How (not) to Read the Bible: Part 1

A recent conversation with a friend threw up for me the importance of biblical hermeneutics. For the sake of argument, I’m going to come straight out and say that by biblical hermeneutics I mean the art of interpreting the bible, and the means by which one evaluates different interpretations of the bible- including one’s own. To get right to the nitty-gritty of it, my friend had understood a certain biblical text to mean a certain thing and had then forever read that particular text in that particular way- to the best of my knowledge, my friend had never really paused to ask any questions about the interpretation. What that leaves is a view of scripture where the answer has been gained and there is no more questioning, exploring or interpreting to be done: x = y and that is the end of it.

I’m a tad scared at the thought that for many serious Christians, what is imagined by serious bible reading is exactly that- learning one answer to the question, ‘What does this text mean?’ with the assumption that the answer we arrive at is the correct one, and without any further thought about the way our own highly significant cultural baggage shapes both the questions we ask of the text and the answers we then read from- or perhaps into- the text itself.

Loosely speaking, this reflects a practice that I’ll call mirror reading. Mirror reading the bible occurs when we read scripture in such a way that it reflects back to us our own cultural prejudices and presuppositions. We mirror read the bible when we read it in search of ourselves as the driving concern with the result that every reference to ‘I’, ‘We’, ‘Us’ or ‘Our’ automatically means ‘Me’. We also mirror read by failing to ask the bigger questions about the ancient cultures in which the bible itself was written.

For example, another friend asked me what the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) teach us about Jesus’ leadership style or model. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the question in principle, but it assumes that Matthew, Mark and Luke were actually bothered about communicating to us about Jesus’ leadership style (for the record, they might have been, but it is not the driving concern of the gospels). If we go to the text with that question, then we will find exactly what we are looking for, but we run the risk of reading into the text a bunch of questions that the Evangelists were not interested in (I read recently that if Jesus had acted like he did in John 13 when he washed the disciples feet, but in the context of a Roman house, he would have been severely beaten and maybe even killed- perhaps not a great model to follow after all!)

So, as a starting point for what not to do when you read the bible, avoid mirror reading like the plague and ask better questions! We all read from somewhere, so try and become more aware of how your own particular cultural and historical situation informs your reading.



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