Beth mentions Marcus Borg in her comment about Bible study. There are many other authors, who, over the past decade have added enormously to our understanding of the Bible and offered new ways of looking at these texts which form the foundation of the Christian Tradition. Among them are John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Walter Wink, Robert Funk and Elisabeth Schuster Fiorenza. Some of these formed part of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who tackled the perennial question of what we can know of the historical Jesus. In their attempt to make accessible the critical approach to understanding the Bible they were much smeared by conservatives and popular press alike, but I believe they have offered ways of making the Bible an interesting document for twenty first century thinking people.
But we really are faced, as Beth points out, with a huge problem in getting members of more liberal congregations, as well as those outside, interested in Bible Study. It is partly, as Beth points out, a question of dealing with the alienation from the texts arising from the experience of a pre-critical and narrow interpretative approach, which just does not speak to people who have had any exposure to modern education and scientific thinking. But I think there is also the question of the commitment required to undertake critical Biblical study. First even the most enthusiastic beginner has to overcome the pain felt when leaving behind a comfortable corner in their lives and moving out in an unknown direction to a strange land. Secondly a large amount of background reading and study is required. Thirdly, critical study does not deal with short passages, picked thematically from here and there to support particular theological/political positions, but with extended readings, whole books and whole genres of texts. Time and time again we see that even seminary-trained priests and pastors, once they have passed through the hoops of their churches academic requirements, just abandon it all and return to the simple, pre-critical ways of preaching and presenting the Bible.
But I believe it is vital that we pursue every way of making critical Bible understanding known to and welcomed in our congregations. For otherwise we fall back on two alternatives, neither of which is attractive. The first is to return to a pre-reformation situation where only a small elite can understand and use the Bible. The second is even worse, that we leave Bible study to the conservatives and evangelicals.
There is also another problem out there. For those looking for an alternative way of being a Christian, there are some recent works which are very seductive. Among them are The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, The Da Vinci Code, The Jesus Papers and The Tomb of Jesus. While these books go beyond the canonical scriptures, and take into account other documents, artifacts and information, it is all processed through the same pre-critical lens as the fundamentalists use. Unreliable data processed by uncritical thought produces absurd conclusions.
So it is vital to, as I said in another post, to find ways of encouraging thinking Christians to take the leap into the new ways of reading and studying the Bible. We shall be glad to hear from anybody who has stories of successful (or unsuccessful) ventures in such work.