(Originally published at www.earthlightbooks.blogspot.com.)
Reading, at bottom, is really just another human ritual. We say that it's about meaning and communication--and we're right--but if a Martian anthropologist were to observe and describe human interaction with text, she'd surely talk about it in the same way that human anthropologists talk about religious or mating rituals among aboriginal peoples: "Well, they say that the ritual is about something called 'meaning' or 'information,' though when pressed they can't give a very clear explanation of what either of those things are. Anyway, one human will put certain ornate scratches on a sheet of paper, and later another will look at those scratches, and react in some way specific to which scratches were used."
I'm not suggesting that "meaning" isn't real. I say only that an internal account of reading ("Text conveys meaning between people") and an external account of reading ("Scratches are made and then reacted to") are quite different. As in religious experience, with reading there is "no knowing without going."
So, if reading is (in some important sense) just another human ritual, then it follows that conventions about how to properly do it are (in some important sense) arbitrary. Not arbitrary like "Do whatever you want," but rather arbitrary like the rules of soccer or chess. There's no deep reason for disallowing hand-use in soccer, but given the establishment of this rule, it's essential to the entire project of soccer that it be respected. There's no deep reason for why knights are the only pieces that can jump in chess, but once a rule, it becomes important. (See Wittgenstein's ideas on language as a game here.)
If the rules of reading are 1) fundamentally arbitrary and 2) nonetheless important, then how can we read the Bible? One answer is to read it like a newspaper: it's a description of events that really did occur in history, and the truth or validity of the Bible is basically a question of how closely its description fits the actual, historical events: either the universe was created in six days or it wasn't; either Jesus literally died and was resurrected, or he wasn't. One excellent reason to favor journalism as the model for how to read the Bible is that it seems to provide strong, clear rules of interpretation. Most people interested in the Bible want its words to really mean something in the same way that most players of chess want the rules of the game to be clearly defined, and not just be open to endless interpretation.
Another model is the novel: a psuedo-account of the world, which functions just like a lie except that (outside the text) the author disclaims factual accuracy: "This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental." If the Bible is like a novel, then the meaning of the text lies in themes and metaphors, not factual accuracy. No one faults The Brothers Karamazov for its inaccuracy: the novel must be judged on its own terms.
Is the Bible like either of these? If it's like a newspaper, then it's clearly unreliable: the disagreements between the scientific account of the world and a literal reading of the Bible are legion (see here). And if it's like a novel, well, why is it important? There are plenty of great novels about the human condition, most of them lacking an entire bloody book on the intricacies of tabernacle-ritual.
I don't have an answer to these questions. It's not clear to me how to read the Bible or similar religious texts: what assumptions, conventions, rules, and contexts to adopt. But it seems important to recognize that newspapers and novels are not the only robust models for textual interpretation. It's easy to knock down a religious text for being inaccurate; a more difficult and perhaps more useful question is, In what way can this text become important or true?