409. language is fuzzy (part 7) — the Bible as the Site of revelation


In part 6 in this series, I wrote that when two people (or groups) have differing interpretations of scripture that one might consider that the viewpoint closer to what it is that God may actually be trying to communicate can be found somewhere in the midst of the interpretations, not solely on one side or the other.1 Couple that with the fact that words themselves are these fuzzy, indistinct things, and it looks like finding the one, true interpretation of the Bible is impossible. And there are good examples of how being too certain about a particular way of reading the Bible got the church into trouble. In part 5 I wrote about how the church has been very wrong about its interpretations in the past — their positions on heliocentrism and slavery being two obvious examples.

But given that a definitive interpretation of scripture seems impossible both on individual and corporate levels, and that the church has been very wrong in her interpretation before, how is it that the Bible can be thought to be authoritative in the life of the church and her members?

And here, I think an analogy works best.

What if we thought of the Bible, not as a source of definitive truths about God and our role in God’s creation but rather as a site where we meet and do our best to discuss and discern those things?
The problem with seeing the Bible as a source is that a source is something you go to, take what you need, then leave. And when different people take different things away, confusion and conflict results.

Part of the larger point I’ve been trying to make in this series is that language is fuzzy. In part one and two I tried to show how language is a squirmy, squishy sort of thing. Individual words have multiple meanings and so it’s no wonder that when you string a bunch of them together that some level of ambiguity arises. And at the most basic level, the Bible is just a huge collection of these fuzzy words. Given that, I don’t think it should surprise or even trouble us that a multitude of interpretations come out of it, both today and throughout the history of the church. So it seems to be a rather unreliable source of revelation.

But rather than being troubled by this, what we saw it as a feature, not a bug. In other words, what if the fact that it can be hard to pin down any definitive interpretation of scripture isn’t something that’s a flaw in the Bible or in us. What if this is actually a very intentional part of what the Bible is?

And if I’m on the right track in saying that the “correct” interpretation of any given bit of scripture can be found somewhere in the midst of differing interpretations, then perhaps the Bible is authoritative in the sense that it is the site, the place, where we come to find God in the conversations we have about scripture and what it means, who God is, and how we are to live as a result.

I said earlier that the problem with the Bible-as-source idea is that we take truths away from the text. Seeing the Bible as a site, on the other hand, suggests that we can’t actually take truths from the Bible. Rather, the Bible best functions as the word of God when we stay and discuss it with one another.

Said another way, the Bible is the center around which we gather to find/experience/see God at work among us. It’s the thing that unites us in our discussions and disagreements because at least we’re disagreeing around the same thing: the Bible.2 The Bible may be unreliable when seen as a source of revelation but it comes alive when viewed as the site of revelation – a site that is meant to be experienced in community. And like any communal site, the experience is best when everyone does their best to play nicely together.
Because what if what God ultimately wants from our engagement with scripture isn’t right reading but right relationship? What if he fuzziness of words and language and the Bible is something that God designed into the system? What if all that fuzziness is there to force us to wrestle with the text together?

And taking this a bit further, what if discussing/debating our differing ideas about what we think scripture might be saying in a gracious, loving way is what God ultimately wants from us? This rather than discovering its one, true, correct interpretation?

This doesn’t mean we can’t vigorously debate the meaning of any given part of the Bible but it does mean that we can’t be dismissive of the other as we do so.3 Even if one is convinced that the other’s interpretation is an utter affront to God, a reading that debases and dehumanizes, one must remember that there is some way in which they see their reading as life-giving. Only a sociopath would do otherwise.4

The trick is, if you can come to understand how they see life where you see death (remembering that understanding doesn’t mean agreeing), and if they can do the same towards you, that is fertile ground where God’s good, ongoing work can flourish.

That sort of dynamic is a radically counter-cultural witness of the life that God desires for God’s people — a community of mutual love and respect even (especially) when/where we disagree.

This idea may sound rosy and nice but it’s incredibly difficult and messy. I know because I’ve been on the receiving end of interactions where I’ve tried to understand the other but the same was not reciprocated (see this post and this related one). But still, I want to suggest a different way of thinking about scripture. The inherent fuzziness of language should humble us, make us a little less adamant that we know the mind of God via the Bible. We should spend a bit more time sitting at the text with people who read differently than we do, not to debate, but to see God revealed through the process, in community.

  1. Though not necessarily squarely in the middle.  ↩
  2. To be honest, given all of the unfortunate experiences I’ve had in the church, I sometimes wonder why it is that I still believe. Even now, I would say that I’m a barely believer. But one of the things that keeps me in is this idea of a shared text around which we gather, one that unites us even as we disagree about it. As far as I’ve seen, atheism has nothing like this.  ↩
  3. One important caveat: I’m not saying that everyone can or even should engage with people in this way. Marginalized people, people who have been discriminated against, dismissed, and/or disadvantaged need to protect themselves. And the sad fact is, some Christians can be real assholes when talking theology. I’m not asking anyone to dialogue with unreasonable people. I’m hoping for mutually respect in dialogue and that is a two-way street.  ↩
  4. And the job of tending to sociopaths is one for psychologists.  ↩

395. language is fuzzy (part 6) – how do we read the Bible?

I ended my last post with these questions:

If the church has been wrong about its interpretation of the Bible before and may be wrong today then how do we read this thing we call the Bible? How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?

And here’s where I hope that all the groundwork I’ve laid in the this series will pay off.

Photo by: Demi-Brooke


How do we read this thing we call the Bible?

The church has been wrong before about how it interpreted the Bible. The story of the astronomical move from geocentrism to heliocentrism is just one example of this.1 But this isn’t the only disconnect in church history. Around the time of the Civil War, there were many churches (and not just in America) using scripture to support the institution of slavery. And, there’s a contemporary analog to this – the church today is wrestling with how to reconcile scripture with the issue of marriage equality.

In light of all of this, what are we supposed to do with this thing we call the Bible? How do we read it when its been misread before and when people continue to disagree over how it should be interpreted today?
Well in part 3 of this series, I talked about the vase/face illusion. I wrote that people can disagree over whether they believe the face or the vase is more prominent in the picture, but no one is going to take seriously the idea that it’s a picture of a rainbow. And how do we know it’s not a picture of a rainbow? Because in the grand community of our collective humanity, no one is going to say that with any seriousness. And it’s that communal aspect that I think is especially relevant to this discussion about how we read scripture.

So how do we read this the Bible in a time of differing interpretations?

We read and interpret scripture in community because it’s only in community that we can have any hope of coming to understand what it means for us today.2

And I believe that we should strive to read scripture in as wide a community as we can find, and that doesn’t just mean reading with liberals/conservatives in the American church today, it also means reading with the global Christian community.3 But for Christians, the interpretive community also includes paying attention to how scripture has been interpreted by readers of the past. NT Wright puts it this way:

Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our responsibility in the Communion of Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the final say or making them an “alternative source,” independent of scripture itself.4

And in when one reads the text in such a diverse community, differing interpretations are inevitable. But that’s not a bad thing because it’s my firm belief that the “true”5 meaning of the Bible emerges most clearly, not in any particular interpretation of it, but somewhere in the midst of divergent interpretations. In other words, in any biblical text or issue in dispute, it’s not that interpretation A or interpretation B is the one true interpretation. Rather, the “true” interpretation is more likely somewhere between the two.6 And if this is the case, then the goal of discussing varying interpretations of the Bible is not to sway the other person to one side or the other, rather, the goal is for interpreter A to try to understand how interpreter B came to their interpretation and vice versa.

Photo by: atrphoto

It’s important to note that understanding does not mean agreement. It’s entirely possible for person A to understand how person B came to their interpretation while still disagreeing with them. But the process of discussion and understanding is still important because without understanding the other, disagreeing over interpretations can (and often does) devolve in to pointless shouting matches.

And here’s another important aspect of this process: person A tries their best to understand how person B arrived at their interpretation in order to question their own interpretation, not the other’s. In other words, I believe the primary goal of discussing differing biblical interpretations is not to prove another person’s wrong, rather, it’s to check one’s own interpretation. At the end of the day, person A might still disagree with person B (and vice versa) but when done well, each person will leave the discussion with their own position slightly changed and/or bolstered and thus, both people leave the exchange blessed by the other.

But what if we can’t pin down biblical interpretation down to one side or another, then that brings us to the second question:

How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?

And I’ll get to that question in my next post. Stay tuned!

1 This disconnect between science and scripture continues to play out today in the creationism/Intelligent Design/evolution debate.

2 N.T. Wright calls the church “the scripture-reading community.” N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 116.

3 I am really looking forward to diving into Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’brien!

4 N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 118.

5 The topic of truth is well beyond the scope of this blog series, but is another important topic of discussion. If you’re interested in how we hold truth in today’s postmodern, global context, I’d recommend Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age by J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh.

6 That’s not to say that both interpretations are closer to the truth to the same degree. It may well be the case that one side or the other is closer to the “truth,” but there can still be elements of the truth on the other side.