In the late 1800s there was a movement by people like the famous Dwight L. Moody and R.A. Torrey to reject traditional church interpretation. The well-educated clergy were the guardians of truth at the time. Men like Moody believed the bible wasn’t so complicated that any Tom, Dick, or Rodrigo couldn’t find meaning there. But, not necessarily the meaning. Just meaning.
The clergy was known for boring sermons chock full of theological particulars that the average church-goer didn’t understand. Dissatisfaction with what must have felt like a kick in the blue collar to many was one of the things that fed the religiously uneducated Moody’s movement. And it created a monster in the process.
While having a dogmatic theology doesn’t protect Christians from huge theological issues, the practice of giving willy-nilly meaning to random verses certainly isn’t a problem-solver. The idea never occurred to me that everyone didn’t treat the bible this way. That it wasn’t a collected list of do’s, don’t’s and promises. I wasn’t unaware that I was reading letters, poems, and history. But I was taught to think of them as God’s dictation. Each verse was its own metropolis of meaning as much as each chapter or book.
For instance, I could take God’s specific promise “to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:4b) as my own. The promise that: “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (v. 11). Instead of seeing it as a bit of history, I could carefully excise it from its context. I take a promise expressly given to Israel in their exile and pluck it like a flower to display on the table of my circumstances. I steal what is at most a glimpse into the loving nature of God, and make it about me and my failing marriage, or choice of college, or new job.
You might wonder why that’s such a bad thing. Even though that verse isn’t for me, it’s still a nice thought that represents what God probably thinks about his children, right? Sure, except maybe my life has a bit of Cancer in it, or my wife leaves me for TV's John Stamos? What do I think of this God who promises welfare and not calamity then? How do I take a promise given to an entire nation that this wasn’t the end for them and make it about me without things getting a little strange?
Last week, a friend posted a verse from Galatians on Facebook which—by itself, in its particular translation—could be construed to make a political statement that Paul wasn’t making. In fact, when placed in its context, the verse was actually saying the exact opposite of said political thingamajig. Now, imagine that’s it’s not just a life verse or a political position we get wrong. Imagine all this rolling around in the verdant pastures of scripture, plucking this verse and that, and we make a daisy chain of bad connections that define our spiritual lives.
I’m not saying the highly educated are the only people that should handle the bible. I’m definitely not saying religiously uneducated people can’t read and understand scripture. (That would be ignorant of me). What I am saying is that many of us have been taught a dangerous way of viewing the bible. I still run across verses, finally in context, and wince at the fact that the real meaning hadn’t even been in the same area code as the meaning I had given it. I’m saying truth matters.
We rip scripture apart so that, to ironically appropriate Nietzsche, “the text has disappeared under the interpretation.” The books of the bible aren’t made up of a long list of adages we can pick at random. (Except maybe Proverbs. I’ll give you Proverbs.) Each book is written in a specific context.
You’ve got letters to churches covering specific topics, responding to letters we don’t have, directed to certain people in certain circumstances. You’ve also got poetry, songs, stories, and personal letters. Too often, we look at the bible as if it was a book of magic, and its words were holy incantations. Instead, God chose to use the weirdness of all these methods to deliver the message throughout the ages, and it’s our responsibility to understand the message as a whole. To work out our faith in fear and trembling rather than superficially applying the words we like to ourselves. Scripture should always end up defining us, not the other way around.