Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Interpretive Dance

So I was reading My Utmost for His Highest, catching up on a few missed days, and one of Oswald Chambers' writings addressed Matthew 5:39 - the verse that says to turn the other cheek.  Chambers' message was one of exhibiting the Son of God in us, and is well taken.  But seeing that verse considered in a way that did not attempt to assess whether we are to take it literally or metaphorically was refreshing.

You see, it is common to hear Christians (and non-Christians) debating this verse at length - some say it means we should be always be pacifists and never support war, while others argue this is Jesus exaggerating, just kind of joking around, and his point is really more one of our willingness to be pacifists than that we should actually practice the words spoken.  But the rhetorical devices of this specific verse aren't what I want to talk about.

I get confused sometimes by the way we endlessly interpret or resist the interpretation of certain passages and verses, applying hermeneutics here and there to get a message that applies to modern culture, while insisting that some words in the Bible must be taken literally, and to read them any other way is an affront to God.  Some progressive or liberal Bible-readers who might insist that Matthew 5:39 is literal, and cause for us to protest modern warfare might also insist that Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Timothy 2 cannot be taken literally because they show outdated cultural thinking, the evidence of extreme patriarchy - after all, it was nothing but power hungry men who actually wrote these words down - so given the massive strides we've made culturally to establish equality in the eyes of God, women and gay people should be permitted places of authority in churches.

Literal here, hermeneutics there.

Or on the other hand, let's say a more conservative, traditional Bible-reader might see that Romans 1 and 1 Timothy 2 are plain and simple examples of God giving us direct instructions on how our communities should operate.  But when Jesus tells someone he must go sell all of his belongings and that it is easier to fit a camel through a needle than for rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven...well, that conservative, traditional Bible-reader can also see how obvious it is that Jesus is just making a joke!  Of course, it's some sort of cultural joke that we don't really understand anymore, but clearly we don't have to sell all of our belongings because isn't that such a funny image Jesus drew?  A camel squeezing through a needle, hahaha!  He was just messing with our heads a bit, making a lesson about how we all have to make sacrifices to follow Him.

So again, literal here, hermeneutics there.

At what point does the inconsistency of our approaches to Scriptural interpretation become hypocrisy?  I'm not making accusations here - I'm sincerely asking.  How do we avoid crossing that line and making ourselves look like Biblically illiterate individualists making the Bible say only what we want it to?  I suggest we start by acknowledging that inconsistency.  I'm sure some would read this and dismiss it, fully confident that when they read the Bible, they always approach it faithfully and prayerfully and that guides them to the right answers.  But when it comes to evangelism, it's not hard for attentive seekers and questioners to poke holes through your arguments if you're not even on the same page as yourself.  So let's take a minute, figure out how we want to read the Bible, and try to stick with it.


  1. Couple things:

    One, I think that the Matthew 5 passage can be both literal and metaphorical. That is, I'm a pacifist when people are picking on me, but not when they're picking on the little guy. (In modern terms, "yes" to force against genocide, "no" to force to get more money, or whatever.)

    That's really beside the point of what you're trying to get at here, though. I understand the concern that inconsistency will make Christians look self-serving. But, call me a hippie liberal if you must, I believe that certain passages can genuinely mean different things to different people. That's not a call to interpret things in the way that's most comfortable to us, but recognizing that meaning is found somewhere between the text and the reader, in sacred meeting.

    I personally tend to lean toward a philosophy of "every command in context." (This doesn't always make it easier to follow them; sometimes the context makes the command even more difficult.) Oversimplification is, like inconsistency, a real danger that can do real damage to the faith.

  2. Kara,

    I absolutely agree that many passages can be literal and metaphorical - and I think that bring that sort of nuance to the table is vital, possibly never more so than we something just "seems perfectly clear" or whatever.

    And I agree that both the context of a passage and the context in which you are attempting to apply it can result in different meanings. So I think we're on pretty much the same page :)

    The concern I'm bringing up is what happens when people don't take a nuanced, contextual approach - basically, I feel like I see a lot of absolutism in Christianity nowadays, and frequently one person's absolutes don't always line up. I think we all need to bring a little more flexibility/openness when it comes to what scripture might be teaching us - otherwise we risk limiting God to the singularity of our own minds.

    Thanks for reading! (the only Kara I think I know is my cousin, and I'm not sure you're her - did you just stumble upon here somehow?)