How to (Not) Read the Bible
Back in the days before the Reformation, there was no “Bible”—66 books, under one cover, easily (or at all) accessible to the average person. Before Wycliffe and Luther and Tyndale and dozens of other individuals whose names are not so well known put their lives at risk, the Scriptures were unavailable to the vast majority of the Baptized. Partly this was the result of economics and technology – a hand-copied biblical manuscript was fabulously expensive, and even Gutenberg’s Bible (in Latin, remember) cost about the same as a house in the nice part of town. Even more problematic, people didn’t read the Bible because they couldn’t read at all. There was no public education system, and the church did not have schools for the laity. To hear from God, one had to trust what his representative, be it pope, council, bishop, priest, or friar, said on his behalf. This could be good, or it could be very bad, depending on how faithful all those popes and councils were. By the early 16th century, the teaching far to often did not match up with the Scriptures’ message. There was more preaching of indulgences than of Gospel; in fact, Gutenberg made far more money printing indulgences than he did printing Bibles.
But the great flow of history that came together in the early 16th century led to the rise of technologies that could cheaply produce printed books, a middle-class that could afford Bibles and education, and a desire to make God’s Word available, as Erasmus described it, to every ploughboy and weaver at her loom. So Luther took up his lexica and grammar books, and translated into German; Tyndale, inspired by Luther, produced the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament in English before he was tracked down and murdered. What we take for granted today—the ability to read the Bible for ourselves, individually and privately, sitting at our tables or in our reading chair or in our study—has been a part of the life of the church for only about 20% of the church’s history since the first Pentecost.
So now everyone can read the Bible. Is this good? Our instinctive answer is, of course, yes! Print Bibles by the millions. Put them in hotel rooms. Give them away to visitors to a worship service. Pass them out at county fairs. Get the word out as far and as wide as possible—on brochures, coffee mugs, web pages, billboards, whatever.
Or, maybe not so much. Take a look at this billboard:
You cannot not respond viscerally, revoltingly, automatically to that billboard.
A link was sent to me that tried to explain the problem in this way:
The problem with this is that the sign shows what is lacking in the complaints by village atheists. First, there is something we call “biblical hermeneutics,” which is the art and science of biblical interpretation. Do atheists really want to take the time to understand and learn about how to interpret the Bible? Probably not. If atheists truly care about understanding biblical passages, they should take the time to learn some of the basics of hermeneutics. Otherwise, signs like these make them look like they just want to present a distortion of the Christian faith which is not backed up by proper research. [original link here]
I think I get where this writer is trying to go – learn the “rules,” and you won’t make these kinds of mistakes. There are a couple further problems here, though. First the Bible doesn’t come with any “rules.” There is no book called “Hermeneutics” standing after Malachi or Revelation that you can cite chapter and verse from to give you the “rules” for reading properly. So, all the “rules” are made up. We made them up. Many are helpful, of course, but some are not. And they are all the result of the trial-and-error (mostly error) of thousands upon thousands of readers over thousands of years.
Second, I’d like us to use more care when we use terms like “hermeneutics.” “Hermeneutics” is not learning THE list of rules or steps to get the right interpretation. Hermeneutics is not the equivalent of a great big, bloated, Microsoft Windows-sized program that uses all the rules and all the if-then statements to crunch a biblical text and spit out the right “interpretation” on your screen. Hermeneutics has nothing to do with rules; it has to do with readers. And it is far more important to look at readers and how they create meaning than it is to learn “rules.” Here is a helpful definition from a standard resource in biblical studies:
“Hermeneutics” denotes critical reflection upon processes of interpretation and understanding, especially the interpretation of biblical texts or texts that originate from within other cultures. However, this may include all kinds of communicative processes, from signs and visual art to institutions and literary phenomena. “Hermeneutics” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. K. J. Vanhoozer (SPCK/Baker Academic, 2005), 283.
Notice that hermeneutics is not concerned with “rules” or “steps,” but how we come to understand something. The focus in hermeneutics is not on the text, but on the reader – why does the reader come up with the interpretation that he or she does?
Let’s return to this billboard and ask some hermeneutical questions—why did WE respond the way that we did when we saw that billboard?
First, we live in the 21st century and most of us are Americans. We have had, collectively, horrific experiences with the word “slave.” When we hear the word “slave” we think of the American experience, the war fought 150 years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, whips, abuse, chains. Slavery is a blight on our national history. The billboard, of course, primes us to think of exactly that when it places a troubling image of this conception of “slave” next to the passage. So when the average American drives by this billboard and sees “Slaves, obey your masters,” we cannot help but read the passage as antiquated at best and at worst as an agent of oppression and even evil. Of course, this is exactly what the purchasers of the billboard want you to think. But the problem is not the text; it is the reader, who has been shaped and formed to react in this visceral, automatic way to that image and that word. In other words, slapping four words and that image on a billboard—which is viewed at highway speed, no less—does not allow for the kind of reflection that would lead to the obvious conclusion that 19th century American chattel slavery cannot be the same thing as slavery in a first-century, Greco-Roman context.
The same goes for “obey.” If you were told by a police officer to “obey the speed limit,” or by your parents that you had to obey their curfew rules, you probably would not react in revulsion or horror (granted, teenagers might). But put the word “obey” next to our American notion of “slave” and, again, next to that image, and our automatic reaction will be negative. It becomes an intolerable word.
And again, “master.” “Master” as a noun has pretty much fallen out of common American usage. Probably because of its connection to slavery. So our immediate reaction to that word, as with “slaves” and “obey,” is to think of the American form of slavery, and again we respond negatively to the passage on the billboard.
Notice, I have not yet discussed what the text “means,” but only how most Americans will read the text. This is hermeneutics, and this is where the entire problem lies. The problem is that you and I are reading the text, and you and I have been shaped and formed to read it in a certain way because of our education, our cultural environment, the kinds of books we read, the kinds of movies and TV shows we watch, our political leanings, our friends, our experiences, etc. etc. All of which makes us very poor readers of the biblical text. And which makes billboards like this very effective.
I’ve gone on long enough here, and I won’t (as should be obvious by now) give “the meaning” of this passage. What we need to work on is you and me. How do we not read this solely from our 21st century American perspective? How do we read this as the people to whom it was written (Greco-Romans who spoke Greek, living in the first-century, cosmopolitan, who interacted with all kinds of “slaves” and “masters” every day – some of whom were in fact “slaves” and didn’t think that this instruction was horrific)? How do we read this in a way that is consistent with the text’s own goals and agendas, and not our own goals and agendas? And, if we insist on our own goals and agendas, as quite clearly the people who paid for this billboard will, should we be allowed to read the Bible at all? For ironically, when we read a passage like this we are not free to read it and decide what it means. We are, perhaps ironically, in fact “slaves” who have no choice as to how we read it. Our minds have been made up for us even before we see it. We are not autonomous, rational creatures. Who will rescue us from this body of death?
Thanks to Rev. Al Collver for forwarding the link to the page cited above.