Here’s the first installment of the promised Scripture post…
I’ll start my discussion with the theological question as I believe our answer to this must ground a full-on discussion of Scripture in the public forum in order to avoid misunderstandings and certain unintentional misinterpretations. What is the Bible, theologically speaking? In response to this question, I reply that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, God’s own self-revelation to humanity for the sake of our salvation through faith in Christ Jesus [nb: not contains but is. The difference? “Contains” can be a dodge to say “only the stuff in there I like is God’s Word”; with the use of “is” I’m closing that loophole for myself]. In Scripture, we have the words of human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit that depict and communicate God’s dealings with humanity, especially Israel and the Church, for our edification, reproof, correction and training in righteousness [nb: the majority of that last sentence modifies “words”–not “human authors”. I don’t deny the inspiration of the human authors, mind you, but the words are canonical, not the authors. And yes, you’ll note that I quite consciously used 2 Tim 3:16, favored proof-text of conservatives and the horror of liberals.] As a text–like all other texts (or forms of communication for that matter)–it requires interpretation. Make no mistake here. Any act of comprehension is an act of interpretation. [When we take anything into our mind it passes through our own filters that are conditioned by our own personality and culture. The filters affect some kinds of information more than others but they are always in place. I’ll give you an example: 5+5=10. This is pretty objective, right? Not as much as you’d think…the use of Base 10 is a cultural assumption.]
Should the Bible be read literally? Well, that’s a premature question and it starts at the wrong place. Acts of interpretation are bound up with expectations and assumptions. Our cultures mediate to us certain implicit understandings about various forms of communication and how to interpret them. We pick up on clues both subtle and not so subtle that let us know how we are suppose to understand things. Examples? But of course! 1) Once upon a time 2) A man walks into a bar 3) You could already be a winner.
1. Once upon a time Our cultural milieu embeds an automatic knowledge of this phrase into us by the age of five through the use of the bedtime story–this signals a fairy tale. But how–through the meaning of the words? No. The words themselves do not denote that what follows is a work of creative fiction. They reveal a certain ambiguity of time and place but that’s as far as they go. Ponder this: what would a non-native English speaker make of these words? Or–as I like to ask my students–do you know how to say “Once upon a time” in Hebrew? It’s not a linguistic question–it’s an interpretive one.
2. A man walks into a bar Again, our cultural milieu lets us know that what follows is a joke. In certain company it also signals a cue to cover the ears of any young children seated nearby since many jokes that start this way tend to be…vulgar.
3. You could already be a winner When imprinted upon a piece of mail this is a signifier meaning “recycle me.” On an internet pop-up window, it means “close me–the faster the better…” On a piece of email, “delete me–and don’t even think of opening that attachment.” We know this is a scam even though the literal sense of the words proclaims the exact opposite.
My point is this: interpretation is a complex act. It doesn’t start with individual words, but by making a judgment on the genre of the text and making a decision about how the words are supposed to be interpreted. That’s why the “literal” question is a premature one. You can’t make that decision until you know what kind of text you’re dealing with and even when you’ve decided that a literal interpretation of two different genres is not necessarily the same thing. Content is only half of the process; context also has a profound effect on meaning.
Let me clarify that. This sentence: “In 1127, Robert of Notre Dame made a heroic escape from a closely-guarded prison in Burgundy aided only by one of his loyal knights and a common house-cat.” is a relatively straight-forward sentence. There might be some room for allegory and metaphor in there but precious little. [The reference to the knight and the cat seems to be a synecdoche for a larger plan of escape–but that’s the only literary device I can find.] On the surface, the sentence contains certain points which lead us towards an interpretation of its meaning: dates, names, places. Furthermore, it displays an internal consistency. The names, places, dates, and objects mentioned all seem historically plausible. Now–is this sentence from a history book or from a novel? That’s the key question.
What’s important to notice is that we would still read the sentence the same way–literally, as it were–if it were from a history book or a novel; the difference would be the meaning that we take from it. If the sentence appears in a history book, it would convey a certain historical fact. If it was from an historical novel, its facticity could be up for debate. Is it a piece of history inserted into the novel or is it a literary creation of the author? In one case, we might treat it as if it came from a history book–though reserving a certain skepticism given the source–in the other we would expect it to fit into the author’s overall message depending on how this sentence figures in the plot. Is it a little bit of character development or is the whole story about the escape? [For those wondering, I made the sentence up.]
Please note my use of the word “facticity” above. The word I didn’t use was “truth.” Facts are a category of things contained within the set of things that are true, not the total set of things that are true. There are true things and statements that are not scientifically quantifyable “facts.” Furthermore, I’m prepared to argue that history books contain truth and that novels can also contain truth. These are different kinds of truth, packaged in different ways and intended for different purposes, but that does not make one true and the other untrue.
Okay, enough digressions–my point here is that both content and context must be considered in order to arrive at meaning. Let’s take the discussion back to the Bible. I do want to stay on the genre thing for a moment, though, and loop back to my initial comments about assumptions and expectations.
We have expectations of certain texts. These expectations include culturally assumed limits on a text’s contents, authority, and relative truth claims. This is entirely natural and appropriate. Furthermore, these are based on genre identification. When I pick up a book entitled Quick Dinnertime Meals I expect it to contain recipes that I can follow to whip up a quick and tasty meal for my family. I don’t want it to be a poet’s interpretive feeling of what ingredients could go together in a euphonious fashion. My expectation of a book entitled A True History of the Templars will be different if I’m pulling it out of the stacks of a research library than if I’m taking it from a rack next to the supermarket checkout. One of the modern issues with Scripture, I’m convinced, is genre identification that is intimately bound up with the issue of expectations.
When an Israelite picked up Deuteronomy, or Jonah, or the Psalms, he would unconsciously identify the various genres of the books as his culture had conditioned him (he knew what “Once upon a time” is in 8th century Hebrew…). When we pick them up, we see them as all part of the same genre–Holy Scripture. This makes a huge difference in our expectations of what these books contain and thus in how we understand them from the expectations of how contemporary readers–and their authors, even–understood them.
One of the reasons why there is great resistance among laity and first-year seminarians to the discipline of biblical studies is because one of the first tasks of the instructor is to reorient the assumptions and expectations about the biblical text. This can either be done poorly or be done well. Let me just say that I’ve rarely seen it done well… Often, especially in undergraduate institutions, religion profs take a certain glee in stripping the naively religious students of their assumptions through the use of shock tactics.
In Antiquity works were divided into books and volumes. This was a practical concern based initially on the length of a roll of papyrus. When you reached the end of one, you had book 1 and it was time to start book 2. My handheld’s battery is about to die [yes, I’m writing this on the train]; if it does, I’ll lose this–so here endeth book 1!