Over the next few weeks, we are discussing big questions about the Bible. We will be adapting our sermons for this blog. This is part three of our sermon series, "Questions About the Bible".
We’re spending time on these questions of the Bible because The Bible is our primary tool for worship. We are unapologetic in this as it has held a central place in Christian worship since the early church and before.
When 15-year-old Sarah from my youth group wrote an email asking all about the Bible, she pointed to this very important question: What is the function of the Bible? What does the Bible do?
Here’s my short answer: The Holy Scriptures tell us the story of God’s activity in the past, so that we might identify God’s activity in the present, so we might move together into and know our part in God’s future.
Jesus’s own identity and vocation was shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures and he understood his own role within salvation history through the reading of these sacred texts.The Bible does for us what it did in Jesus: to reveal our identity and our holy vocation as we participate with God and God’s people in God’s long-range purpose for creation.”
We don’t read these sacred ancient texts simply to collect data and gain historical understanding – In other words, we don’t just read the scriptures here in worship, or in our individual private time, or for that matter in group bible studies, just to get information. We explore these texts with an “inspired imagination” as we are human beings – creative, insightful, wonderfully made, yet broken and flawed – human beings in the process of transformation.
SHOULD WE INTERPRET THE BIBLE?
And Sarah’s question about interpretation is a very important one in light of what the Bible’s function is among the community of faith. She asks, “Is the Bible open for interpretation?”
And in short, my answer to her is: “Yes. The Bible – The whole thing is and should be interpreted.” But like anything else, this answer needs to be expanded. So let me explain.
I would argue, whether we know it or not, we interpret the Bible – just like we interpret everything that comes across our paths. As human beings we are complex data processors, constantly receiving, translating, and then transmitting communication patterns.
We interpret EVERYTHING – We have our own “interpretive framework” and we come to the biblical text with those “rose colored glasses.” I am an American, white, upper-middle class, male, that is from the Midwest that speaks English, and grew up in a predominantly poor Nazarene church. I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a pastor, a teacher. I’ve had successes and joys, pain and tragedy. Sometimes I’m conscious of my world, but my psychologist friends tell me that most of the time I interpret the world without even knowing why.
But I interpret my world through this lens of who I am. And each person has his or her own rules or each culture/people groups have their own “rules” for language and imagery. And unless everyone plays by the same “rules” then the message can get really misconstrued.
My wife Holly and I have been married for almost 20 years. And if there can still be miscommunication among us, who know one another, speak the same language, live in the same house, raise the same children, have the same set of values -- then how much more confusion can set in when we read these ancient texts that were originally in a language that we don’t speak, in a culture that had values very different than ours, and that saw the world in a very different way?
I don’t know if you know this, but the world has changed a lot in the last 2000 years. In fact it has changed an incredible amount in the last 50-100 years. What was acceptable a few years ago no longer is.
In the early 1960’s, John Wayne was the biggest movie star and his film McLintock was shown in theaters everywhere. The reviews said, “McLintock is Magnificent.”
But if you watch that movie today you’d be appalled. Notice that the feature line is this: “He can tame the west but can he tame her?” And the central scene is John Wayne actually bending Maureen O’Hara (an adult woman) over his knee and spanking her while a crowd watches in delight. That was only 60 years ago.
Even more recently, in the early 1980’s the most popular television show was called “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Throughout the show, iconic images of a dark time in our country’s history were images glorified in the show. It didn’t bother anyone in popular culture of the 1980’s. However, the events of the last several weeks have demonstrated our change of mind and heart regarding our symbols of a racist past.
This was not that long ago. The world has changed quickly.
Two young fish were swimming one day when an older fish swims by and says, “Hey boys, water’s great today.” When he passes, the one young fish says to the other, “What the heck is water?” Sometimes we don’t realize what we carry with us into the text, or the differences between our world and the world of the text.
So we have a task: We MUST DO THE HARD WORK OF INTERPRETATION and we do that together – under the guidance of God’s inspiring Spirit. That is one of the reasons why we read this together in worship.
So the first thing we do in interpretation is we dive into the world behind the text.
THE WORLD BEHIND THE TEXT
Books have come out in the last thirty years showing “new revelations” – secret discoveries, new insights. I’ve driven by churches with signs: NEW SERMON SERIES: “Bible Secrets revealed.” “New discoveries theology,” which, to me, is DANGEROUS theology. In fact, it’s heretical. God is about REVEALING GODSELF. God wants to be known. He hasn’t filled scripture with special codes and puzzles that only a handful can understand thousands of years after it was written.
So here’s one important rule to always remember when reading the biblical text: it cannot mean something for us that it didn’t mean for the original hearers.
We want Christian Orthodoxy – right belief. So we dive deep into the text with “inspired imagination,” acknowledging that we come with our background, but also with our reason and our intellect, honestly exploring what the original author was saying, hearing it with the ears of the characters, feeling what they feel. We work to ask the questions that they would be asking – longing for the same transformation of identity that they longed for. We want to know what this meant to the early church as we believes it makes meaning for us.
So we ask the Historical Questions: What was the time and the culture like? Who was the author? Who was the audience? What were the political issues?
But we also ask the Literary Questions: What is the point? What is this author trying to say about the Nature and Character of God? And why has the church said, Yup! We affirm it.
Why did Isaiah say this? Why did the early church continue to go back to Jeremiah? What was Matthew intending when he wrote down Jesus’s parable? Why did Paul include this poem to the Philippians? Why has the church preserved and protected these documents?
THE WORLD WITHIN THE TEXT
The second thing we do when we are interpreting a particular text is to look into the world withinthe text.
The authors wrote within a particular genre and form. So we read it within the literary structure that is provided and we ask, “What kind of literature is this? What is the structure? How does that impact the way we view the message? Is it a narrative? A letter? A prophetic work?” Is what we are reading a song? Well then, let’s not read it as an instruction manual. Is it law? Well then we can’t read it as apocalyptic literature. We read the poem as a poem. Is it a personal letter? If so, we can’t read it like junk email.
We can’t say you read things literally. We read them literate-ly. We read the Bible within the literary framework(s) with which it comes.
Even though the Psalmist says it, we don’t believe the trees of the forest will clap their hands – because trees don’t have hands. It’s a metaphor. We know that rocks can’t cry out – because they don’t have mouths – and they are not alive.
These images are what English professors call, “personification.” This use of imagery doesn’t negate the glory and praise that God deserves and will receive from creation. In fact, it is just the opposite. The psalmist uses these images because language is so limited. This is the best he could come up with. The glory of God over creation will be so spectacular, so amazing, so ridiculously glorious, our ears have never heard anything like it!
We read all pieces of literature with a rule of interpretation.
I’ll show you what I mean.
What is this?
It is a text. A specific kind of form of “literature.” You know because of the look. The bubbles. The tool bar. You can tell when it was sent: on July 8. You can tell who it was sent to: Margaret Ann… Who sent it? I did!
And there could be a lot of confusion if you don’t know the author. I sent this to Margaret Ann on her 49th Birthday. And if you didn’t get into the world behind the text to know our relationship you wouldn’t know she was a great friend of mine and that teasing is central to our friendship. You might mistake this text for being mean … but instead we both were laughing. I tease her about her age, she teases me about my bald spot. If you can do the work of exegesis, and know the genre and form you can see the message: Friendship. A really good friendship.
Or look at this. What it is?
A tweet. From @LJBoo. Not a single complete sentence. Now my grandpa doesn’t know what this is. It would take some explaining. Because of new symbols (#) – a new language is created. But if you know the form, the genre, and the language, you know what kind of night we had together and how long we spent together.
Did you know the Greek language didn’t have punctuation? The original Hebrew didn’t have vowels. But once you learn the rules of the language you can understand the message.
The same with this tweet. Now you might say, “that’s weird.” You know what’s weird? Hashtags. Or you know what else is weird? Just using the first letter of words to write a sentence. LOL. BRB. ROTFL. There are literary rules in play when we do exegesis. We are constantly asking, what is the author trying to say?
Finally, What is this? An email.
But you need to do some exegetical work to discover who the author is – and then in what context it was written – but once you find out you’ll have a physical reaction. Once you do your exegetical work and find out that this is from a 7-year old dyslexic Annabelle trying to type on her ipod while she sat next to me in church on a Sunday night: “Thanks for sitting by me.” your response will be “aww.”
So, Sarah asks - is the Bible up for interpretation? Yes. All of scripture must be interpreted.We get behind the text, we jump into the text, and we do the hard work of interpretation to find a text’s original meaning and importance.
But we interpret EVERYTHING through the love of God demonstrated to the world in his Son Jesus of Nazareth. In fact we could say, that the communion table is our new interpretive lens. What happened here displays and reveals the message of the written word to the whole world.