A JESUS BLOG COLLECTIVE

How (Not) to Read
(the Bible)

…or any other book, article, essay, blog, etc…

Consider these simple illustrations:

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I. CONTENT IN CONTEXT

The phone rings. 13 year old John anxiously answers it.

Keith: “Hey, so can you go?”
John: “Yeah, my dad said I can go.  When can you pick me up?”

Keith: “Your dad said yes?”
John: “Yep.”
Keith: “Cool!  Be there in 15 minutes…”

John: (to his older brother): Hey Mike, I’m going to see Star Wars. Keith’s brother is coming to pick me up.
Mike: Aren’t you supposed to finish that book report?  I haven’t seen you touch it…
John: (as he scrambles to get ready)  Dad said I can go…
Mike: Umm…I don’t think so.  He told me you have to do your homework before you go anywhere?
John: Yes he did!  I swear!  He left a note in my room…

(whipping out the Good Note left for him by his dad, he proceeds to read it to Mike)

“Like we discussed, you can go see Star Wars.  Have fun!  Check in with your brother before you leave.  I’m looking forward to hearing all about it. Love you, Dad ”

DAD 1:1,4,8,10,12

Mike concedes, “Alright man…come straight home as soon as it’s over. I’ll wait up for you.”


Sounds legit, right?  That is…until we read Dad’s actual note…

“1 Hey buddy.  Like we discussed, you can go see Star Wars 2 but ONLY if you finish your homework. 3 If you don’t finish your homework and you go anyway, 4 have fun, 5 I hope it’s worth it 6 because you’ll be grounded.  7  If you do finish your homework, 8 check in with your brother before you leave. 9  I have faith in you. 10  I’m looking forward to hearing all about it.  11 We’ll be in touch.  12 Love you, Dad”

DAD 1:1-12

Plot holes aside, what we see here is John edited his dad’s note to suit him.  He didn’t want to suffer through homework and he sure didn’t want to wait to see Star Wars (apparently, being grounded was worth it)…so he took advantage of Mike’s lazy naivety and their parents’ absence to get his way.  If Mike would have asked to read the note himself, he would have been able to corroborate what his dad had communicated to him earlier – John isn’t to leave the house until his homework is finished.  Instead, he fell victim to the second-hand, self-interested, selective edit of his younger brother which had him believe their dad’s previous stipulation had been removed.

How often do we do this with what we read and see?  Like John, do we cherry-pick the (verses) that suit us, editing the text to read to our liking?  Or like his brother Mike, do we naively accept the testimony of others concerning its contents without vetting it ourselves?

We must be wary of both our highlighters and our credulity – lest we be grounded for listening to our own biases or misled into shame by those we blindly trust…even when they’re our own kin…


nosetornoff

 II. MEANING IN CONTEXT

“Curious Varvara’s nose was torn off”

Strange statement, right?  A literal reading of this would give us every reason to be puzzled.  Who is Varvara?  I, for one, have never heard the name before. And what’s with their nose being torn off?  That’s vulgar.  To some of you, it may sound vaguely familiar…

It’s an old Russian proverb which may date back to the 17th century.  It’s English equivalent?

“Curiosity killed the cat”

Varvara = Barbara.

Though it probably makes more sense given the information I’ve provided, it’s still unusual.  I mean – how often does someone’s nose get torn off?  Probably way less than curious cats get killed.  In Googling its meaning, I found there are various interpretations.  Some say its about gossip (sticking your nose in someone else’s business – which seems fairly obvious), while another questions if ‘nose’ was a mistranslation, offering different possible meanings in light of this error.  One possible interpretation places its context in commerce, another in marriage.  Hmmm…

Point is – good interpretation is contingent on interrogation. Meaning cannot be assumed. Buried under historical, cultural and linguistic contexts, it must be excavated.  And that takes time.  Even then, as you can see from this small Russian proverb, interpretations may vary – which is why dialogue is so important.

The Christian Bible is no exception.  It’s not just a book.  It’s a library of books.  Originally written by 40 authors (not counting the Apocrypha) with diverse backgrounds (kings, shepherds, fishermen, doctors, lawyers, etc.) living on three different continents (Africa, Europe, Asia) over a 1,500 year span in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) and in array of genres.  Two to three millennia removed from us, you think it would take a little homework to try to understand it?  I mean….if one insignificant Russian proverb is quartered into a handful of possible meanings…perhaps, in light of the Bible’s literary complexity, we have good reason to be more humble in our doctrinal stances and more welcoming of open dialogue and friendly debate?   How else do you get to know something (or someone) if not through questions?

Exegesis vs Eisegesis – understand the difference.

A modern day example of misinterpretation and its consequence straight from the Twitterverse …

Steven Jillson’s brief blog The Bible & The Baptist is also helpful

 


 

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and it is the glory of a king to search out a matter. ” Proverbs 25:2 (NET)

 

HANS ZIMMER OFFICIAL WEBSITE

“If you ask a living teacher a question, he will probably answer you. If you are puzzled by what he says, you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself. In this respect a book is like nature or the world. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself.”

Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading