Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Problem With "Biblical" (Part II)

Like any book, the Bible is something of a mirror:  if an ass peers in, you can't expect an apostle to peer out! William Sloane Coffin

"When everything biblical is not Christ-like, we Christians need to develop an interpretive theory of Scripture.  I think the love of Jesus is indeed the plumb line by which everything is to be measured.  And while laws may be more rigid, love is more demanding, for love insists on motivation and goes between, around, and way beyond all laws."  William Sloane Coffin

Let me begin with an analogy.  A while back, I had a bad pair of sunglasses.  Actually the problem was less with the sunglasses than how I had abused them.  They were bent, scratched, and cracked (and my wife said I looked more than a little foolish when I wore them).  Whenever I put those glasses on, they were the lens through which I perceived the whole world.  Because my lenses were broken and scratched, I saw a broken and scratched world composed of broken and scratched people and things.  Of course, the problem wasn't with the world, but my visionary perception of it.  Lenses, whether good or bad, impact the way we see the world.  I am trying to argue that ALL of us read the Bible through certain lenses.  The two quotes above, from one of America's greatest preachers, hint at the necessity of a faithful interpretive lens when we are reading the Bible.  The question for all of us isn't whether we read through certain lenses.  Rather, the question is what a faithful set of lenses would look like.

Some people believe that the Bible interprets itself, serving as its own lens.  Some texts interpret others. Namely, the New Testament sheds light on the Old.  While this view does have certain merit, the problem is deciding which texts interpret others- which texts are heavy and which texts are light.  Some people would cry that you can't pick and choose.  While I agree with the sentiment that you can't pick and choose arbitrarily, I do believe we all pick and choose.  The question is how to do so faithfully.  When asked what he believed the greatest commandment to be, Jesus didn't reply, "All of them are equally important.  You can't pick and choose..."  No, Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  On this commandment hangs all the law and the prophets."  I believe what Jesus is saying is that this command is the lens through which he read the Bible (it's the hinge on which all Scripture hangs).  Loving God and loving neighbor must color all of our interpretations.  Any other lens is cracked and broken.

Furthermore, I believe that interpretive lenses were at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees cared a great deal about the Bible.  They took great care with the letter of the law, and they spent many hours debating the "biblical" views of ____________.  The sharp disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees seems to be a debate over the most faithful lens through which to read Scripture.  For example, it's not that one cared more about Sabbath than the other, but that their differing lenses created different interpretations and practices.  The Pharisees had Bible verses addressing the Sabbath in their pockets as well, but they were reading through a different lens than Jesus.  Lenses make all the difference.  

In short, our understanding of the Bible doesn't begin with the Bible, but with Jesus.  He must be our interpretive key, or we are misreading the text.  Sometimes, I grow concerned that we are focusing so much attention on the Bible that we are ignoring the one the Bible is pointing to.  To borrow one more phrase from Coffin, "We believe in the Word made flesh before we believe in the Word made words."  We must maintain the primacy of Jesus over Scripture or else we are reading the Bible through the wrong lens.  Thus, the concern to be Christian must take precedence over the concern to be biblical, lest the signpost that points to Christ be confused with Christ himself.  When the Bible is granted as much authority as Jesus, then it becomes a happy hunting ground for just about any "biblical" interpretation.  When the lens is broken, even 20/20 vision is impaired.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Problem With "Biblical"

I know this is going to sound funny since I am a pastor and all, but I'm growing increasingly concerned about how people understand the Bible.  More specifically, I've grown uncomfortable with the phrase, "the biblical view of ___________."  Let me explain.

There are many expressions of Christianity today, including many expressions of Baptist life.  Each denomination claims to be "biblical."  Each one reads Scripture, studies Scripture, and seeks to practice Scripture.  It's just that each tradition interprets the Scriptures differently.  It took me a while to come to the realization that Presbyterians, Episcopals, Methodists, and Catholics all care about the Bible as much as Baptists do.  For one expression to say that it has "the biblical view of ___________" takes more than a little hubris and intellectual pride.  Furthermore, I heard biblical references in both political conventions over the last several weeks.  How can you read the same Scripture and come to so very different conclusions? Both conservatives and liberals read the Bible.  People on both sides of "the issues" read Scripture.  Maybe it's a matter of emphases; maybe it's a matter of perspective; or maybe it's a matter of agenda- but varying perspectives can claim to have a "biblical view."

I'm convinced that several unchallenged assumptions underlie much of the popular understanding of Scripture.  Here are a few:

1) Many people believe that the Bible speaks univocally.  Thus, Scripture has one perspective on just about everything.  However, I'm convinced that the Bible should not be read as one book, but as 66 books, written over the span of many years from many different contexts. Furthermore, many of the books argue with each other.  If you ask the question, "Why do people suffer," while reading the book of Deuteronomy, you are going to get a vastly different answer than when asking the same question of the book of Job.   It's not that one is true and the other isn't, but that suffering is mysterious and one perspective is insufficient in exploring the depths of it.  In this way, the Bible mirrors the polyvalence of real life.

2) I believe that many people underestimate the meaning that the reader brings to the text.  To assume that one meaning lies within a text and can be purely extracted apart from the attitude, faith, and perspective of the reader is just nonsense.  Does a faithful reading of Scripture not demand illumination from the reader as much as inspiration from the writers?  The character of the reader is as important as the text itself.

3) Finally, I believe this perspective ignores the lessons of the past.  Many of the slave owners in our nation's history justified their depraved practices by quoting Scripture.  They believed they were doing the "biblical" thing.  Even within the Bible itself is a story of Satan who tempted Jesus by quoting Scripture!  Surely "biblical" must mean something more than placing biblical texts in parentheses after stating our convictions or quoting a hodgepodge of verses.    

I'm growing increasingly convinced that how we read the Bible is as important as that we read the Bible.  I am convinced that many times, the phrase "the biblical view of __________" is veiled speech for "my interpretation is __________."  However, when my view is couched as the view, then I place it above reproach and correction, and I'm in a position of authority over any who would disagree with me.

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to blog on our perspective of Scripture, and I welcome your comments.  I want us to think together about what we mean by "biblical," and how we can become more faithful readers of the text.