The Biblical Interpretation Conversation

Even after five years of studying, asking questions, and entering into conversations about the Bible, I am frustrated that I still do not have any idea how to communicate with literalists (people who take the bible literally in all possible circumstances even if historical context might challenge such a reading.). I still don't have a language for that conversation because the second I try to explain my understanding of a particular passage of text in scripture, the second I try to explain what might be on the mind of the author and what the original audience may have understood about it, they block off any reference I might have to context which might threaten the literal interpretation. They will say, "that's what it says so I believe it" or "I think the bible clearly says this so that's what I believe and that's what I'm gonna believe" right after I have just finished explaining to them how the Bible might in fact say otherwise once you explore a little more. Rather than dealing with the context with me, offering a different understanding, they ignore context altogether. Neither of us can see past each others' methods. They can't understand how a "God breathed" text could be so dependant on the context in which it was written and I have a hard time understanding how they couldn't understand that. They want desperately for the text to be easy to understand, they want to be able to understand it without really understanding the stuff behind it, and I just know that there are some passages which can be destructive and divisive if taken out of context. It's not that I want the bible to forever sit on the scholar's desk out of reach of the "common folk," in fact, I think the bible can be very easy to understand at its' core when we're not hung up on specifics.

Even the most "uneducated" can still, without a doubt, read the bible and learn that they must love (which stands as the bottom line) and probably even that Jesus should be their example of what real love looks like. But when that person begins to deal with specifics without the humility it takes to admit that they must first understand the context and with an over-spiritualized or even docetic understanding of the text they may quickly build conclusions around specific texts which are truly in need of the authors' original intent for interpretation. Let's face it, we're 2000 or more years separated from the text... could Paul have always meant the same thing we do when he used the words he used (no to mention he wrote in Greek)?

And for me, the conversation always becomes painful. Literalists often tend to seek the moral high-ground for their argument. They paint me out to be questioning the authority of the Bible and start painting themselves to be upholding the Bible as "inspired," "God-breathed," and "the word of God." And it's hurtful for me because I want to be known as someone who loves scripture and believes that it's inspired, "God breathed," and the word of God. I am trying to show how it can be all those things and they are saying that I am standing against all those things. The only reason I take the time to deal with the text with any effort is because I believe it is authoritative and they are saying that I am dropping Bible's authority altogether. What I hear them saying is, "everything you've worked so hard to understand over the years is worthless to God." Sometimes when they say "that's what it says so I'm gonna believe it" right after I've finished explaining that that's not what it says, I hear underneath their words, "you're obviously an enemy of God so it's my spiritual obligation to ignore your perspective." And I bet they hear me saying, "you're stupid, I get it, you don't... just let me interpret everything for you." I am sure in reality that neither of us mean those things, I know I never want to come across as arrogant, nor seek to hurt the other.

I think this is why the conversation gets so heated. It's because there's actually a little pain in the whole thing. I think there's always pain when we learn from one another but this particular coversation gets to our bones, this conversation challenges the things that are most important to us. Perhaps we need to identify that pain a little more in our conversations, let the other know why what they're saying is hurtful, and move forward from there. Perhaps what we need to do is find creative ways of listening to one another better. Perhaps I need more patience.