Scripture in Common Usage: Oversight 1: Scripture Divorced from History

March 29, 2013

So in the prologue to this series of blogs, I recounted an interaction between myself and an acquaintance in which I detailed a use of scripture as the grounding for an opinion that acquaintance had on weather in relation to science, climate change, etc. As I begin moving this conversation along, making observations on how scripture is used in modern America today, both blatantly and subtly, actively and subconsciously, and by both the “religious” and the “non-religious,” I once again have a particular acquaintance (a different person) in mind. I am picturing this particular person and their rather common invocation of scripture coupled with their complete disinterest in “history” as a starting point to look at a larger theme common in the use of scripture today in many parts of the country. This particular person is very “religious”,  places great emphasis on church attendance, participating in praise and worship, and values  reading scripture. This person mentions reading the Bible often. This person also claims to have no interest in “history,” to be bored by it as a subject completely. I recall a particular time when I was with this person and someone else had a book on the history of Rome and this person commented that that “must be the most boring book imaginable.” This, briefly, inspires this observation on scripture and history. Because history, and most certainly the history of Rome, is integral to the comprehension of scripture, in this case the Bible. The history recounted within the four gospels took place roughly 2000 years ago in land occupied by the Roman government. The history of the Christian church most certainly occurred in relation to Roman history. So it is interesting that that particular book happened to evoke such a comment from someone who takes the Bible and Church so seriously. I say this not to deride my acquaintance  I use this interaction simply as a springboard to this theme as it plays out in many ways among individuals and even entire groups around the country. History and Scripture are intimately, irrevocably intermingled and a comprehension of one requires at least a consideration of the other.

Now, I must issue some concessions. Yes, it is possible to be “religious” or “spiritual” and to be bored or disinterested in “history” as an academic or intellectual subject. Furthermore, it is certainly possible to overplay history vis-a-vis religion in that much of what has been done in academic religious scholarship over the past 200 years has often placed too emphasis on historical context. Modernity brought a drive to religious scholarship to ground all scriptural claims and concepts in “provable” scientific expression and historically “accurate” and verifiable accounts. Whatever could not be rationally apprehended was deemed suspect, often even jettisoned completely. Post-modernity brought a drive to religious scholarship to deconstruct the scriptural stories to their story components, to study them as narrative text alone. I admit that in recent time I have been drawn to academic religious scholarship (post-postmodern) and study that seeks to bridge these two aspects and reintroduce more ancient means as well, a practice of scriptural reasoning that takes seriously the fact that scripture is scripture for those who hold it to be so and that recognizes that it is true for the communities who live its truth out—to witness God and Scripture as the Effects produced in the world by groups of people across space and time. That being said, this certainly does not mean history can be done away with vis-a-vis scripture. For History is on-going and we are a part of it. Scripture, and scriptural interpretation, and the habits that interpretation and belief give rise to, occurs in history irrevocably tied to past and future, to tradition and as yet to occur interpretation.

But let’s step back and be more grounded for a moment. For my acquaintance who values the Bible, who reads and meditates over it on a regular basis, and who attends a Christian Church–why should “history” matter? I assume this person has no need to historically deconstruct the Gospels, for example. She does not want to pull out a Gospel Parallels text and compare how the Gospels diverge on certain points and then try to check each account with some sort of extra-biblical source to accept or reject each claim on a case by case basis. For her, these passages are “true,” (and she wouldn’t use the quotation marks either) and the lessons imparted by them are salvific, eternal, real. She seeks to modify her behavior by what she learns from them and hopes for a better tomorrow by living them out. So why care about the original context of the passages? Because she cannot truly live out what she reads without understanding the historical context of what she is reading. For example, if she wants to take Jesus seriously, then unless she wants to relegate him to “only” a saving figure who matters in terms of death and resurrection alone and as grasped “spiritually” by her in the present, then she has to take seriously his teachings–his words and deeds as recounted by scripture. If this is the case, then she must understand the context of the parables–she must understand the lived reality of Jesus and the people he ministered to. Facts that matter historically regarding Christian scripture include the fact that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who lived under Roman military occupation and that the people he preached to and who were most attracted to his message were marginal folks as well–outcasts, the “least of these.” If you don’t understand why “tax collectors” were so hated–they were Roman collaborators who often exploited their neighbors for a cut of the government profit–and you don’t understand the social importance of sharing food with someone at that time–it often signified friendship, even acceptance, and communion–then you don’t understand the significance of Jesus breaking bread with the tax collectors. From the historical significance of who Jesus ate with and ministered to, in relation to the cultural stigmas that faced most of them in that time, you can then extrapolate positive ethical actions to today–the marginal and the outcasts of our own time and what is expected of a true follower of Jesus in this time.

History matters for proper scriptural understanding because in light of history, one who takes scripture seriously can discern what to apply to today and in what way to do so and what to leave as a product specifically of its cultural context. Christian Evangelical Ethicist David Gushie (in books like Kingdom Ethics and The Sacredness of Human Life) discusses a Christ-centered hermeneutics of interpretation. If a Christian takes seriously the example of Jesus in making decisions, why would this cease to be so in matters of scriptural interpretation? For after all  Jesus constantly references scripture in the Gospel stories. Jesus was a Jew for whom the Hebrew scriptures deeply mattered. Yet Jesus felt free to interpret those passages in light of current circumstances, to sift them for highlighting particular threads and downplaying others. If scripture is a conversation across history, then its voice is sometimes an argument with itself since not all verses from all books are going to be consonant. Jesus highlighted particular threads for a particular message. So for a Christian today, to follow Jesus in how Jesus read scripture is to follow the same lens of interpretation that Jesus did, to highlight the aspects of justice, care, concern, reparation, etc. that he did. To attempt to do this in a community requires an understanding of what has come before, a fairly deep comprehension of history. One, preferably in a group of honest seekers, seeks to understand the context of what Jesus referenced and taught, the context of his own time in implementing what he brought forth, and the context of the Church’s long history of attempting to, and often failing to (and those failures in history are equally worthy of study) live those truths out and continue on the same journey. A failure to comprehend the history that such striving has taken place in can lead to making the same mistakes previous generations have made. Doing so in the realm of ethics, spirituality, and justice can be more than a little dangerous.

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5 Responses to “Scripture in Common Usage: Oversight 1: Scripture Divorced from History”

  1. Enjoyed this article and hope you will continue to write on this topic. Being raised Catholic, I’m woefully uninformed on scripture but you were able to bring to life those few passages…for me. I’m not religious but have a heart for social justice. I also realize there are many great truths to be learned from the teachings of Jesus when presented as you have in this writing. Hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend.

  2. […] far, feel free to click here to read the prologue “Scripture, Science, and Weather” and here to read the first full article of the series, “Scripture in Common Use: Oversight 1: Scripture Divorced From History.”  Though I […]

  3. […] I’ve discussed two other major methods of misreading scripture common in the US today: (I.) Scripture divorced from history and more broadly, (II.) Scripture read flatly–texts divorced from their neighboring texts, […]

  4. […] looked at scripture being misused by being set up in opposition to science, misinterpreted by being divorced from history, and being misconstrued by flat readings which ignore a text’s intended community, cultural […]

  5. […] I. Scripture in Common Usage I: Oversight I- Scripture Divorced From History […]

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