Let’s see… where did we leave off? Oh yes, boring ramblings about junk no one cares about. Now that we have our topic squarely in view, let’s take another swipe at it.
The Bible… and existentialism.
In the last post, I tried to drive the point home that with most significant events in history, we don’t cheapen them by suggesting that the only value they have is our experience with that event. However, to understand what we do with the Bible, an example which shares the similarity of being written may be helpful. Nearly any writing will suffice, but we’ll compare it to a body of writing that has been studied fairly closely (like the Bible) – William Shakespeare.
While certainly impacting people in different ways, Shakespeare isn’t (I think) subjected to the sort of sloppy thinking that permeates much biblical interpretation. I suppose there are people who would say something like, “To me, Romeo and Juliet is a strong indictment of Western society’s commitment to capitalism.” But someone would likely (and rightly) respond, “How nice that it means that to you, but what you have shared really doesn’t have anything at all to do with the play Mr. Shakespeare wrote.” Only after one has demonstrated any sort of familiarity with the actual plot and characters and conflict and so on can one begin to spout off in some intelligible manner concerning what it meant to him or her.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I would want to affirm that the Bible (and Shakespeare) impacts us in different ways. Certain stories are going to connect with us in ways that others don’t. Some Psalms may speak to us more depending on our circumstances. If one is currently experiencing division within their church, then certain words of Paul out of First Corinthians are going to be more poignant than others. I get all that.
But regardless of what we might be facing or feeling, the text in its original context doesn’t have more than one meaning, any more than Shakespeare’s famous “a rose by any other name” means something other than a thing or person retains its essential qualities regardless of what it is called.
In some ways, Shakespeare is a horrible example. He was something of a master of the double entendre. Even the line quoted above may been a jab at a rival theater in town by that name. But when dual meanings are present, it seems exceedingly likely that he meant both. One might speculate and argue the various options of what the text meant, but the author meant to communicate something.
And so it is with the Word. It was spoken into real situations. Real people’s lives were impacted. Real events took place, and the words of Scripture both record and even interpret the significance of those events. We aren’t free to just make up our own interpretations based on “our experience” with the text. To do so flattens out the text and undermines the relevance it would have had in its time. And when we remove the historical particularity from God’s Word in order to make it ‘timeless’, we also unknowingly undermine its relevance for our own time and place in history.
The real problem is that we too often find our own reason, our ability to read, and our impressions from the Holy Spirit, as our only guides in interpretation. This approach is going to be problematic no matter how well intentioned. People can be really serious about reading and interpreting the Bible (or Shakespeare), but if one does all their interpretation in a vacuum, they will not only be serious… but seriously wrong.
Next up… the third and (hopefully) final installment of the Bible and existentialism.