Scripture in Common Usage: Oversight 2: Reading Scripture Flatly

April 3, 2013

This is another post in a series of reflections on scripture in common usage in America today. If you would like to take a look at the conversation so 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 don’t plan to focus only on the negative, the oversights and missteps, that is where I begin and will likely stay for awhile before transitioning to “positive” or “neutral” observations on how people and communities engage with scriptural texts in their everyday lives. Also, although much of what I have been discussing could apply to many sacred texts, from the Qur’an and the Talmud to the Gita or Buddhist sutras, the focus for now is primarily on the Bible as used by various Christian individuals and communities in America today.

The misstep I am highlighting in this post, that of reading scripture flatly, is a misstep that can be described using a whole host of cliches: reading scripture like an instruction manual, approaching the Bible like a “Magic 8 Ball,” or making blanket statements like “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” This can even come as a much more subtle expression, often by those relatively unfamiliar with the Bible to any deep extent, as “doesn’t the Bible say that…” and the usually “authoritatively” voiced expression that, “The Bible clearly teaches that X is a sin,” etc. There are often major problems with statements like these, and with any method of engaging scripture that approaches a text for a quick, easy, and universal answer to a particular problem in a specific situation.

None of this is to say that scripture offers no answers for anyone, but rather that scripture rarely offers easy answers for everyone. As discussed last time regarding scripture divorced from history, it is imperative to understand when dealing with scripture as presented in the Christian Bible that there are multiple scriptures at hand–multiple books collected into one library, books written across a span of history and geography, emerging from and commenting on a multitude of different socio-political and cultural contexts. Even if one dearly believes in the Spirit-guided compilation of that library, that canonization is the work of God through history, from the hands of the scribes who copied manuscripts to councils who confirmed canons, up to and including the congregations who then preserved and explicated on those confirmed canons, there still must be a realization of and a reflection on the differences behind the texts and that though those texts may (one can argue must) be in conversation with each other. Thus should come the realization that any answers provided by such an inter-textual conversation are apt to be nuanced and must be arrived at carefully, even prayerfully, and often communally.

Take for instance something as “simple” as the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments. “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” is perhaps the most often verbalized expression of this commandment, one that even the most Biblically ignorant person in the country is apt to recognize. Most realize (or wouldn’t be surprised to learn) that a better English translation of the Hebrew term is captured by the expression “murder,” which differs from “kill.” Thus, the commandment is best articulated as “Thou Shalt Not Murder.” It is obvious in practice that the ancient Israelite community understood a difference in “murder” and “kill” even according to the scriptural accounts regarding the “acceptable’ allowance for capital punishment and waging warfare. Yet this does not provide a flat, blanket endorsement of the acceptability of those particular practices in all contexts (or even in any context) for many Christians and Jews today as the issues of warfare, the death penalty, carrying/using firearms, physician-assisted suicide, and a slew of other issues are still debated with opinions divided even when explicitly based on scripture. This is because with scripture as an on-going conversation–forward into the Talmud and the Rabbinic era for Jews, into the New Testament for Christians, and into lived and debating communities for both–the issues of life and death are still very pressing. For Christians who look to the Bible for direction on these issues, even the provisions for the death penalty must be called into question in light of pivotal pardons for Biblical murderers (Cain, Moses, David), and especially in light of the teaching and practice of Jesus who resisted violence in all forms to the end (and it should always be a notable consideration for Christian reflection on the death penalty that Jesus was executed by the ruling state).

The very fact that equally devout folks who approach scriptural texts to help formulate spiritual, ethical, and even political decisions can come away with completely different conclusions often leads those who are more skeptical to doubt the veracity or importance of scripture at all. The assumption here is the cliche that, “you can make the Bible say anything you want it to.” Certainly the Bible can be used, often with very little effort, to support any agenda one has, be it for or against slavery, for or against war, for or against the death penalty, etc.– ad infinitum  Yet this does not mean that any and all readings are equally valid, and that any conclusion one draw from scripture is therefore dubious and so no conferral of scripture for any serious reasoning is worthwhile. So how does one approach scripture in any decision making process and how does one refrain from making the misstep of reading scripture flatly?

Well, for further disclosure, I must issue a few disclaimers. I do not suggest that there is one true, valid, and beneficial method of reading, interpreting, and utilizing scripture. I do not suggest that there is one scripture, or even one canon of scriptures, that is “right” for any or everyone. I do not suggest that if you just read a (or any) scripture a certain way you will find a (or any) truth that you could not find elsewhere (conversely, I am not at this time saying the opposite either). Neither is this is  an endorsement for scripture in a vague sense, i.e. “Gee I wish everyone would read scripture in some way and benefit from it,” because I recognize that scripture is not for everyone, will not benefit everyone, and is not the only answer for every context. I will say, however, that there are right ways of reading scripture(s) and there are wrong ways, there are ways that work well for some and other ways that work well for others. There are particular scriptures that speak (and speak well) to some, others for others. Often the particular scripture that is apt to speak best and strongest to someone and the way in which it will speak best to them has more to do with cultural context, personal background, and other formative personality traits than anything else. I will also say that any right way of reading and interpreting scripture will produce an effect. That effect may be immediate, or it may be gradual; that effect may even be delayed, in that it will not manifest itself unless a particular set of circumstances present themselves–and I believe it is possible that God is in that (or those) effects. Any correct method of reading and interpreting scripture will produce positive effects. Certainly scriptural reading and interpretation has produced more than its fair share of negative, ill, society-,humanity-and ecology-damaging effects, from suicide bombers to prosperity gospels, from slavery-endorsing to gay-bashing, but I categorically declare those effects as the result of incorrect reading and interpretations of scriptures. That of course is an entirely more complex discussion which current space and time preclude us from having, but it will come back again at future points in this series of discussion  Yet I stand by the statement that correct reading of scripture will produce positive effects–if it has no effect, it is not truly engaged, and if that effect is negative it has been poorly read and interpreted. The positive effects of scripture use can only truly come from a rejection of all flat-readings of scripture. The positive effects of scripture may be personal, individual, and contemplative, or active, engaged, communal, and socially-transforming.We will look at more concrete methods of how some use scripture in a positive manner as we move into the second half of posts in this discussion,  patterns of positive use of scripture that some in the country implement. For now, I will end on a few signs of flat reading; perhaps by seeing some of the errors evinced by flat reading, we can begin to hint at what an opposite, cohesive and rigorous reading would look like.

*Flat readings of scripture cherry-pick verses and stories to highlight an often preconceived agenda,  most often one with divisive, prejudiced, and narrowly exclusivist results.

*Flat readings of scripture separate stories from their roots and their repercussions. For example, a flat reading may reject the Hebrew scriptures referenced in a New Testament recounting of that Hebrew concept, word, or idea and treat the New Testament appropriation of that older story as singular and sole.

*Flat readings of scripture are divorced from engagement with others in a community–a person leaves their own “unique” elaboration of a text as personally definitive. They ignore the history of interpretation by a community (be it a [C]church, a [P]people, or an entire history of academic scholarship, they ignore the potential benefit of group debate and communal reasoning in the present, and they ignore possible re-evaluation in the future all in favor of their own, often non-fully-reasoned, deliberation of a passage.

*Flat readings of scripture ignore cultural context, the boundaries of translation and language, and new insights for a purported “surface/self-evident” meaning.

*Flat readings of scripture disengage the intellect–they accept even the most troubling of passages as relevant despite changes in human knowledge regarding psychology, history, etc., but often ignore the “heart” or essence of the passage altogether.

*Flat readings of scripture ignore the polarities present and the tensions inherent in the collection of texts which comprise the Bible. They ignore the need for any systematic hermeneutic, thinking each passage can be taken at face-value without realizing the intellectual schizophrenia such a practice can lead to. One really has no choice but to “pick and choose,” thus the best way to do as such is to do so consistently, consciously, with a rubric of interpretation that is defensible (i.e. as mentioned last time in referencing David Gushie’s Christo-centric heremeneutic lens for interpreting the canon, as one example).

*Flat readings of scripture leave no room for “Spirit,” (or conscience, reason, etc.)–that is, flat readings leave no room for scripture to speak for itself in the moment, to assert itself in the present, to become what it is in inspiration, in communal wrestling, in honest seeking—flat readings do not allow a person or a group to allow text to become Scripture by being ascertained anew, relevant for this context in this day, in this moment.

*Flat readings of scripture ignore the structural and formal functions of text as scripture–that is, they leave the text on the page divorced from liturgy, from poetry, from prayer, from argument, from chant and repetition, etc. They deaden the text into a manuscript, not a living and on-going conversation.

That’s all for now. Feel free to comment if you disagree.

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2 Responses to “Scripture in Common Usage: Oversight 2: Reading Scripture Flatly”

  1. […] scripture common in the US today: (I.) Scripture divorced from history and more broadly, (II.) Scripture read flatly–texts divorced from their neighboring texts, scriptures divorced from their primary audience, and […]

  2. […] in opposition to science, misinterpreted by being divorced from history, and being misconstrued by flat readings which ignore a text’s intended community, cultural context, and its neighboring texts. […]

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