Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Reading the Bible is a Lot like Dating

Because I’m bad at it and most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing.

But now that we have the obvious joke out of the way, I’m currently reading Peter Enns’ book The Sin of Certainty and I came across this passage:

""Speak for yourself. I'm not creating God in my own image. I'm just following the Bible."
No one just "follows" the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we "follow" the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God."[1]

And I think that Enns is onto something. Often I have heard Christians say “I’m just reading the Bible for what it says” when pressed on an issue or even as an exhortation towards someone who takes a less literal reading of Scripture. But are they really reading the Bible for it says?

I don’t think so.

But first we have to look at a misunderstanding of an idea called “the clarity of Scripture”. Popular within evangelical circles, the clarity of Scripture is the belief that the meaning of the Bible can be grasped by all people, both the educated and the uneducated. However, this idea is sometimes taken beyond its limits to mean that the meaning of scripture is always clear at the surface level. For example, one can read a passage and know its true meaning instantly, often “due to the Holy Spirit”. And while I wouldn’t say this never happens, I don’t think it’s the norm.

Consider how romantic relationships work in the Western world. Often, the start of a successful romantic relationship is characterised by first dates. Typically, these consist of asking questions about the person’s job, family, upbringing, experiences in an effort to get to know them. We might call this the act of getting to know who the person says they are. And if there is a mutual attraction the relationship will progress past the early stages and mature into something more. The couple experiences joy, pain, loss, fights, love, and relies on each other for support. In this they get to learn who the person is. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many couples with long-lasting marriages will talk about the joy (and sometimes frustration) that can come from this deeper part of the relationship.         

And reading the Bible is a similar experience. At first we may read the Bible and see the meaning of the text that is most obvious to us. But, to borrow an idea from Old Testament scholar John Walton, the Bible wasn’t written to us.[2] It was written for us in the sense that it was written for all humankind, but it was primarily written to an ancient audience (Israel) very different from our own.[3] And they thought very differently than we do in our post-Greco-Roman Western world. And it was a very strange world full of gods, chaos monsters, and values far removed from our own. Furthermore, and this may raise some hackles amongst my more conservative readers, the Bible doesn’t escape this ancient milieu. Contrary to the popular idea, the Bible being God’s word doesn’t mean that it was literally dictated by God. As any biblical studies student knows, the result of this is that the Bible has the fingerprints of its ancient world all over it. And this results in some very strange and sometimes disturbing things in the Bible.

And sometimes we don’t know what to make of this.

And it can take a lot of humility to admit that we don’t know.

Or we can go the other route and brush aside the areas that don’t make sense to us or horrify us. Or we can even try to smooth these parts out with simplistic explanations.

But a faithful reading of the Bible won’t let us do that. To stay in the surface level of Scripture is to stay in the shallow end of the pool where our feet touch the ground instead of kicking off to the deep end and trusting in the buoyancy of the water to keep us afloat. It is to stay in the early days of our dating where everything is giddy and light. But the Bible calls to us to go deeper. It calls us to chew it over and wrestle with its meaning.[4]   

And just like in dating we bring our own baggage to the table. We bring our hurts, our fears, our hopes, our culture, and our sometimes just bad ideas with us into any relationship we enter.[5] And surprise, surprise, we bring all of this to our efforts to interpret the Bible. The most obvious is that we bring our own culture to the text. Consider the fact that an American evangelical is probably going to have a different understanding of certain passages than, for example, a Palestinian Christian. If the distorted version of the clarity of Scripture is true who gets to claim that they have the right understanding of Scripture?[6]

But it’s not just our culture that affects how we read the Bible. Were you raised with an image of an angry vengeful God waiting to punish anyone who even thinks out of line? Were you raised with an image of a loving God who gives grace to all you ask for it and understands our sufferings? The chances are that these are going to affect the way you read Scripture. Even your level and field of education is going to influence your reading of Scripture.

Does this mean that the meaning of Scripture is some post-modern, relativistic mess of whatever we make of it? Of course not. One of the key principles of biblical interpretation is the striving to understand what the original author meant within their own culture. And while we can never escape our biases, we can be mindful of them and try to minimise their influence on our attempt to understand what the original author meant.[7]      

One closing thought: wrestling with Scripture is a good thing. Asking questions of Scripture is a good thing. It’s a mark of spiritual maturity. But we were created to wrestle and mature within the context of community. And a healthy faith community is characterised by being safe to ask the difficult questions, and maybe more importantly, the questions being acknowledged instead of being brushed off aside. As I’ve written about before, communities play a huge role in how an individual works through their doubts. Be that safe community. Don’t resort to easy answers. It may be scary but kicking off from the safety of the shallow end often is.           

photo credit: Kalexanderson

[1] Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our (HarperOne, 2016), 17.
[2] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2010), 9.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Don’t worry; God is cool with us wrestling with His word. In fact, the name Israel means “God contended” or (very loosely) “he who wrestles with God”.
[5] I’m full of bad ideas. Like that time as a youth pastor when I interpreted Jesus’ command to be fishers of men literally and drove a pair of trucks with a dragnet between them through the local school.  
[6] My money is on the Palestinian Christian seeing as Palestine is the birthplace of Christianity and is closer to Jesus’ culture than the American so-called “Judeo-Christian” culture is.
[7] One of my lecturers in theological college was a former microbiologist who specialised in the field of virology. I remember in one class he explained that scientists aren’t always as objective as they’re popularly portrayed and they often have to fight their expectations for the experiment (this isn’t a slight against the work scientists do. Scientists are awesome).  

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