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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Interpretation is Inevitable

A few years ago, I had one of those conversations that will stick in your mind forever and keep you scratching your head long after it is over. It was with an old friend, and the topic was eldership in the local church. He had been attending an eldership training class in our church, and we were talking about the qualifications required for one to be an elder as listed in 1 Timothy 3, specifically regarding the controversial phrase “husband of one wife”. There have been many readings of the phrase, some believing it forbids polygamists from becoming elders, while other believe it forbids divorced men from becoming elders. There have been other views on the passage, but our conversation was limited to this, as I held the former view and my friend held the latter. The conversation went as such:

Friend: I don’t know why so-and-so is taking the class. He can’t become an elder.

Myself: Why not?

Friend: He’s been divorced. He hasn’t been “the husband of one wife”.

Myself: I don’t believe you’re interpreting that passage correctly. The passage is referring to polygamists, not to those who have been divorced. Someone who has been divorced and remarried only has one wife.

Friend: No, you’re interpreting the passage. I’m just reading what it says.

Once I was done picking my jaw up off the floor, the conversation continued along a slightly different path. It wasn’t that I was offended at his statement. Like I said, he’s an old friend, and I don’t think anything he could ever do would offend me. But I had never heard such a ridiculous statement in my life. My friend, God bless him, isn’t a complete idiot, but he’s not exactly a Rhodes scholar, if you get my drift. This was simply a misunderstanding of language, and meaning, and, well, truth. But I thought that would be the last time I would hear anything like that.

And it was – until this morning after church, as I was carrying on a conversation with an older lady in our church. She likes to refer to herself as “an Episcopalian, Charismatic, Pentecostal Fundamentalist”, and the redundancy of including both “Charismatic” and “Pentecostal” in that phrase doesn’t seem to bother her in the least. We were discussing our former president Jimmy Carter’s masquerade of traditionalism, in the realm of politics, but especially when it came to his claims to be a good old Southern Baptist stalwart. This drifted into a conversation about what true fundamentalism looks like, including the idea of taking the Bible “literally”. I should have known I was in deep water at this point, but the reality of the situation slipped past me. As the idea of “taking the Bible literally” has been used as an excuse for all sorts of shoddy Scriptural interpretations in the past two hundred years, red flags normally start flying at this point for me. Blame it on the communion wine, but I didn’t see this iceberg coming. It happened a bit like this:

Lady: Have you ever read Isaiah?

Myself, in disbelief: Uhhh, yeah.

Lady: I read it forty years ago, and I knew immediately what it was about.

Myself, with bated breath: What’s that?

Lady: Isaiah talks about all the Jews living throughout the world and God bringing them back to their land. I saw God doing that and knew that’s what Isaiah was talking about.

Myself, with much hesitancy: I actually believe that happened two thousand years ago.

Lady: No, it didn’t. That’s never happened before in the history of the world, because nobody inhabited the United States back then. Jews would have had to have been in the United States for them to come back from all over the world.

Myself, in over my head: Have any Jews ever inhabited Antarctica?

Lady: I don’t know. The point is that that’s what Isaiah was talking about.

Myself, waiting for impact: I guess what I’m getting at is that there are different interpretations of that. Yours is a very new interpretation in the history of the church.

Lady: You don’t interpret the Bible. You just read what it says.

Myself, looking for an exit: Yeah…right…

Things fizzled rather quickly after that, farewells and other pleasantries dispensed with.

It’s a rather strange bird, this whole idea that “interpreting” is a bad thing to do. What surprised me in both these conversations is that both these people thought they weren’t interpreting the meaning of a text when they read it. But that, in fact, is all that is meant by the word “interpret”. And I can’t help but wonder where this confusion came from. Whatever its origin, it is a strong characteristic of Fundamentalist types. By Fundamentalists, I’m not referring, as the secular media does, to those who have some religious belief and actually live by it, even when it stands in stark contrast to the accepted practices of mainstream culture. I’m referring to Fundamentalist Christians, of the stripe that existed in abundance during the twentieth century, who think that they are able to understand everything perfectly and don’t think that they could actually be wrong about something. But Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones guilty of this.

Though many scholars have begun to recognize the error in it, most people are still living with the notion that there is actually such a thing as objectivity – that they can look at a truth claim and judge it in a perfectly unbiased manner. But this is false. Every person who has ever been born (apart from Jesus Christ) has a limited perspective and therefore never has all the information necessary to make an infallible judgment. Along with this, we are all sinners. Our motives are never perfect, and our sin is so deep we often don’t know when and how it shapes our thinking. Another way of referring to this is as the myth of neutrality. No one is neutral in their judgment, nor should they be. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and that is exactly the way God intends it. Our judgments, therefore, are to be biased towards what is true and good.

It’s this myth of objectivity that stands behind conversations like the ones I’ve just mentioned. These people have somehow come to believe that to “interpret” a text means to insert a meaning into a text that isn’t there – what scholars call “eisegesis”. They, however, believe they are pure in their desires and perspective (in contrast with everyone else in the world), and so they think they can perfectly understand the text apart from any outside influence, be it good or bad. The sad thing about this is that it is a subtle and devious form of pride.

But how can one break through the fog and help people see their error in this? I don’t know. These people have been shaped this way by factors in their lives that I could never determine or undo. There are aesthetic factors which, if we could pull these people away from, would cease influencing them in this direction. Polemically discursive news and talk shows, as well as Fundamentalist TV preachers, are central to this, but you can’t exactly change another person’s habits for them. When talking to people like this, I personally find I’m more on the listening end than the talking end, because it’s nearly impossible to get a word in. And certainly, God can break through to a person like this. I know my duty is to listen patiently, and to point out key errors like this as I have opportunity in such a way that the person feels respected and not rebuked or insulted. Beyond that, prayer, as well as the demonstration of a more humble approach to life, can do wonders in influencing others for the better. Change might not come as quick as we would like, but it will come as quickly as God wants, and as He is the only one who knows all, He knows what is best.

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