This week I got into an interesting discussion with a reader. It was about the Bible, and truth and the act of interpreting a text.
To paraphrase, the reader said, “Well, you can’t just say that the Bible is open to a variety of interpretations.”
I understand what the reader meant, but it doesn’t matter whether I say it or not, it’s true.
All of us know people who interpret the Bible differently than us. To say the Bible isn’t open to different interpretations is like saying people can’t break the law.
Every act of reading is an act of interpretation. There is no pure, absolute meaning in a book, no more than there is in a song or a painting. A book – even the Bible – has meaning only to the extent that I pick it up, read it and try to understand what it says. The Bible is God’s communication to God’s beloved humankind and it’s meaningless outside our attempt to understand it.
Understanding it, my friends, ain’t easy.
“Well, it’s timeless, it’s beyond interpretation,” the reader said.
That doesn’t make any sense. Nothing other than God is timeless. The Bible is not God; it’s God’s communication rendered through human creativity. It is, therefore, subject to time and interpretation.
“To say that the Bible is open to interpretation is to go down a slippery slope,” the reader said.
Yes, that’s the challenge put before us. We are given the daunting task of trying to make sense of the Bible. God hasn’t given us an easy job, but God seems to think we can do it. It would be an insult to our God-given intelligence if the Bible were simplistic and without complexity and nuance.
“You’re stripping the Bible of its authority,” the reader said.
I don’t think that I am. I think the Bible is authoritative, but I understand that authority to be reconcilable with a pluralistic world in which not everybody agrees with me – and, not everybody is going to agree with me. Not everybody reads with my prejudice, my knowledge – or lack thereof – my lifetime of experience.
“What about the prophets, were they interpreting, too?” the reader asked.
Yes, I think so. How could they not? When we read the accounts of Jeremiah, or Isaiah or Ezekiel we’re reading how the biblical authors interpreted the meaning of God’s revelation to those men.
“It sounds like you don’t believe the Bible is true,” the reader said.
I believe the Bible is absolutely true. I think metaphorical, symbolic and narrative truths are the deepest kinds of truth. That’s the truth the Bible speaks. Humans live in a world of passionless, brute facts and they make meaning out of them. To humans, other people become “family.” Disparate sounds become “music.” The experience of being created, and loved, and called brings us into recognition of and relationship with God.That’s the message of the Bible.
I don’t think there’s a secret decoder ring that, if we use it, will yield exactly what the Bible means. We bring the best knowledge we have to bare upon it at any given historical moment. Interpretation, like knowledge, is always a work in progress.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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