The Bible is filled with customs and traditions that make immediate sense only in another culture, and another time. Anyone who reads the Bible, with an aim to recover its original meaning, must therefore try to accomplish the readerly equivalent of time travel. In this respect, our attempts to bridge the gap between biblical times and our own involve a lot of reflection about the ancient mindset. The point of this article, however, is that our attempts should also involve a certain amount of reflection about the modern mindset, in order to make us aware of how not to read. Unless we become aware of how our modern sensibilities predetermine our reading of certain passages, we can have no hope of really understanding the Bible on its own terms. In this article, I will examine a pair of modernizing habits of thought that seem to get in the way of how people read the Bible: 1) a contempt for external aspects (especially rituals), and 2) a fragile preoccupation with questions about how we “know” what we believe in.
Contempt against external aspects is deep-seated in the Western mind (cf. the mind-body dualism found in all Greek religion), but, as far as I can tell, the application of this contempt to the relationship between intention and form has really affected the Church only in the past 20 years or so. In the ancient world, only a few select philosophers preached that intention is everything, and that forms mean nothing, or that (in accordance with the justification that modern Christians sometimes give for biblical rituals) their real value lies in their instructive value. In the modern world, however, almost everyone holds to that view. For many Christians, even the word “religion” has become suspect.