“This verse obviously supports X,” claims Sally. “Are you crazy? That verse obviously means Y,” responds Ken.
Isn’t it fascinating when two people read the same Bible and come to opposing conclusions? This dynamic is why I have always been drawn to hermeneutics, the study of textual interpretations. Whether you are conscious of it or not, you have a hermeneutic that informs how you read and interpret Scripture. Even those who claim to adhere only to the words of the Bible without any human interpretation don’t realize how much their interpretation is informed by their culture, by their gender, by their ways of reasoning, and by a whole host of other factors.
A recent episode of the television show The Goldbergs made for a fascinating example of how different assumptions and perspectives inform our interpretation of a common text. The plot centered on how different Goldberg males interpreted the song “Cats in the Cradle.” One son interpreted the song as “the greatest revenge song ever.” For him, the dad referenced in the song finally makes time for the son, and then the son “sticks it to his old man” by being too busy. The other Goldberg son interpreted the song as the importance of spending time together as a family since time so easily slips away. The Goldberg father, however, interpreted the song as the dad getting what he really wanted - “to be left alone.” It was the same song with three radically different interpretations of meaning.
As the Goldbergs reveal, the perspectives we bring to the task of interpretation determine to a large degree the conclusions we draw (especially when they are unexamined biases). The same reality is true when we read Scripture. Our perspectives can bias our interpretative conclusions. The biases I bring to interpretation would include: twenty-first-century American, bald, white, male from the Bible Belt (okay, so my baldness does not make an impact, but you get the drift). Due to these biases, I could uncritically read into the Bible twenty-first-century cultural forces such as individualism, consumerism, and so on. Reading the Bible, which was written many centuries earlier and shaped by Middle Eastern values (community, hospitality, etc.), means that I need to acknowledge a different frame of reference in order to discern more clearly what the Bible is intending to communicate. Or as my New Testament professor put it, we need to take off the glasses we see through (twenty-first century) and put on different glasses (first-century Roman and Jewish for the New Testament). Without clarifying our biases, we will unknowingly interpret Scripture through our limited perspective and --worse -- be trapped by our perspective.
Biblical interpretation is hard work. We need biblical scholars to help uncover some of the dynamics at play in the first century. Biblical interpretation is done best in community. In discussing our interpretations of Scripture, we need a healthy dose of humility; and we need to hear from a variety of perspectives. We need the courage to hear from those we too easily dismiss. It will take courage to uncover assumptions that might result in our changing our minds. We need Courageous Conversations.
- How aware are you of the perspectives you bring to the task of reading Scripture?
- List as many as you can. Did any surprise you?
Reflection Questions for Church Leaders:
- How do you help your congregation learn to read Scripture more faithfully?
- Read Nehemiah 8:1-8. How do you help “interpret” the Bible for others?
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (IVP Books, 2012)