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.


394. language is fuzzy (part 5) – science and scripture

I’ve been using metaphors like boxes and illusions to talk about language – how words and meaning are far less certain than we might think.

The basic point I’m hoping to make is that because of the inherent fuzziness of language, we should be a bit more open to readings of scripture that we might be unfamiliar (or uncomfortable) with (the same-sex marriage debate, for example). The appeal I want to make with this point is that (conservative and liberal) Christians should extend a bit more grace towards one another in matters where they disagree.

Because here’s the thing. When it comes to how the church reads the Bible, it’s changed its interpretation before, I think it’s happening again now, and I’m certain it will happen again in the future.

In this post, I’m going to try to tackle this idea from a different angle by talking a bit of church history.
There was a time when the church taught that the Bible clearly described the earth as center of the universe. To make their case, they appealed to scripture (verses like Joshua 10:12 and Psalms 93:1) as well as observation (we don’t feel the earth moving, and the sun and stars clearly move across the sky – just look up!).

It’s hard to illustrate how essential the idea of an earth-centered universe was to the theology of the church, but it’s not hard to imagine. I mean, think about it. If you believed that the earth was the absolute center of all existence, that seems pretty significant doesn’t it? It suggests that the earth literally holds a unique place in the universe and that means that humans are central to God’s created order. It also reveals God to be a God of supreme order and design.1

And then in the 16th C, Copernicus released De revolutionibus – his careful study of the heavens, complete with calculations, that showed that the earth (and the other planets) revolved around the sun (heliocentrism).2

The church, to put it mildly, did not like this idea.

But as disruptive as the idea of a sun-centered universe was, there was a whole other aspect to the church’s unease.

Back then, (physical) science was seen as the handmaiden to theology (which, as the study of God, was known as the queen of the sciences).3 No one was able to challenge the authority of the church and the church’s interpretation of scripture, which meant that science could only confirm and support the teachings of the church.

In other words, whatever the church said about how the world worked was considered absolute and unquestionable.4 If they said that the Bible described the moon, planets, sun, and stars revolving around the earth, then that’s the way it was. To question this view was to question the church which was to question God and if science was able to question the church’s interpretation of the Bible (by showing that the earth revolved around the sun), that meant that the church (and, by extension, God) was not the sole authority over life and reality.

And the church desperately wanted to keep that authority for itself.

Photo by: Don Urban

Now why do I tell that story?

Because I want to point out that there was a time when the church was absolutely certain that the Bible said that the sun revolved around the earth. The church was so certain of this that they excommunicated Galileo and banned Christians from reading books supporting heliocentrism.

But the church was wrong.5

Fast forward to today. Almost everyone knows that the earth, indeed, revolves around the sun. To underscore this, in 1992 (!) the Catholic church finally acknowledged that Galileo was correct.

The point I’m trying to make is that the church has been wrong on its interpretation of the Bible before6 and that suggests that there may be a time in the future when the church looks back on our day and our interpretations of the Bible regarding issues like evolution, global warming, wealthy inequality, and same sex marriage and wonder how it was that we could have been so wrong.7

And that points to yet another question:

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

And I’ll get to that in the next post.

Photo by: Ian Carroll

1 Philosophy nerds will note that the church’s view of the universe was influenced by the dominant (Aristotelian) philosophy of the day – ideas that were based in a universe of perfect spheres within spheres with the earth at the center. If you want to read more about how this all went down, I’d recommend God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers.

2 The history of heliocentrism goes back further than Copernicus, but I’m outlining a simplified history.

3 Edward Grant “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages,” in God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1986), 50.

4 The relationship between church and society then was nothing like it is today. Today, church and state are seen as separate entities and the state has a much larger influence over the average citizen’s life than the church does. But back then, the relationship between church and the people was more akin to the relationship between a principal of a private school and the students. Church leadership had the power to kick people out of society. Excommunication didn’t just mean being kicked out of the church. Because church held so much sway in society, being kicked out of the church ostracized you not just from church but from society as a whole.

5 And lest you think this was only a misstep of the Catholic church, reformers like Melanchthon and Calvin were also vehemently against heliocentrism. Avihu Zakai, “The Rise of Modern Science and the Decline of Theology as the ‘Queen of Sciences,” in Reformation & Renaissance Review 9, no. 2 (August 1, 2007): 139.

6 The way the church handled the issue of slavery is another example.

7 I believe that evolution is the best explanation for life on earth, global warming is a real and huge problem, wealth inequality is a blight on modern society, and the church should recognize same-sex marriages. However, I also readily acknowledge that I might be on the wrong side of history on these issues. (But I don’t think I am.)

8 For a preview, see this previous post of mine.

393. language is fuzzy (part 4) – sharks and same-sex marriage

In the previous post, I tried to make the point that just because language is fuzzy (since words are like containers that hold multiple meanings), that doesn’t mean that language has no meaning at all.

To illustrate this idea, I used the example of the Rubin vase illusion.

I talked about how people can disagree over whether the faces or the vase is more prominent, but no one can make a credible case for the idea that what we’re looking at is a picture of a rainbow.

I used that example to try to make the case that Christians can disagree over what the Bible has to say about same-sex marriage in the same way that people disagree over which image (the vase or the faces) is more prominent in the faces/vase illusion. At the same time, I understand that for some, saying that the Bible can support something like same-sex marriage is like saying that there’s a rainbow where most people only see a vase and faces.

Point taken.

However, take a look at this image:

Image by: Fred Hsu
(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Some people will say that there’s nothing there but a bunch of moving dots. But people who are familiar with random dot stereograph (aka Magic Eye) images will say that they can see a swimming shark.

Similar to the Rubin vase, both images are there, but unlike the faces/vase illusion, the swimming shark in the stereograph isn’t as readily apparent. It takes a bit of training and coaching to get someone who’s never seen such an image to see the shark.1

In this case, it’s easy to empathize with someone who says, “that’s an image of moving dots and that’s it. There’s no other way to see that image and anyone who sees a swimming shark is just flat out wrong.” And we can understand where they’re coming from because we know that it takes a bit of work to see the shark.
In the previous two posts, I used the fictional example of Jane – a Christian in a long-term, married relationship to Janet.

For some Christians, the Bible is clear on the matter: it’s sinful for Jane to exercise the full range of her sexuality as a lesbian in her relationship with Janet, whether she’s married or not. I actually used to feel this way about this issue and the Bible, myself. However, after doing a lot of prayerful thinking, reading, and study, I’ve arrived at a place where I believe that the Bible does fully support and affirm Christian LGBT sisters and brothers like Jane and Janet – all of them, including their sexuality.

And I’ll admit that moving from one position to the other was a long, fraught process because, like the stereograph image, I didn’t think there was a shark there – I didn’t think the Bible could be read in a way that supported same-sex marriage. But eventually I began to see. And now it’s as clear and easy to for me to see as the shark. But it was a long process and so I completely understand why it is that other Christians have a hard time seeing the issue the way I (and other open and affirming Christians) do.2

Now if you want to read a bit more about how I came to the position I currently hold regarding the Bible and same-sex marriage, you can read this post, but I’m not going to explain my shift in position here because that’s not what this series of posts is about.

And I’ll say more about what I’ve been trying to get at through out these posts in the next installment.

If you like stereogram images, check out this music video!

1 If you can’t see the shark, try the techniques on this site (warning, fugly website): http://www.vision3d.com/3views.html.

2 In the case of the stereograph shark image, the shark image is there – it was purposely embedded there by the person who made the image. In the case of the Bible and same-sex marriage, I don’t think the matter is as clear. The question of whether God really meant for people to be able to read the Bible in a way that supports same-sex marriage is one that’s still up for debate, but the point I’m hoping to make is that it is up for debate – it’s not a settled matter yet and so the church should, at the very least, make a safe place to have this discussion rather than saying that the case is clear and closed. More on this in my next post.

392. language is fuzzy (part 3) – faces and vases and rainbows

In the first post, I talked about how words and language are fuzzy and in need of interpretation. In the second post, I talked about how words are like boxes that contain a variety of meanings. To illustrate this last point, I used an example.

Take a look at this sentence:

Jane is a Christian

Now at first, Christians are happy about that because when it comes to Christians and Christianity, the more the merrier.
But then if we add:

Jane is a lesbian in a loving, longterm, marriage with Janet,

then all of a sudden some Christians become very uncomfortable because they believe that a married lesbian does not belong in the Christian box. And these Christians feel this way because they believe that the Bible makes clear who is and isn’t a Christian.

However, when we consider that the Bible is full of words and if it’s true that words are, to some degree or another, fuzzy (they contain multiple meanings), then as I see it, I think we need to be pretty cautious about how certain we are about any particular interpretation of the Bible. In other words, I don’t think it’s possible to be absolutely certain about one stance or the other regarding the state of Jane (or anyone’s) salvation.1

Now I realize that, taken to its logical extreme, one might ask, “well does that mean that anything and everything can be considered Christian? If language is as fuzzy as you claim then is there any meaning at all in the Bible?”

Thankfully, we don’t live in the world of logical extremes. Let’s look at this another way.

There’s a popular optical illusion called the Rubin vase. At first, you might look and see a vase. Blink and then you see two faces. Because of the nature of the illusion, it’s impossible to state what’s depicted in the picture – a vase or two faces. However, one can be certain that it’s not a picture of a rainbow.
Now back to the question, “If language is as fuzzy as you claim then is there any meaning at all in the Bible?”

The point I’m wanting to make is that it’s entirely possible for different people to read the Bible in vastly different ways just as people can see different things in the Rubin vase. Both images are there and people can disagree on which image is more prominent, but no one can say that it’s a picture of a rainbow. In the same way, sincere, Bible-loving Christians can read the same Bible and come away with different conclusions about what the Bible says about homosexuality, but acknowledging that doesn’t mean that there’s no meaning at all in the Bible or that we can make the Bible say anything we want it to say.

One might object here, “okay, I get that Christians can disagree about some things that the Bible says, but the Bible is really clear about the issue of homosexuality and so it’s like you are saying that there’s a rainbow where others see faces and a vase.”

And I’ll address that point in my next post.

1 Now let me be clear here. Even though I fully support Jane and Janet and affirm their Christianity, I don’t believe that my position is the one, correct, biblical stance on the matter that the whole church needs to agree on. At the same time I understand that as a straight, cisgendered male, it’s far too easy for me to hold this position. Personally, I wish the whole of the church would adopt my position on this issue, but at the same time, I believe that this is a complex hermeneutical issue and that good, loving, committed lovers and followers of Jesus (some LGBT persons among them) have settled on different positions than I and I want to respect that.

391. language is fuzzy (part 2) – cats and Christian boxes

(Click here for part 1.)

In my last post, I talked about the imprecise nature of language – how words and phrases have a built-in sort of fuzziness to them. I started with a story about a high school trip to DC and how I got left at the Air and Space Museum by mistake. At first I didn’t panic because I knew we were staying at the Days Inn and I thought that there was just one of these in the area. However, when I asked someone for the number to the Days Inn in DC, I learned that there were something like eight or nine of them. And that’s when I started to panic.

I ended that last post saying that “I see that same sort of panic and anxiety in the evangelical church today (especially on the fundamentalist end) and I think a lot of it is rooted in the same sort of Days Inn disconnect that I felt in DC.”

Let me put it this way. Think of the phrase “Days Inn in DC” as a box.1 I thought there was only one thing in the box (one Days Inn) but when I learned that there were many things in there, I panicked because I learned that the situation I found myself in was more complicated than I thought.

Basically, all words and phrases are boxes that hold multiple meanings.

And language is fuzzy because of this boxy/container nature of words.

Let’s try a couple more examples. Take a look at this sentence:

The cat sat on a mat.

The words “cat” and “mat” are both boxes that hold a number of different kinds of cats and mats. However, that’s a trivial example so we don’t worry about the fact that we can’t know for sure what specific kind of cat/mat that sentence is referring to.

Photo credit: Grumpy Cats

Now take a look at this sentence:

Jane is a Christian.

Most Christians would be pleased by that sentence because when it comes to Christianity, the general sentiment is: the more the merrier. But what happens when we start to get more specific about the kind of Christian that Jane is.

Jane is a lesbian in a loving, longterm, marriage with Janet who is also a Christian.

At this point, some Christians start to freak out the same way I did back in DC.
Because Jane is a lesbian, they believe that she doesn’t fit into the Christian box. Christians who feel this way tend to believe that only certain things can go into the Christian box and that certain things are excluded. More importantly, they believe they know for certain which things belong and which don’t, and for them, a lesbian just doesn’t belong.

They base this certainty on their reading of the Bible, but here’s the thing. If words are fuzzy, and if the Bible is full of words (over 800,000 depending on how you count them) then can we really know for certain which things belong and don’t belong in the Christian box based on how we read the Bible?

Now one might object here, “well does that mean that anything and everything can be considered Christian? If language is as fuzzy as you claim then is there any meaning at all in the Bible?”

And that’s a great question which I’ll address in my next post. Stay tuned!

1 I’m borrowing this metaphor from this podcast. If you’re looking for a more rigorous take on the problem of language and the evangelical church, I highly recommend you listen to the podcast and/or read Peter Blum’s book, For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.

390. language is fuzzy (part 1) – panic in DC

Let me begin with a story.

When I was in the 8th grade, I got to go on a week long class trip to Washington DC. On one of the stops, we got to see the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We were told to meet back at a certain spot at a certain time to get on the bus back the hotel. Introvert that I am, I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself and I had a ball. But when I went to the designated spot at the designated time, no one was there – no friends, no teachers, no bus. I quickly realized that I had heard the time wrong and that the bus had left without me.

Photo by: Chris Devers

I tried not to panic. I knew we were staying at the Days Inn and so I figured I’d just ask someone for the phone number, get in touch with one of the teachers, and they’d send someone out to get me.

Being from Honolulu where we don’t have Days Inns, I thought that there would be just one Inn in the DC area, and so I figured if I asked someone for their number, I’d get a simple, straightforward answer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple. When I asked a customer service person for the number of the DC Days Inn, they asked, “which one?” And that’s when I learned that there were something like eight or nine Days Inn in the area.

And that’s when I started to panic.

I share that story because it illustrates something about how language works. Sometimes we think a particular word or phrase (“Days Inn in DC”) points to just one thing when in fact, it points to many things. In fact, through the course of this series, I’m going to argue that language always works this way because:

Language, it turns out, is fuzzy.

Sometimes the fuzziness of language isn’t a problem.

For example, let’s say you get a text message from your partner or roommate that reads “on your way home, can you stop by the store and pick up a dozen eggs?” you know it doesn’t matter which store you go to or what particular brand of eggs you pick up, as long as you get home with a dozen eggs.

Sometimes, the fuzziness of language can be a HUGE problem.

When your mechanic is replacing the brake pads on your car, you’d better hope that they’re not just phoning their supplier and saying, “on your way here, can you stop by the warehouse and pick up a few brake pads?” because, unlike eggs, it matters a great deal what kind of brake pads they get.

Photo by: Morten Schwend

But even here, there’s wiggle room between what the mechanic asks for and what they can get. There are probably a number of different manufacturers who supply that part and each manufacturer might offer different performance/price options. Thus, choices still need to be made – out of the available options, which is the one that best fits the customer’s needs/budget?

This reveals something profound about language and words and how we use them:

Words have different meanings and thus are inherently in need of interpretation.

Now remember the panic I felt when I learned that there were a number of Days Inns in the DC area? I felt that because I expected a simple answer (one Days Inn) but received a complex one instead (many Inns). And then I felt lost and alone in a huge, unfamiliar world. And so I panicked.

I see that same sort of panic and anxiety in the evangelical church today (especially on the fundamentalist end) and I think a lot of it is rooted in the same sort of Days Inn disconnect that I felt in DC.

And I’ll have a lot more to say about that in my next post.