take advantage these naive and fantastical perceptions they have of Our Foe, and subtly place them alongside her fears that He is, in fact, the loathsome and capricious god we know Him to be.

The proverbial ‘bread and butter’ of this technique is to prevent the Patient from reading the Blasted Thing with any sort of critical eye. Lead her directly into passages and excerpts with great and sudden, or seemingly arbitrary, brutality. And have her dwell not on why these things are happening, but instead on how horrid the things happening are. Take for example that splendid passage with all of those children being mauled by she-bears. All you need to is have her dwell on the disproportionate cruelty of Our Enemy for letting forty-two some-odd children die for calling a man ‘baldy.’ Surely, if He were so compassionate, would He have let such a thing happen? And what of those children’s souls? Your work here is threatened only when she begins to have thoughts such as: “Well, hasn’t Elisha always been a temperamental fellow? I don’t see any reason to think becoming a Prophet would make him less of a hothead, or any less inclined to misuse his gifts.” Once she starts to consider and weigh the merits of various interpretations, or insert her own experience into the passage, then we will have surely lost her to The Beast Above.

Indeed, what you want, Scrant, is for her to see only the surface atrocities and feel the threat they pose to her trust in the Enemy–that, and nothing more. Once she has felt this way, draw her attention to another activity or to the following passage. Divert her from it so that the resulting fear can grow and embellish itself in the back of her mind. If that fear goes unexamined, it festers into a rather hilarious cycle of the Patient running after the comforting God whom she ‘signed up for,’ and fleeing from any commentary or writing which she feels threatens that image. If you are successful in this, you will place your Patient in a kind of paralysis in which she is too terrified to seriously read the Book for fear of reading something she finds contradictory or disagreeable. Before too long, she will eschew the habit of reading it altogether.

Should you take this technique up (and you should), you must also tend to the Patient’s reactions when seeking out help reading the Book. Perhaps she asks a member of her congregation for clarification of some passage. Plant in her mind the idea that her fellow church-goer’s response seems rather rote and memorized or without nuance. Drive home the notion that this person seems rather uneducated, or that he does not see the weight of the problem with the passage like she, and Ordinary person with Ordinary concerns, does. Perhaps also she asks her priest or pastor. What then? Simply suggest that said priest or pastor is too educated; that his understanding of the problem is rather intellectualized and therefore unreliable. If the clergyman should demonstrate any enthusiasm in discussing the question, lead her to conclude that he is perhaps a bit childish, or that he is desperate for engagement with his or her parishioners. The objective here is really to invalidate the source in some petty, ad hominem sort of way before she can logically consider the facts and arguments which she is actually hearing.

2)  Another, quite amusing, way to misdirect a Patient in reading the Book is to ensure that she falls into deeply uncritical company, or better yet, company which believe themselves to be very critical in their exegesis, but are in fact not so.

A colleague of mine, Rottweald (you remember Rott, the three of us had tea in the 6th some centuries ago), recently had a Patient similar to yours. His treatment, similar to mine, was to coax him into attending a church that took the reading of the Book very seriously, but was not very concerned with the history and context of its documents or its scholarship. The Patient came to naturally believe that the unaided reading of scripture was surely enough to understand all anyone needed to understand about The Enemy. Having eschewed any considerations to things like genre, authorial intent, and the like, he started reading the entire Book in much the same way, rather like a manual hand-written by The Enemy Himself. He then began seeing commandments where there were none and pondering very little about things which he ought to have pondered a lot.

This led to a rather ruthless and peculiar orthodoxy, and the Patient now rests soundly in the arms of Our Father Below, as vicious and pedantic in death as he was in life.

So you see, nephew, despite this admittedly regrettable state of affairs, there are many avenues of misdirection down which you may proceed. Implement one or both of the above methods, and report back with your latest progress. From there, we will discern how best to move on.

Your cherished uncle,


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