Sunday, July 3, 2016

Influence & Interpretation

            It has certainly been awhile since my last post. My apologies. There were many loose ends to tie up in the month of May, and since then I also have been traveling quite a bit on the road – never mind the fact that vacation time has made me lazy. I know: excuses, excuses. In truth, I began a post at the start of June, but I found myself dissatisfied with its content, so, like the potter of Jeremiah 18:1-4, I've started over... and over. After several attempts, I am desperate to post something (anything) on this blog, so I'm keeping today's post a little shorter. I can hear the sighs of relief already.

            The recent attack on our LGBT brothers and sisters in Orlando, as well as the general increase in mass shootings over the years, have weighed heavy on my mind. It has me pondering what sort of influential factors – aside from mental illness – feed the kinds of ideologies that lead to such tragedies. I'm well aware of the powerful role that religion and sacred literature play in our lives – largely for good, but sometimes for ill when they are misconstrued. So, as one who writes about Scripture, it concerns me that poor interpretations of sacred writings sometimes contribute to humanity's worst atrocities, from hate crimes to all out war. I'm not drawing a direct link between the Bible and hate crimes or terrorism, but I do think it is necessary to ask ourselves, Do the Scriptures draw me to love my neighbor? Why or why not? How does Scripture influence my image of God? What, then, does that image of God incite within me? Fear? Hate? Love? Peace?

            One of the reasons why the Bible is often grossly misunderstood is that many people, even very well-intentioned people, take a fundamentalist approach to Scripture. But the Pontifical Biblical Commission (i.e. the Catholic Church's committee to ensure proper interpretation of Scripture – let it never be said that the Catholic Church doesn't care about the Bible) has some interesting things to say about this sort of take on Sacred Scripture.

"Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the Word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by 'literal interpretation' it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development."[1]
But wait, it gets better. The Commission goes on to say,
"The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious and illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide" (emphasis mine).[2]

            The Bible is not a history book. It is not a science book. It isn't even a handbook of morality. True, the Scriptures can be a rich source of encouragement, consolation, moral exhortation or reprimand, and certainly of truths about who God is and our relationship with God. Indeed, short phrases and passages from the Bible are frequently quoted and read in everything from greeting cards to Sunday Mass readings so that the Word of God might touch us in these very ways. But, as we strive to understand what God is saying to us in these sacred texts, it is important to keep in mind that the human authors, through whom the Holy Spirit worked, wrote in a particular time and place in history. They had their own culture, their own language and literary styles, and their own limited understanding of the natural sciences. Therefore, as stated in Dei Verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation by Vatican II), "in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, [the interpreter] should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words."[3]

            Okay, I've been on my soapbox long enough. (Actually it is the Church's soapbox, as I have spent most of my time quoting Church documents.) If the fundamentalist approach to Scripture is so abhorrent, if we want to avoid "intellectual suicide," what, then, are we to do with Scripture? Knowing that the Bible should not always be taken literally, a number of folks have asked me plainly, "How should we interpret the Bible?" A complex question, indeed, and I said I'd keep this post brief today.

            There is no short answer to this query. Theologians, biblical scholars, and even some of the authors of Scripture themselves have been wrestling with questions about biblical interpretation for millennia. I return to my Shrek-inspired assessment of Scripture: "The Bible is like an onion; it has layers." Layers of meaning, that is. My first inclination, as Dei Verbum suggests, is to explore the historical, cultural, and literary context, but that takes some research, and not everyone has the time or resources for that - though I'd like to draw your attention to some websites listed in the top right-hand corner, particularly "Bible Research" and "Bible Odyssey." But if your reading Scripture for your spiritual benefit, without tomes of biblical exegesis, and want to know how best to approach these texts, I would say look to Jesus, the very Word made flesh, and keep in mind the bigger picture.

            If we want to avoid the kinds of corrupt biblical misinterpretations that lead to prejudice, hate and violence, we should remember that the Word of God tells a story of a God who brings forth life, who wants to be in relationship with humanity, who calls his people to faithfulness, who loves his people, poor, lowly, and faltering though they are. It is a story about how God saves his people, sometimes from outside forces but often from the very calamities they incur from their own mistakes. And if you read the Gospels you find that this story reaches a climax in the person of Jesus. In him the saving God, who desires to be in relationship with his people, becomes flesh and dwells among us, ultimately laying down his own life that we may be saved.

            You also find that this story continues today beyond the pages of Scripture in the lives of those who have united themselves to Christ, who have died and risen in Christ. You see it in the lives of those who suffer, in the poor and those who radically depend on God, in those who long for justice, in those who heal and show mercy, in those who rise up from the ashes of destruction and usher in new life, and in those who love without counting the cost. This is the biblical story alive in our world today!

            If you want an interpretive lens for reading the Bible, examine the life of Christ, and remember that our saving God desires to be near to us, heal us, and make us whole. This is not an exhaustive account of biblical interpretation. Oh honey, there are many, many more layers left unpeeled. Yet if we read the Scriptures keeping these things in mind, perhaps we can curb the hate and violence that is born from ideologies based in literalist and corrupt interpretations of the Bible.

            For this week I suggest reading Isaiah 54, but read it in light of the bigger picture of Scripture, of God's saving and loving relationship with humanity. Behind this portion of Isaiah we have God's chosen people, who have been in exile in Babylon for decades. Whether or not it was due to poor politics and inferior defenses, the people of Judah believed they were in exile because of their infidelity to God. But, at last, the Babylonian empire falls to Persia, and God's chosen are free to return to the Promised Land. Thus the prophet speaks tenderly to the people, revealing to them God's love, mercy, and desire to reunite himself to them despite the sins of their past. You can read innumerable passages in the Bible referring to God's blazing wrath – I won't deny that they're in there – but ultimately it all comes back to God's love for his people. So as you read this, ask yourself, How does this affect my image of God? Do I see myself in this passage? How? How might my relationship with my neighbor be affected by a message like this one? Meanwhile, let us pray and work for peace in our world, for mercy, and for the increase of tolerance. Until next time...

Peace and all good!

[1] Pontifical Biblical Commission, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teaching, ed. & trans. by Dean P. Béchard (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 273.

[2] Ibid., 275.

[3] Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (1965), no. 12, accessed June 14, 2016,

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