Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Who is Herman Utic, and what's he got to do with the Bible?

Herman's an old friend from seminary. He's going to help us solve a problem.

Oh? What problem is that?
Well, if you remember back to the beginning of this discussion, I said that the Bible essentially recorded a conversation about what it means to live with God. That's a very long conversation, with very many different voices represented. Then you've got issues with the texts themselves, translation problems, not to mention trying to understand the context these things were written in, their literary genre, and so on. Trying to make sense out of the Bible is hard work.

It's hard enough when you're trying to make heads or tails of a single piece, but when you try to make all those pieces fit together, it's something else. Making moral sense of it is harder still.

I noticed. You going to tell us how to do it?
Sort of. You will never find a “magic key” that suddenly makes it all fit together. And by magic key, I mean a single, objective, permanent standard for interpretation.

That's important, so let me say it again: you will never find a single, objective, permanent standard for interpretation.

Ever. Reading the Bible is an art, not a science.

So what do you do?
This is where our friend Herman comes in.

Traditionally, one of the first things you do in seminary is to identify and describe the “rules and suppositions” that you bring to scriptural interpretation. That's called a hermeneutic.

I get it. Herman Utic, hermeneutic. Ha ha ha. Moron.
Look, I didn't say that seminarians had a good sense of humor.

But in any case, figuring out your hermeneutic does a number of things. It brings out your assumptions, of course, so you can see if they need to be challenged. It gives you a way of being consistent in your approach. In the absence of an objective standard, having a hermeneutic gives you some kind of yardstick for comparing your interpretation to someone else's.

Okay, I think I understand.
Let's look at an example. If you read the story of the first Passover in Exodus, chapter 12, you'll see that one of God's instructions to the Israelites is to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on a doorpost, so that God will know to spare that house from the final plague before the Jews are freed from slavery in Egypt.

Then flip forward, and look at the stories about the Last Supper in the gospels. Matthew ( 26:26-30), Mark (14:22-26), and Luke (22:15-20) tell pretty much the same story, as they often do: Jesus takes some bread, blesses it and breaks and gives it to the disciples, saying some variation of “this is my body.” He also takes some wine and gives it to them, telling them that it is his blood. Obviously, there's a parallel to the Passover story going on here. Jesus' blood replaces the blood of the lamb, and his body replaces the unleavened bread. But what does it all mean? What's the point of the story?

Well, if you believe that the Exodus story (of which Passover is a part) is about God freeing the Israelites from social and political oppression, you might then look at the Last Supper stories and say that they must be about the same thing. That's a fair argument, and it is consistent. Even better, if you look at I Corinthians 11:23-25, you see that Paul has almost exactly the same words that Jesus uses in these three gospels—and he uses them as part of a larger argument about social equality.

But a friend of yours might say, “I think the gospel stories and Exodus are about God freeing us from our sinful nature.” That's a fair argument too. After all, Jesus does say in Matthew that the wine is “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” and Exodus does spend a good bit of time on the Israelites' rather wanton behavior. As for Paul: isn't snobbery a sign of sinfulness?

So who's right?
It's not a question of being right or wrong. Both of those perspectives can be defended. If one of you had said, for example, that Exodus was only about sin, and the gospel stories only about social liberation, clearly that would be wrong. As it is, you're pretty evenly matched.

But the point is that you're talking. You read the Bible with an eye to liberation; your friend reads it with an eye to sin.Now you know where you both stand, and you can argue back and forth about whose interpretation better suits the case at hand. You may never agree with one another, and you may never establish who's “right,” but you're talking, and that's something.

There's no right and wrong way to read the Bible?
Depends on what you're asking. Are there some ways to read the Bible that just don't fit what we know about the texts? Sure. The creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis is plainly not about imprisonment to sin; Revelation is not about current events in the Middle East; Leviticus is not gay-friendly. None of it has anything to do with UFOs. You can claim those things all you want, but you won't find much support for them in the text.So you have to be a responsible reader.

But is there one way to read the Bible that is absolutely morally preferable to any other way? No, I don't believe so.

So whatever feels good, that's how you read?

No, I don't believe that either, and the reason I don't is pretty important.

Seminarians look at their hermeneutic for the sake of academic and intellectual consistency. But they also look at it for the sake of moral consistency—particularly because they're going to represent a moral vision to their parishioners. Forget hot-button issues like abortion or homosexuality; when a pastor is confronted with a member whose life is being cut short by ovarian cancer, they damn well better be able to talk coherently about what the Bible has to say about pain, suffering, and death—and what those things mean. If they don't know for themselves, they need to get it figured out—quickly.

In a more global sense, your hermeneutic is a way of connecting your story to the larger story of the faith. I, for example, have had many experiences of God's surprising grace, and I often read scripture with those experiences in mind. Again, other people might look at things a bit differently: through the lens of liberation, or the incarnation, or salvation from sin.

And again, none of those ways is exactly right or wrong; they're more like theories that you test as you read. Sometimes, the theory's confirmed, sometimes it needs to be refined; and sometimes it just needs to be thrown out and replaced with something new.

But the point is this: you makes your choices, and you takes your chances. There is no way to read the Bible that removes the obligation to make choices—about God, about Jesus Christ, about what is right and what is wrong. From the perspective of faith, right understanding of scripture only comes when you have come to understand the larger story, and where you stand in relation to it. (Many Christians would say that you can only understand the Bible through the acceptance of the faith—literalists believe that the Holy Spirit gives you the knowledge to interpret correctly—but I respectfully disagree.)

Again from the perspective of faith, that one must make decisions in reading scripture is a good thing. It reflects the nature of a God who chooses to operate through freedom, rather than force or compulsion, and who wants us to know the truth, that it might make us free.
From the perspective of progressive politics, it's even better, because what it means is that “all God's children got a place in the choir.” We are invited to take part in the ongoing conversation of faith, regardless of who we are or what we believe. (Yes, that includes atheists as well.) No one is entitled to shut us out of this conversation, because no one is entitled to abrogate the freedom given by God.

That doesn't mean that you won't be called upon to defend your choices, either here on earth or at the Pearly Gates, but what of it? We are responsible for our decisions; this is hardly news. I am confident of God's grace and mercy, and so should you be.

Okay, smartass, what are the decisions you've made?

I suppose I could blame them on Herman, but that would just be wrong, wouldn't it?

Seriously: I've sort of been arguing for them as we've gone along with these discussions. Let me make them explicit:
  1. The work of interpreting scripture belongs to the community, not just its scholars or religious leaders. Those individuals have important contributions to make, but they don't “own” the truth of the Bible.

  2. The Bible was written by humans in an attempt to understand their experiences of faith; though it may have been inspired, it was not dictated, nor is it infallible. While we ought to take biblical perspectives seriously, we ought not be bound by them uncritically. We are part of a larger community as we read the Bible together, one that includes its original authors, as well as those who have—or will—interpret it over time. Again, we are free to make decisions about the best interpretation of the texts, but we ought to remember at the same time of the need to be good citizens in the larger polity.

  3. The search for the historical, factual, propositional truth of the Bible is an exercise in frustration. Moreover, it is unfair to the texts themselves, which may or may not have been written with literal truth in mind.

  4. We must accept the Bible's critique of our own fallibility as much as we critique the failings of its writers. To claim to know the absolute truth is arrogant and presumptous, both morally and intellectually. Even if we read scripture with the presupposition that there is no God behind it, biblical texts present sometimes startling challenges to our notions of “the way things are.”

  5. “Preferable” readings of the Bible should include John's four dimensions of scripture:
    • Anthropological
    • Historical
    • Literary
    • Religious

  6. The way we read scripture should not diminish or remove human freedom, nor should they be used as the basis of oppression.

So that's the way you think we should read the Bible?
That's my hermeneutic, and I'm sticking to it.

I'm sorry, can you define “hermeneutic” one more time?
To quote a fellow seminarian: “the way I read the Bible is well-reasoned and insightful. The way you read it is a bunch of crap.”

Okay, that helps.
You ready to dive into what the Bible has to say about some issues?

Actually, I'd rather take a couple of weeks to goof off do some research.
We can do that. Be back in a few weeks with “What Does the Bible Say About Homosexuality,” folks. Say goodnight, Gracie.

Goodnight, Gracie.

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