J. Tillman – Earthly Bodies
If you remain unconvinced that we have adopted the democratic approach to our study of the Bible, just attend most any small group “Bible study” and try this out for a change. When someone starts airing their random reflections on what a particular passage of Scripture means, and they are not quite getting it right, throw this comment into the mix, “I’m sorry that’s wrong. There is no world in which any semi-normal reading of those verses could have possibly meant what you just said. In fact, that may very well be the worst butchering of any biblical passage I’ve ever heard.” What do you think? I’m thinking you have just been de-invited from the group.
No, instead what we tell ourselves and one another is that your opinion is as valid as the next guy or gal’s. So just nod your head. Maybe look a little perplexed, and say “ok, who’s next?”
With most areas of knowledge, we recognize that some people’s opinions count more than others. If I am having a medical problem, I don’t consult with a doctor only to say, “I’m going to get a second opinion from my hairdresser and a third from my stock broker.” And yet, American evangelicalism has unknowingly propagated a way of interpreting Scripture that tacitly implies that everyone’s opinion of what the Bible says is equally valid.
There is a meaning, and (get ready for this) some readings get closer to that meaning (i.e. are more right) than others.
However, I’m not suggesting that we all climb into our little ivory towers and study the Bible. Despite what I’ve said, I really do believe we need each other to understand the Bible. Solo scriptura means “Scripture alone” not “alone with Scripture.”
It is when we are reading with others, and being taught by others, and questioned by others, and challenged by still others, that we find our horizons expanded on what the text might actually mean. Reading in community forces us to confront our own biases and warped ways of looking at reality (and the Bible). Reading in community keeps us from simply assuming that “I” will always have it right.
And not just the “community” of the few other people who are slight variations of ourselves. If I read the Bible with people who are more or less just like me, then I shouldn’t be surprised if all that ends up happening is that we mutually affirm one another’s opinions.
The community includes people of different denominations (even non-Evangelicals). Different races. Different countries. Different time periods. Different education levels. Different ages. As a side note, this is why books are so important… it would be borderline impossible to assemble a group with that range of diversity in one room to study the Word together on a consistent basis. Plus, if it is in a book, the odds go up (sometimes only slightly) that they know what they are talking about.
I realize that this looks like I’m contradicting myself, and in some ways affirming the “we-all-have-something-to-contribute” way of thinking is maybe only a slight variation on Western society’s democratic individualism, but it is that with a twist.
What I’m advocating for is a move away from simplistic readings of Scripture that assume the “I” will always be right in my opinion. The reality is I need help to understand it, certainly from the Holy Spirit, but also from others.
If you are still reading (and that’s a big ‘if’), then I’m guessing only one half of this post resonated with you. If you liked the first half about some opinions mattering more than others, you probably need to go back and read the second half again. And vice versa, if the stuff about reading in community was more up your alley, you should go back and read the first half again. If you liked it all, then you are approaching something akin to Zen-Buddhist enlightenment.
I don’t think there is a fourth option… is there? Oh, yes. I suppose there is the possibility that you didn’t give a rip about any of it. In which case, you should probably just go back to watching re-runs of The Bachelor.