Scripture is deep, powerful, meaningful, and profound. On the surface, it is simple. It has the power to impact our lives in incredible ways, and it provides a pathway for the Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds and hearts through the written record of God’s self-revelation to humanity. It is real, it is genuine, and – for many of us, at least – it is very clear.
Yet, for all its simplicity and forthrightness, the word of God is also incredibly complex. It is deep, and it is mysterious. We can begin by getting our feet wet in the kiddie pool, but the more we wade into its depths, the more we come to realize just how big the pool really is. It may appear a simple watering hole from a distance, but immersed in its fullness we come to know it as a great sea. NT Wright captured the image beautifully, I think, in his preface to The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight:
The Christian faith is kaleidoscopic, and most of us are color-blind. It is multidimensional, and most of us manage to hold at most two dimensions in our heads at any one time. It is symphonic, and we can just about whistle one of the tunes. So we shouldn’t be surprised if someone comes along and draws our attention to other colors and patterns that we hadn’t noticed. We shouldn’t be alarmed if someone sketches a third, a fourth, or even a fifth dimension that we had overlooked. We ought to welcome it if a musician plays new parts of the harmony to the tune we thought we knew.
Of course, it must be said that we do not accept any interpretation blindly. We must be willing to examine the text ourselves to see if there is any merit to what is being offered. However, I find it interesting that a recurring complaint regarding Biblical scholarship is not the examination or the conclusion, but the manner in which it exposes the text’s complexity. The perspective, so much as I can tell, assumes that complexity is equivalent to mental gymnastics, and a simple reading of the text is the most effective means of ascertaining meaning.
The problem is that the ‘simple reading’ is a myth.
The Cultural Lens
Let me pause for a moment to clarify. I am not suggesting that the study of scripture is ineffectual, or that the word of God is inaccessible. What I am suggesting is that there is more going on in our interpretive framework that we often give credence to.
Take, for example, our cultural and theological framework. When we read scripture, we read it through the lens that our culture provides. My American readers, for example, read it from the perspective of the privileged and powerful, in the midst of a nation that is among the most privileged and most powerful on the globe. This brings perspectives with it, especially when reading a text written to a people who were almost consistently under occupation or persecution. When we come to the text from a different place than the author or intended audience, we impose our worldview upon our interpretation. We never come without baggage.
Biblical scholarship, then, helps us to regain the perspective of the author and the intended audience. We can come to recognize colloquialisms of the first century, or references to surrounding cultural practices and artifacts. These provide context to what we read, and help us don a lens closer in design to one the passage was intended to be read through. It takes the cultural complexity embedded in the written record and simplifies it by putting us in right relationship with the text.
We rely on scholarship to free ourselves of our own biases and listen to what scripture is trying to say. Unfortunately, our lenses are not the only ones to be aware of.
The Linguistic Lens
While culture causes us to impose our own perspectives on the text, language forces us to accept the lens of another. Translations are solid and trustworthy, but they inevitably truncate some elements of meaning while also reflecting the theology of their translator. This is not intended in any manipulative way, it is simply unavoidable due to the tenets of language.
For example, consider the English terms ‘fled’ and ‘raced’. These are similar, but they have distinct nuances. To say “the girl fled to her house” carries the connotation of danger, or the need to escape a pursuer. To say “the girl raced to her house” carries the connotation of purpose and intensity. “Fled” looks behind for motivation; the girl is running away from something. “Raced” looks forward for motivation; the girl is running toward something. Both phrases, however, could justly be translated “the girl ran to her house” without being inaccurate. Such a translation, however, discards important nuance.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to retain that nuance when moving between languages. To embody the full nuance would require an entire phrase for nearly every word. The result would be unreadable. So, the translator has to make a choice. What word best captures the idea while still remaining readable? In order to do this, he has to make some judgments regarding what the phrase as a whole is communicating. The resulting translation, then, requires the translator’s interpretation to function.
Or, consider context in translation. Sticking with the ‘run’ terminology, I could say “I am running in a marathon” or “I am running to the store” or “I am running a charity event” or “I am running copies on a copy machine”. Each phrase implies a different meaning for the same term, and the meaning is determined by the context.
Usually, the meaning is clear. Sometimes, however, there are several possible understandings. When I say that “I am running a charity event” do I mean that I am the one in charge, or is the event a marathon style fundraiser and I am literally “running” the event? These are interpretive choices and, when such a decision arises, the result inevitably reflects the theology of the translator.
Crafting Your Lens
Thankfully, however, we do not have to be bound by our culturally adopted lens nor must we be bound by the theological lens of another. The beauty of Biblical scholars is that they make scripture remarkably accessible.
Take the culture, for example. Most study Bibles include an introduction to each book contained therein. This introduction usually covers topics such as the author, the intended audience, the surrounding events which set the scene, and any special issues that rise up in the book itself. Additionally, there are a number of introduction books that go in depth on these issues, and commentaries available online look into the cultural implications of various passages. In addition, there are any number of books (and blogs!) which offer to the laity examinations of passages on the basis of their cultural backgrounds.
Or, take the language. There is nothing wrong with reading the Bible as it is written in English, but if you want a deeper study, look at multiple translations. You will find that there are some passages which seem to convey different ideas depending on which translation you are using. These are typically areas that have some debate in the original text, and you can get insight into what is going on by noting how different translators deal with it.
A simple reading of scripture just doesn’t exist, if by ‘simple reading’ one means a reading which can be taken at face value, untainted by our biases or the biases of the translator. However, an awareness of the way these biases impact our reading of the text can empower us to free ourselves of their restraint. With the right awareness and the right tools, we can craft an interpretive lens which allows us to wade our way out of the shallow end and into the deep sea of God’s word.
How do you get into the deep waters?
Featured Image Courtesy Of M. Markus