The Culture Pitfall in Bible Reading Friday, Feb 16 2007 

In my last substantive entry, I wrote about how crowded my own life and mind are. The crowded mind I have makes it harder to grasp the implications of the Bible. In this entry I’m going to give a few examples of how our culture obscures the meaning of the Bible.

The first observation is pretty self evident, so I’ll use a silly example. In Luke 13, Jesus is told that Herod wants him dead. In his response, Jesus tells the Pharisees to “go tell that fox (Herod)….” I’m pretty sure that by calling Herod a “fox” that Jesus wasn’t expressing that Herod is a really fine looking woman. This is a silly example of how our own culture and slang use of language collide with what has to be a an ancient example of slang. The end result is that without further study, it’s hard to really understand what Jesus meant by calling Herod a “fox”. Over 2,000 years, things have changed. It is important that we read the Bible the best we can to attempt to bridge a gap of two millenia. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t recognize that our culture gives us an immediate bias in reading the Bible. Only through study and several attempts at reading are we going to be able to deal with our own modern bias.

 The second example I’ll give is in Matthew 16:18-19. In those two verses, Jesus says “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”. This provides an excellent example of how religious bias influences our reading of the Scripture. If the reader comes from a Roman Catholic background, the only reasonable interpretation to these two verses is that Peter was the first pope. If the reader comes from the typical Southern Baptist church, Peter as pope is preposterous. Instead, the “right” interpretation is that the church is built on Peter’s words that Jesus is “Son of the Living God”. I’ll never forget sitting in a Sunday School class on the day that these two interpretations were interchangably discussed for over a half hour with no clear consensus on what the “right” reading. I offer this example not to lobby for one reading over the other, but to illustrate that our culture, language and religion all impact the way we read and understand the Bible. It is probably a mistake on our part to read the Bible without at least recognizing what we are bringing to the printed page when we sit down to read.

For example, if we sit down knowing before we ever read that Jesus NEVER intended people to think of Peter as the first pope, then what else do we know for certain before we ever try to understand the message of the Bible? This example forces me to take stock of the things I already believe I know before I ever open the Bible. Perhaps the things I already have settled in my mind as fact is closing me off from something God wants me to see?

One last example that comes closer to home. When I was a teenager I remember being told that if I obeyed God, I would enjoy God’s protection over my life, like standing under an umbrella. However, how does this philosophical concept of a divine umbrella measure up against the entire story of Job? Job did everything right and still suffered horribly. In fact, the first chapters of Job seems to tell the reader that Job was picked out to suffer because he was so virtuous and faithful. The reader of Job is outraged on his behalf when Job’s religious friends come to him and speak to him out of their settled religious philosophy. Job must be suffering because of his own sin, because everyone knows that sin brings judgment from God.

Today’s entry reminds me of one of the great perils I face when I open the Bible. Too often, I think I know what the Bible means before I read the first word.

Take care and thanks for reading. 

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An Example of Explication Tuesday, Jan 23 2007 

A few days ago, on Brother Wade Burleson’s blog, I came across this excellent example of explicating the Bible. For our purposes, please focus your reading at Brother Wade’s heading: Key Principles of Accurate and Effective Exegesis.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you agree or disagree with Brother Wade’s conclusions about the meaning of I Timothy 2. 9-15. Nor does it matter to me what your thoughts about women in professional ministry are. What I’d like for us to notice is the methods Brother Wade uses to arrive at his conclusions. In particular, I think Brother Wade does a great job with his four step approach to explaining Bible passages. Brother Wade does an outstanding job of giving a solid example to my previous 4 entries on this blog.

I also direct you to Brother Wade’s example to underscore the next issue I hope to take up. How is it that two people can read the same text, use the same methods and arrive at such wildly different conclusions? If you want to look at the comments to Brother Wade’s blog entry, you will see several people arriving at the opposite conclusion based on the same six verses.

In my next few entries, I’m going to address different outcomes from the same text and a few cautions for the reader in explaining the Bible to his own satisfaction. Thanks for reading.

The Four Corners of the Bible’s Printed Page Wednesday, Dec 6 2006 

The previous two entries have dealt with the first author and the first reader of Biblical books. The author generally has a big idea that he is trying to get across to the first readers or hearers of his message. Each party belonged to a specific time, place and culture. All of those factors have to be taken into account by the modern reader in order to understand what God’s word means for us in the here and now. In this third entry, I’m going to focus on what we actually read on the printed page.

First, every verse in the Bible has a context. Context means that a single verse doesn’t appear out of thin air. In every book of the Bible something comes before and something comes after any given verse I am trying to study. An obvious example is in John 19:30 which tells me that Jesus died. Fortunately the story doesn’t stop there because John 20 indicates that Jesus did not stay dead. While this example is overly simple, the point is a good one. Readers need to read around the verse they are studying so as not to misunderstand the printed page. Another good example is in Colossians 2:21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” Sincere readers could find themselves living in total isolation if they didn’t also realize that the author gives verse 21 as an example of what NOT to do. I have often heard people say along the lines of, “you can get the Bible to say anything you want it to.” I think the Bible can be manipulated if a person cherry picks sentences which fit their agenda in the same way that people on the newspaper editorial page spin the news. Reading every verse as a part of a larger chapter and book helps keep us from making major mistakes as we read.

Second, every book of the Bible has a genre. Psalms is a book of poetry. Philemon is a personal letter. Romans is a formal letter of introduction. I Kings is a book of history. Leviticus is basically a law code and just as exciting. Each type of book has different rules and conventions that reader needs to be aware of in order to best figure out the author’s big idea in writing. For example, if you sit down to watch a western movie some Saturday morning, you can expect to see a climactic showdown and shootout scene. If you read your kids a fairy tale you can expect to see the prince and princess living happily ever after. If you read a Sherlock Holmes story, there is always a “whodunit” scene at the close. James Bond movies all have girls, gadgets and cars.

Our expectations of the genre help us understand what’s going on by giving us clues we recognize. The same thing happens in the Bible. The parables that Jesus told are fictional stories that have a major point about what God’s kingdom is like. If we read the parable of the sower literally and come away thinking its a wonder everyone didn’t starve due to primitive first century agriculture, then we’ve missed the point entirely. The parable requires the reader to use a little imagination and ask the question of, “what kind of soil am I made of and am I productive?” Another example is in Paul’s letters. It seems like a lot of the time the letters can basically divide in half. The first half of the letter tends to be about what the Jesus is like, what we believe or the nature of the Christian life. The second half of the letters tend to be more like Paul giving tips on how to get along with each other in our relationships. Knowing the genre of the book we are reading can give us clues on whether something is figurative or literal and how we should understand the message from the author. The tricky part is that sometimes Paul’s letters have what looks like poetry popping up in them. The 4 gospels are kind of like spiritual biographies of Jesus, but have parables all through them and parables are their own genre.

So the questions I ask myself when facing a verse that’s hard to understand are:

1. What are the verses before and after this verse talking about?

2. What is the chapter about?

3. What is the book about?

4. What genre is the book I’m reading?

5. Is the verse I’m reading part of a different genre? Is a song or poem in the middle of a letter? Is the author quoting from another source? Is a parable appearing in one of the gospels?

I have a few more entries I’d like to do about the modern reader after this. Hopefully in the next few posts we’ll get to some ideas I have on moving from the raw material of the Bible to a full fledged philosophy based on the Bible. Thanks for reading.

Explaining the Bible some more Tuesday, Dec 5 2006 

In my previous entry, I wrote about the starting point of Bible study being the recognition of the author behind the printed page. My basic idea in these entries is to determine how we should work with the raw material of the Bible to build a structure in which we can live. From the raw materials of the Bible, we create very detailed systems of belief and ethics. All too often, I’m left wondering how my minister uses those raw materials to build a “house” for the Christian faith.

In this entry, I’m concerned with how I try to understand the first readers of the Bible. My basic idea is; it cannot mean now what it did not mean then. My explanation of the New Testament for the 21st century cannot get too far from how a 1st century reader would understand it.

As much as I can, I have to figure out who the writer was talking to, where they were and what their situation was. Understanding the first reader’s perspective is relatively easy in a book like Philemon but considerably harder with a book like Hebrews. Some of Paul’s letters really spell out what the situation is for the first readers and give important clues for modern readers to use in explicating the Bible for themselves. With the book of Revelation, the reader has to make some educated guesses about why the book was written and who was even reading it to make the most sense of it.

If we can understand the writer’s big idea behind the book and how he wanted the readers to change because of that big idea, then we get a better sense of how the book’s big idea should motivate us to act, think or change. I think the most important thing for me to remember with the Bible is that I’m reading someone else’s mail. If I know something about the addressee, then I have a better grasp of what the letter actually means. I need to try and put myself in the shoes of the 1st century reader as I explicate the Bible. The 1st century reader provides me with a point of reference and a boundary for my own explication. If I go too far afield, then I’m missing the lessons God wants me to live out. (As an aside, I believe God motivated the writing of the Bible to benefit all people into the far future. However, the understandings of the first readers should powerfully impact how we read it too.)

I have some more thoughts for the next couple of entries. Thanks for reading.

Where I Start to Try and Understand the Bible Wednesday, Nov 29 2006 

Let me begin by saying that I think the Bible is God’s word.

I also think that we have to read the printed page that we actually have as we try and figure out what the Bible says and means. In my last post, I referenced the US constitution and the trouble we have making sense of it just 200 years later. The Bible is even harder to understand due to longer time, different culture, and different language. My starting place in trying to explain the Bible’s meaning comes with understanding there is a writer behind the printed pages I see. Books don’t just grow on shelves. There is an author putting the words together and understanding something about the writer helps me understand the book better.

Like any other book, the Bible didn’t just grow on a shelf. Unlike any other book, the Bible is God’s word. However, the Bible isn’t always clear about who is doing the writing. I’ve met some folks who think that the Bible was either directly written by God or dictated to a person, acting as kind of a secretary, to write down. I suppose some folks probably think that the Bible was totally written by people, with no involvement from God at all. My thinking falls between these two perspectives. I think without the input and action of God there is no Bible. At the same time, I think the ancient writers were more than a Xerox machine for God.

I don’t think God dictated the Bible. I think people were motivated by God to leave a written record of things God wanted later people to learn or know. I think the human writers didn’t have to check their knowledge, personalities and experiences at the door when they wrote. For example, Acts has lots of passages using the phrase “we” or “us” which indicates that the writer was an eyewitness to what happened. In the very same book there are lots of passages where “they” seems to indicate that the writer wasn’t present. It seems to me that the writer was an actual writer and not just God’s secretary.

So when I read any book of the Bible, I try to remind myself of the human writer. From there, I work off of a checklist to try and read the printed word honestly.

1. The writer is writing intentionally. He has a big idea, purpose or message that he is trying to get across to the first readers. The goal for the contemporary reader is to try and “get” that message with the same resonance experienced by the first reader.

2. The author committed the message to the written word. All the conclusions we reach about the book have to make sense in light of what we can see on the printed page.

3. The written word the author used has its own rules, grammar, usage, word choices, sentence structure, idiom and context. The language is really beyond my ability to comment on other than to notice that it’s a big deal.

4. The writer doesn’t write within a vacuum. Each book of the Bible was written at a specific time and place. Every writer is a part of culture, history and a specific community of people. If we want to make good sense of what we’re reading, we probably should really try to understand the history and culture that the writer was a part of.

I’m going to be diligent about posting more thoughts on this soon. Thanks for reading.

Explication of the Bible, confusing middle ground Monday, Nov 6 2006 

Trying to figure out what the Bible says and means presents a thorny problem to any reader. The most recent parts of it were written about 2000 years ago, halfway around the world, in a language nobody speaks anymore. The only comparison I can make in our own culture is the struggle that seems to always be going on about how to interpret the US constitution. Intelligent people have come to opposite conclusions about what the founding fathers meant in a document written a little over 200 years ago in English.

As an outsider looking in on the workings of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seems like some issues are arising from different ways of explicating the Bible. I don’t expect absolute uniformity because that doesn’t seem to fit what I’ve always learned Baptists are about. However, I do get confused because people seem to have developed some pretty comprehensive theories of what the Bible means for us today. I think I’m missing a step between believing the Bible and constructing a comprehensive philosophical system with the Bible as the building blocks. The step I think I’m missing is how professional Christians are explicating the Bible to arrive at their chosen system of belief.

I don’t think I’m alone among laypeople in being perplexed. Most Sundays I go to church and listen intently to the minister’s presentation that seems like algebra. I can see the first number and I see another number on the other side of the = sign, but I’m not sure what the missing part of the equation is. To compound my difficulty, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in the middle part of the equation to arrive at the minister’s answer. At times I suspect that we are simply following an established explication, i.e. we’ve already decided what the printed words mean and we are serving the equivalent of intellectual leftovers. Perhaps as a layperson, I’m not supposed to get this. If so, why read my Bible? I’d really like to understand the process. I’ve sketched out a few thoughts on a process for dealing with the Bible that makes sense to me that I’ll be posting over the next few days. I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have.