Thursday, December 02, 2010

the bs report

Our book study group met yesterday. We are reading Peter Gomes' The Good Book, which offers insight about reading and interpreting scripture. Yesterday's discussion was on the bible in America. I confess that when I first read the chapter heading I didn't think I would read anything new. Silly me.

As one might imagine, any discussion of scripture will include the perils of interpretation. Gomes alerts us to three particular danger zones in this area. He refers to idolatry of the book itself, the literal meaning of the text, and the imposition of culture on the text. He challenges the conservative who resists change, and the activist who promotes change, to reevaluate how we might be guilty of one or more of these idolatries as we read and interpret scripture.

I've got to say that his challenge got my attention, and in so doing raised a significant question. If we are to beware of our bias and dismantle the lens(es) through which we read the text, what lens do we now use to understand and interpret it?

When parables, allegory and metaphor are used it would seem clear that stepping back from any literal interpretation is the only way to look at the text and seek meaning from it (unless, of course, one is a literalist,). But don't we often take literally other aspects of the text? I am of the camp that understands scripture to be the story/history of God's relationship with his people. In the telling of that story what is important is not what is said, but what is being communicated. In other words, the story doesn't have to be true in order to communicate a truth. The details of a story may or may not be accurate, but in the details we find clues to what is important about the story.

It's amazing to me, actually, that the Christian tradition lacks what the Jews knew was essential years ago: the Talmud: rabbinic discussions of the text that address the details as well as the ambiguity of it. I can't say this with certainty, but my understanding is that literalism is not an option in Judaism, even for Orthodox Jews. (Please correct me if I'm wrong).  The Talmud has been around since roughly 500 BCE.

I'm not sure that it's possible to strip away the influences that we bring to our reading of scripture, and hence, our interpretation. And although I initially thought Gomes was suggesting we do that, I think he is really warning us to keep our minds open to evaluating our interpretations against the possibility of bias. I do think I try to do this. As a self-professed liberal/progressive, for instance, I can hold in tension the difficult texts used to excoriate homosexuals while still affirming my belief that God desires for all humanity the experience of mutual love, committed relationships, and yes, sex within that context. I think I will forever live left of center, but I can still hear and understand how the text can be understood differently by others who hold different values.

In the end (or maybe I should say, at this point, since I'm not knowingly at the end of my life) I am most heavily influenced by my first and earliest experiences of recognizing the holy in my life: through the Holy Spirit. Through her I accumulate what I presume to be knowledge about God, and my experience, including the reading of scripture, is constantly sifted and weighed against that accumulation. It is all a piece. The biggest challenge seems to be when the weight of something new tips the balance of what has been. That's akin to what Gomes refers to as the guiding force of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The trumpet shall sound...and we shall all be changed." (I Corinthians 15:52)


The Bug said...

I might have to check out this book - perhaps we should use it in our Bible study!

Jayne said...

Sounds like a sound book!


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