22 September 2010

From 2007 - the Ways to Read Scripture

by Frank Turk

Let's be honest: there are probably quite a few approaches to reading any text that you could apply to reading the Bible. Seriously -- why not? We live in a relatively-enlightened age, right? We don't have to read the Bible in any way differently than people read Margaret Atwood or Maya Angelou or John Milton -- which is to say, the reader ought to choose the way he sees fit to read any text, and booyah -- that reader gets what he brings, right?

Right? Anyone with me?


Yeah, I thought so. The Catholic apologists are sharpening up their version of "see: I told you so;" the liberals won't touch that with your hand and blame it on LaToya Jackson when you put it that way; every teacher of critical reading is ready to hit "next blog" for the rank ignorance of such a thing; and the conservatives reading are split between the fundies who never imagined that there were more than two ways to read any text (literal and figurative, which is to say, as if is was true and as if it was false) and my friends who are again worried that I have split the difference with non-conservatives and am about to say something they will have to chastise me for.

So if everyone repudiates the idea that the reader sets the terms of engagement with the text, why worry about whether anyone thinks the Bible is "inerrant"?

Here's why: the way you read the Bible dictates the kind of truth you can get from it.

You know: Hemingway never wrote anything but fiction, more or less. Even his autobiographical stuff was fictionalized -- so if you want to take truth away from Papa, you can't take factual truth away from him, because there's no way to read what he wrote and distinguish the "rote historical data" from the "whimsical authorial license". None. If you take truth away from Hemingway, you have to take allegorical truth away from him -- what he writes has to come across in some way other than as example or anecdote. If it means anything, it means something by talking around the things it means.

And some people will read the Bible that way -- and they come to the conclusion that things like the resurrection or the virgin birth are themselves analogical truth and not something which happened on calendar days to people with (so to speak) birth certificates and dirty sandals. And their conclusion is honest insofar as their approach is honest.

Which is to say, what exactly do you expect to get from the Bible if your major premise is that it is not a story by witnesses about something that happened on the streets of Jerusalem and in the Roman courts and on a filthy wooden cross?

See: the problem with the idea that there are "quite a few" ways to read the Bible is that it makes the intention of the writers of the Bible a non-determining factor. It actually inverts the bogus Fundie dichotomy that the text is either "true" (and therefore woodenly literal) or "false" (and therefore some kind of subjective buffet). It says that because the text is "true", we can use all kinds of techniques to extract that truth. We can read John like fantasy literature or a poem and extract the truth; we can read Psalms like they are newspaper reports and lament the "barbarity" of Ps 3 with its call for God to break teeth, having extracted truth; we can look at Adam interpret him as a cool-ective metaphor rather than a person that both Jesus and Paul said was a real guy.

While the Fundie may ignore the fact of genre types in the text and read everything as if it was just blank statements of fact, the buffet reader is doing exactly the same thing with just as bad results: he is ignoring the demands a genre makes on the reader as expressed by the writer. You know: the word "authority" has, as its root, the word "author" for a reason: something has "authority" based on its source, based on who the author is and whether he has can give to the text what he intends to give to the text.

So sure: go ahead and brush up on the many, many ways people have, in the past, read the Bible, and the ways some people today are trying to "read" the Bible. But then ask yourself this straight-up question: isn't the first person we should ask about what this text means the author of the text? If yes, how does he tell us this?


Thomas Louw said...

The Bible can be interpreted in many ways. Sure, but know that you will arrive at many different destinations (well only two). Only one meaning is, well ment. Every text has only one interpretation that is correct.
Our view of inspiration of scripture is what will determine our angle of interpretation.

Patience said...

Oh boy...this will be interesting.

Word Verification: petraer
petros: stone or rock?
rocker, stoner? Maybe someone who throws rocks or stones people.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

"But then ask yourself this straight-up question: isn't the first person we should ask about what this text means the author of the text? If yes, how does he tell us this?"

By the context of the passage, considering paragraphs before and after, chapters, books, and ultimately the whole Bible. Who wrote it? Why was it written? What is the passage addressing. . . etc.

olan strickland said...

Frank said that we don't have to read the Bible in any way different than people read Margaret Atwood or Maya Angelou or John Milton. He was doing a good job of alliterating until John Milton - :)

Rob Bailey said...

Do you think that one could determine the author's intent by getting to know the original recipient's understanding of the author?

FX Turk said...

Rob --

Meh. I think that's one way to think about it -- how the author was received. Even a negative reception tells us about how his first audience knew his intentions.

I'm not sure that's the best way, though. I think that we know what the author intended by looking at his use of the author's tool kit inside a language.

David Regier said...

You're going to make me think today, aren't you?

You obviously don't know what the internet is for.

Aaron said...

he is ignoring the demands a genre makes on the reader as expressed by the writer.

Great line. I've always had arguments with non-literalists about this very thing. Just because hyperbole or idioms are used doesn't mean we can't take the truth literally. When my mother told me she'd spank me until I couldn't sit for a week, she didn't word for word that I wouldn't be able to sit for a week. But the literal truth was there and we both understood what that was. Then comes the literalist who says it must mean exactly that and the liberal who says it was actually allegory.

Halcyon said...


How silly you are! Don't you know that the author is dead, and thus his/her "authority" has died with him/her?

The only authority is the reader; and as a reader, I say that this post was another one of your rants against Biologos and that you should feel ashamed of your consistent phobia of science.

(end sarcasm)

Chaotic Order said...

Thank you for this blog! It's amazing the different things people get out of the Biblical text.

Robert said...

We should use Scripture to define Scripture. Paul was sarcastic at times...Peter, not so much. John wrote like a hardliner to show what our patterns of lifestyle should be. You only learn this from reading all of Scripture and making it work together. And you only get to know the authors by reading all of what they wrote and examining it in light of how it works with all of Scripture.

To take our own ideas of how to read the different books of the Bible because of our own inadequacies and predispositions is very dangerous...it is putting God in a box.

Mel said...

IMHO, the absolute WORST offender of "reading the Bible anyway you want" is the Abomidinable John Shelby Sprong!

"If we assume that Paul is gay, his epistles take on a whole new meaning."


Mike Westfall said...

"... the way you read the Bible dictates the kind of truth you can get from it."

I take this to be figurative language for, "What you choose to eat for breakfast determines what kind of nutrition you can get from it."

Frank wasn't being literal, was he?

Chris H said...


Sure, and if we assume that Moses was a three-legged talking Ostrich then everything has a new meaning too.

Halcyon said...

Chris H:

Excuse me, but I prefer to read Moses as being a four-legged talking Ostrich.

Ron (aka RealityCheck) said...

So if… Dan… for example, is the author of a post… like… yesterday… for example, and he keeps telling what HIS intent of the post was (you know… like… as the author of the post) and that intent is pretty much… like… ONE HUNDRED PERCENT consistent with previous posts that this Dan person (for example) had previously posted and someone… like… say… a person with no profile… for example… keeps saying that he (Dan… the author of the post) is wrong by citing examples that don’t match the authors OBVIOUS and SAID intent… and Dan takes issue with how ridiculous this is (considering the person says they’re not new here and actually READ the post) would that make Dan… for example… a person that needs to be… say… more tolerant of others… or…maybe… someone in need of MEDICATION… or… someone who is just maybe (call me crazy as I go out on a limb here)… JUSTIFIABLY a little TIRED of going round-and-round with someone who is AT THE VERY LEAST guilty of doing exactly what Frank (in this post) is WARNING against or… even more probably… just pushing buttons because they get a kick out of it?!?

Just wondering out loud.


Craig and Heather said...

isn't the first person we should ask about what this text means the author of the text? If yes, how does he tell us this?

Not too long ago, I got thumped over the head with:

John 5:39 You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life. And they are the ones witnessing of Me,

and realized I had been reading "backwards" most of the time...meaning, I was putting myself in the center of the picture and stuffing Jesus into the cracks.


DJP said...

RealityCheck is now my favorite commenter, ever, for today.

Steve Berven said...

I find the best way to interpret scripture is to put two stones into a top hat and watch what words float up off of them.

But that's just me.

Ron (aka RealityCheck) said...

Ah man Dan, now I'm going to be walking around with a big head all day. ;-)

DJP said...

That was yesterday, though.


Ron (aka RealityCheck) said...

But when you say yester"day" Dan are you referring to a standard 24 hour day or is it just possible you "mean" something else?

If you mean (according to my interpretation) millions of years... well... I could be your favorite commentator for the rest of our lives. :-)

Dave .... said...

Without being defensive - the first question to anyone when discussing Scripture has to be whether it can be interpretted in more than one way (methodologically speaking). The greater the breadth of "allowable" methods, the greater the confusion about the meaning and application of the text. Just try a conversation about "... where two or three are gathered in my name .." and the difficulty is immediately apparent. Bad teaching has taught the church (and the world) many bad habits about handling the Word. Authorial intent, context, grammatical/historical exegesis ... these may be the "secrets" to the message in the future.

Patience said...

Wow I thought there was going to be bickering but these comments were so civil. I'm impressed.

Also I found the jokes and sarcasm very amusing :-)

Patience said...

The preview tells lies! My smiley was intact.