If I were writing directions for reading the Bible (I guess I actually am writing directions for reading the Bible), I think I would be tempted to steal the directions from the back of a shampoo bottle. That is lather, rinse, and repeat. Or, once you finish the process, do it again. If you are washing you hair, repeating the process is supposed to guarantee cleaner, shinier hair. If you are reading the Bible, repeating the process guarantees greater accuracy, comprehension, and confidence.
And in case this talk about Sherlock Holmes has only served to wet your appetite, enjoy…
An obvious truth is that in order to interpret a text is you must first determine what you are interpreting. This may sound excessively basic, but I think failure to recognize this basic truth is one of the major reasons that many Bible readers struggle in settings such as church and small groups. Bible readers often take a verse out of context completely unintentionally simply because they haven’t taken the time to consider how to determine the proper boundaries of the text. Let me explain how I determined what to read in small group when going over Isaiah 30 last week.
Where to begin? Sometimes knowing where to begin is the hardest part of Bible study. However, I think remembering how interpretation works will help. Interpretation is the process of making guesses about what the author means, and then eliminating poor guesses while trying to move toward the most probable guess. In that way interpretation is a lot like the work of a diagnostician.
Perhaps you have seen the show House. I think the procedure for interpreting at text is kind of like House’s procedure for solving medical dilemmas. Whenever he gets stuck he brings everyone into a room and he writes down everything that they know on the whiteboard. Then his team sits around making guesses about what explanation best fits the evidence they have. Typically, when the show begins they don’t know the answer and make a few wrong guesses, but each guess gives them a little new information. At some point, they get enough information that House is able to figure out what the problem is.
I suggest reading the Bible in the same way. The first step is writing down everything you know on your whiteboard. If you don’t have a whiteboard, don’t worry. It’s just a metaphor. But try to get what you do know in your head or on paper. Some of the information will be more helpful than others. Not all information has the same interpretive value. But, like in House, you often won’t know how important something is until you get into you process of making guesses.
So how did I use my “whiteboard” in Bible study? I wish I could say that I read the entire book of Isaiah first in order to try to answer a few preliminary questions such as, “who is writing?” who was Isaiah written to?” what is the author’s overall goal?” and “how does my passage contribute to that goal?” However, we were looking at only a few verses in chapter 30 of Isaiah and I only had 45 minutes to gain my bearings and try to understand what is happening in this passage. So time constraints required I find a shortcut.
This week at small group someone asked that I post an example to show how I interpret a passage. Because we were working through Isaiah 30, I am going to show how I approach Bible reading using that passage. My own process actually consists of several steps, so to keep the posts short, I am planning on writing a separate post for each step in my process. However, before I get started, I think it may be helpful to mention a couple of preliminaries.
1. The Goal – I see good Bible reading as a two step process. The first step is to find the meaning and the second is to evaluate its significance. The search for meaning is a primarily historical search where I try to understand exactly what the author was seeking to communicate and why. E. D. Hirsch describes this as a “re-cognition of the author’s meaning.” Evaluating the significance is to ask the question, “so what?” There are countless ways one can approach significance, but I am particularly interested in how this informs my overall theology and how I personally should respond to the text.
2. The Method – E.D. Hirsch, the author most famous for the meaning and significance distinction, claimed that there was no method ever created that could reliably bring a reader to the meaning of the text. Instead he claimed “every interpretation begins as a guess and ends as a guess, and no one has ever devised a method for making intelligent guesses.” For the most part, I agree with this. I begin with reading the text and making a hypothesis about what the text is about. It is actually impossible to read a text and not make a hypothesis about the meaning. However, I think it is important to point out that there are some things we can do to make those guesses more intelligent. I will try to demonstrate how I believe my method can help make those guesses more intelligent.
3. Being Realistic – Because interpretations are guesses, I have to admit I cannot be 100% sure I have accurately and precisely arrived and the author’s own thinking concerning the meaning. In fact, there are many times that I will recognize that there are multiple possibilities regarding the meaning of a text. Hirsch states, “sometimes the arguments for two interpretive hypotheses are so strong and our knowledge so limited that a definite decision is impossible.” However, we must remember, there is a right answer, and that right answer is based on the thoughts of the original author. Hirsch continues, “The aim of validation, therefore, is not necessarily to denominate an individual victor, but rather to reach an objective conclusion about relative probabilities.” I must remember that I am working in probabilities and therefore must remain humble about my hypothesis while at the same time seeking an objective conclusion. This will require a willingness to constantly revise my hypothesis in order to make it either more accurate or more precise.
Last weekend I thoroughly enjoyed a trip to Washington, DC. The sight seeing portion of the trip consisted of a couple of museums and a trip to the National Cathedral. If you have never seen the National Cathedral, you should. It is beautiful and it is huge. I have friends near DC who tell me they regularly go there to find a place to read the Bible and spend some time reflecting and praying. There aren’t many places as well suited for that type of day retreat as the National Cathedral.
One of the interesting things about the cathedral is the number of chapels within the cathedral. I would guess that there are about 15 different chapels throughout the building. They are all different sizes but follow a basically similar layout, as if they were designed to house churches of all different sizes in the same building at the same time. It seems that the intention is that you can go anywhere in the building and find a spot that is just right for your worship needs.
Interestingly, the church seems to view Bible reading and church architecture in a similar manner. The National Cathedral sold a $0.50 tract called “The Bible: a book about us, a book about God.” In the tract the author says this:
It may sound like fortune-telling, but don’t let that worry you. Let the Bible fall open in your lap and start there. If you don’t find something that speaks to you, let it fall open to something else. Read it as though it were as exotic as I Ching or the Tarot deck. Because it is.
I assume that most of the people reading this blog would bristle at this statement. Comparing Bible reading to fortune telling seems to border on the blasphemous. However, I think that many Bible studies, and many sermons for that matter, operate in the exact manner this tract prescibes. Similar to walking into the National Cathedral and looking for a chapel to suit their needs, it seems that many Bible readers open up the Bible and begin looking for something that “speaks to them.”
Certainly, the desire to have the Bible “speak to you” is from the greatest intentions. However, the tarot deck approach to Bible reading actually hinders our ability to hear what the Bible has to say. That is because when one opens the Bible and looks for a some exotic verse, they are rarely as concerned with the author’s intention as they are with the verse’s impact. And when the author’s intention is lost, any basis for a claim on valid understanding of meaning is lost with it.
Instead, we must train ourselves to let the Bible speak on its own terms. Rather than beginning with our own needs, we should first look for the aims and purposes of the author. This means not looking simply looking for a favorite verse, but taking the time to understand the author’s argument. While perhaps lacking the exotic feel of reading a tarot deck, old-fashioned, meat and potatoes, authorial intention is the only tried and true manner for letting the Bible speak to you.
Yesterday I went on a road trip to Washington, DC. And as is my custom of late, I was able to listen to an audiobook to help pass the time. For this trip I listened to one of my all time favorites, The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. This is the fourth book published in the Chronicles of Narnia (6th chronologically), and quite possibly, my favorite.
I was pleased, and quite surprised to hear that Puddleglum the Marshwiggle was able to shed a considerable amount of light on the topic of my last post. If I were king of Narnia I think I would have him renamed Puddleglum the Wise.
The witch had bewitched Eustace, Jill, Prince Rilian, and Puddleglum and was seeking to convince them that the only reality was the reality that they could see. Each of these four were from the Narnia, but had been captured by the witch and were being held, in her kingdom, deep underground. A series of events led them to realize that they needed to get back to Narnia, but the witch intended stop to their quest for freedom by undermining their confidence in reality. They told her of their beautiful world filled with grass, trees, and air… the sun and the moon and stars, and most importantly Aslan. However, for each of these things, the witch responded by convincing them that they were all just figments of their imaginations, attempts to dream of a world better than that which they were in. She wanted them to believe that the only reality was the reality that they were presently in.
Puddleglum however, had a moment of great lucidity and responded to the witch –
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and starts and Aslan Himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s the funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game if you are right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I am going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.
I say the same to Bertrand Russell and his world of “unyielding despair.” If that is the real world, and the Bible is but a play world, the Bible “licks the real world hollow.” And it is my plan to spend my life looking for the world of the Bible, were sin is defeated and I can be made right with God.
I am stealing a post from a blogger named Justin Taylor. I saw the video (@ 4 min), then read the quote from Bertrand Russell (the philosopher who wrote “Why I am Not a Christian”), and found them both to be very though provoking.
The video portrays a little meteor falling to earth. During his fall he goes through a range of emotions as he realizes that his own death is coming. All of the personality and emotions of the meteor are asking you to see the world through his eyes. In fact, I think it goes beyond seeing the world, and begs you to see your world through his eyes.
As the video ends, you find yourself asking, “how should I view my own impending death?” This video presents a romantic viewpoint, emphasizing the “enjoy the ride” mentality. Justin Taylor points out that the realist viewpoint is more bleak. When one considers that their life is without meaning and purpose, they are drawn into a state of “unyielding despair.”
Fallen from Sascha Geddert on Vimeo.
The realist approach of “unyielding despair” as told by Bertrand Russell:
… but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
—Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903).
I am sure that you picked up on the fact that Bertrand Russell is no Christian. What I find most amazing his that he would suggest that the “soul’s habitation” be built upon the foundation of such “unyielding despair.” I find such a request to be too great, both for the sake of logic and for the sake of my soul.
Robert Plummer has written a helpful guide to interpreting the Bible. He asks a series of 40 questions and gives a brief but helpful answer to each of them. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but what I have read is helpful.
Here is his introduction to question 28 – How do we interpret proverbs?
Soon after our first child was born I received an email from a friend in which I was challenged to “claim the promise” of Proverbs 22:6 (“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it”). Is this in fact a “promise?” If, upon reaching adulthood, my daughter were to turn away from the Lord, does that meant that ultimately my training is to blame? Rightly understanding the genre of proverbs will enable us to answer these questions.
I think that is a fun introduction which highlights how important it is to understand the genres of Scripture. If you want a quick guide to genres, as well as many other questions about interpreting the Bible, this book is helpful.