Misreading Scriptures the Right Way

The strong reader, whose readings will matter to others as well as to himself, is thus placed in the dilemmas of the revisionist, who wishes to find his own original relation to truth, whether in texts or in reality (which he treats as texts anyway), but also wishes to open received texts to his own sufferings, or what he wants to call the suffering of history.–Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading

 

Americans tend to approach two documents–the Bible and the Constitution–as self-interpreting units of meaning that neither require nor permit interpretation. These are privileged textual entities that mean what they say and say what they mean, and all anybody needs to do is figure out exactly what their authors meant by every word so we can download the right meaning directly into our brains and live our lives accordingly.

Treating the Constitution this way gives us the curious legal doctrine of “originalism,” which is fashionable for jurists to talk about in Senate hearings but has never actually been practiced in any meaningful way by confirmed judges. Treating the Bible this way gives us the religious doctrine of fundamentalism, which is at the center the Evangelical Protestant tradition–and, allowing for an expanded scriptural canon, the Latter-day Saint tradition as well.

Rachel Held Evans offers a thoughtful challenge to the Evangelical understanding of the Bible that she grew up believing in her marvelous new book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. This is not, Evans acknowledges, a scholarly interpretation of any part of the Bible–even though the work of many scholars supports it. It is a personal memoir of how a young Evangelical Christian became disillusioned with the Bible because of the way that her faith community read it and then rediscovered her passion for it by reading it with a new set of assumptions. I love Evans’ story for many reasons, but mostly because it is so similar to my own.

Here is the passage that first convinced me that Evans and I were fellow travelers and that she was a reader who should be trusted and taken seriously. I am going to quote a lot of it because it is so good:

The truth is, you can bend Scripture to say just about anything you want it to say. You can bend it until it breaks. For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We’re all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?

If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to honor and celebrate women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, there are plenty. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, there are plenty more.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power, whether for good or evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything. (pp. 56-58).

The first part of the argument was actually the topic of my dissertation lo these many years ago, where I looked at various literary retellings of biblical narratives and the way that they were deployed in various 17th century debates, such as royal absolutism and primogeniture. Everybody in these debates believed that the Bible was the absolute word of God, and everybody believed that its text supported their own political positions. Public debate at the time consisted largely of identifying proof texts that supported your view and explaining away the proof texts that support the opposite. You know, kind of like Gospel Doctrine class.

What Evans makes clear is that this kind of debate will never fail to provide proof texts–and will always fail to convince anyone of anything–because it fundamentally misunderstands what the Bible is. Specifically, she suggests,

  • It is not a text by a single author meant to advance a single perspective, but a library of many different texts in many different genres saying many different things.
  • It is not a guide to every possible issue that someone may confront, but a record of people struggling to understand God.
  • It is not a book that was written to us in secret code, but a collection of messages to actual people in an actual historical context that is only partially available to us.
  • It does not have one single, authorized interpretation that represents the mind of God, but it contains a lot of wisdom for us to use in figuring out how to live well and do good.

We cannot read the Bible (or any other scriptural work) “correctly.” To follow Harold Bloom’s argument in A Map of Misreading, we will always misread the text because misreadings–readings that are incomplete, selective, and biased–are all that we have access to. The question is not, “are we misreading the Bible?” The question is “are we misreading the Bible correctly?” Are we using it to do good things–to comfort and heal and create beauty and peace? Or are we using it to justify bad things–things like hatred, discrimination, and war. The text will support any of these readings, but it will not support any of them completely. We are going to misread the Bible, and anything else we try to read; the trick is to create strong and ethical misreadings. Interpretation is an act of deep moral significance.

Reading the Bible is an act of wrestling with an angel, Held argues, invoking a very strong misreading of Genesis 32. We do not passively receive the wisdom that the text has to offer us, nor can we simply accept somebody else’s interpretations and ignore the struggle. “We’ve been invited to a wrestling match. We’ve been invited to a dynamic, centuries-long conversation with God and God’s people that has been unfolding since creation, one story at a time. If we’re lucky, it will leave us with a limp” (p. 28).

 

Comments

  1. ‘The question is not, “are we misreading the Bible?” The question is “are we misreading the Bible correctly?”’

    I loved this. Thanks for the review. I’m really struggling with Gospel Doctrine this year.

  2. This is one of my favorite reads this year. RHE always pushes me to question my own biases and assumptions and, as I have taught Gospel Docrtine this year, I have appreciated the push to consider other readings, other interpretations and applications. It has added a thoughtful dimension to both my teaching and the comments from the participants. I wish we had a similarly thoughtful treatment of the BofM and Doctrine and Covenants for our faith.

  3. Frances L Fry says:

    Thanks for this. You may also relate to “What is The Bible”, Rob Bell 2017. I’m a Christian of Lutheran worship practice who follows this blog with great interest. We are one in Christ.

  4. Good points. I always laugh when someone claims to be a constitutional originalist. That just means they interpret the Constitution according to their conservative biases. Same thing occurs with scripture. We all read it according to our preset biases.

  5. Eliza, I’m hesitant to offer a suggestion with which you’re likely already familiar, but I have found Grant Hardy’s “Understanding the Book of Mormon” to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  6. Isn’t trying to understand what the original authors were trying to convey is how we break out of proof texting? Isn’t that how we change our behavior?

  7. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    jader3rd: the point is that it’s impossible to understand original intent with 2000-year-old texts, especially when you see how difficult it is to settle on it with ones that are only 230 years old.

  8. @Heptaparaparshinokh, but isn’t that the struggle that we’re supposed to go through anyway? Or should we just give up and get from the Bible what we want to get from it?

  9. This is a good critique of misreading the Bible, but the comparison to the Constitution is a poor analogy. The Constitution was, in fact, written down in order to be a self-interpreting document to govern the function of the Union and the Federal government. It is a governing document, like a statute. It has a set meaning that does not change with time—it has a method of amendment. Now, there’s another thing people don’t understand about the Constitution, and that is that it isn’t and never was intended to resolve every legal question.

  10. An author’s intention is relevant as we interpret a text, but it is not the holy grail, and we should not give it special privilege over other interpretive tools. There are several reasons for this, but I’ll mention one. A great piece of writing is better than and more than its author intended. In fact, the greatness of a text that endures through generations is that it can speak to people in conditions and circumstances that its author could never have envisioned. This is certainly true of the scriptures. Authors can talk about what they had in mind, but that is always separate from the text itself, which has its own independent life.

    And I guess I’ll mention one more reason: we can never get inside an author’s head. Even authors’ own understandings of what they meant can be unreliable. Understanding the scriptures is about taking meaning from the text, not about interpreting the writer’s psyche. If we start chasing an author’s psychological reality instead of what the author actually wrote, we are wasting our time.

    P.S. Dsc is wrong about the way that law works. Interpreting scripture and interpreting law involve a great many of the same issues.

  11. You are one of my favorites Michael Austin. Your thoughts and posts are always worth my time. Ashmae’s last post and your thoughts deal with interpreting the scriptures. It is important to consistently read the holy word with the Spirit as our companion. The various interpretations “Lo hear, Lo there” was a reason Joseph went to the grove of trees for help. It is why we need apostles and prophets called of God.

    I also like the account of Joseph Smith asking Brigham Young to speak – It helps me keep my interpretations checked and balanced with the leaders of today.

    “Brother Joseph turned to Brother Brigham Young and said, ‘Brother Brigham I want you to take the stand and tell us your views with regard to the written oracles and the written word of God.’ Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: ‘There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day.’ ‘And now,’ said he, ‘when compared with the living oracles [living prophets] those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation.

  12. Excellent blog post, and enjoyable replies. Last Sunday, Gospel Doctrine #36, we talked a bit about idols. I herded (grimacing emoji) everyone into the direction of “We can turn ANYthing into an idol.” Partly to prevent myself from going off on my big pet peeve–MOTCOJCOLDS making idols of “The Brethren” (as in Church of the Holy Brethren of Latter-Day Saints)–I confessed that I make an idol of the scriptures. I LOVE the scriptures. I study them a LOT. Have done for most of my life, going on sixty years. Problem is, I study them the way I study Leaves of Grass or Walden or Moby-Dick. I feast on them, I gorge on them, and, yes, I’m inspired and uplifted, but I’m afraid I don’t study them–sufficiently, anyway–as I believe I should: as a means of becoming a better person, in the boots-on-the-ground sense. I know the stories, I know the characters, I “know” the “doctrines,” and oh boy am I steeped in the context via loads and loads of secondary (scholarly) sources. It’s not a bad thing, by any means, to accumulate knowledge, but (in my case, anyway) I’m not sure–after finishing scripture study and walking out the door–that I go into the world among my brothers and sisters as converted as I should be. More ideas percolating around in my brain, sure, but not necessarily a more saintly person. Maybe I’m not doing anything wrong, but I fear I’m leaving out something right.

  13. I personally believe that the starting point with respect to any text—and especially the scriptures—is to try to understand what the author(s) was trying to say, taking into account the culture and the political and economic circumstances of the time in which he or she lived. In other words, we need to read and understand it in its original context. This is something we rarely do in our church; instead, we opt for the superficial, literalistic approach (e.g., Jonah really was swallowed by a whale) whose only attractive feature (to those who find it attractive) is that it obviates the need to think.

    I realize that discerning with 100% accuracy the meaning of something written 2,000+ years ago in a language that we, at times, can only translate imprecisely, is impossible, especially when we will invariably be influenced by own personal and cultural biases. But we need to make the effort. This is the position advocated by scholars such as John Walton, N.T. Wright, and Peter Enns and one that I am partial to.

    If we then wish to use that text for some righteous purpose that depends on a different interpretive construction, that’s fine, but in the process we should acknowledge what we are doing and at least make passing reference to the message the author(s) were trying to convey—something we can’t do unless we first make an effort to figure out what that was. And our interpretation should have some nexus to the author’s original meaning. For example, it may further a righteous purpose to read Jonah to mean that we should show greater concern for whales by being mindful of what we toss into the ocean lest they ingest something harmful, but doing so would be absurd. If that’s what you want to say, then write your own scripture.

    While the church’s literalistic reading of Jonah—that we should always do what the Lord asks—is a righteous purpose, such an interpretation completely misses the important message the author, through the use of satire, was trying to convey. Like I said, the starting point should be reading the original text in context. And if we do that, we will find it much easier to refute scriptural interpretations that support unrighteous practices, such as slavery and ethnic discrimination.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out.

  14. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Dsc: the problem with the idea that the Constitution is meant to be self-interpreting is that much of it is anything but clear and unambiguous. 2A is the best example of this: even the dean of the originalists couldn’t bring himself to declare its second clause unambiguous. (One wonders if he looked into the abyss.)

  15. A BYU prof of mine, many years ago, who has long since retired, was a friend of Robert Frost. They were at a conference together, and Robert Frost was in the session listening to someone offering an interpretation of one of his poems. After the speaker was finished and the moderator asked if there were any questions, Robert Frost raised his hand. “I never thought of my poem that way before. I think I will now.”

    Certainly scripture must necessarily be bigger than the intent of the human who put words to the page. And must also be bigger than the human reading those words. I agree with Michael Austin. My reading will never be anything but a limited misreading with an agenda. But I want my agenda informed by love, mercy, and acceptance —the same qualities I fervently hope God will show me.

  16. Frost is also often quoted as saying: “Only God and I knew what I meant when I wrote it, now only God knows.” [I’ve not found a reliable source for Frost saying that.] Others have noted, like Tom Quirk, “Robert Browning’s famous remark when asked about his meaning in a certain passage in ‘Sordello’: ‘At one time only God and I knew what that line meant. Now, only God knows.’ “ Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination, Tom Quirk University of Missouri Press, 2001, p.36.

    Of course, a lot of people have said essentially the same thing. See https://literature.stackexchange.com/questions/5434/who-was-the-poet-who-said-something-like-now-only-god-knows-what-i-meant-to-sa, some much earlier than Browning.

    Maybe the “only God knows” approach should also sometimes inform our misreading of the scriptures. Searching for the original intent of those who put word to parchment in their cultural context is often illuminating, but may not be the end of the matter as to what God would have the scriptures mean to someone else in another context.

  17. We seem not to have as many problems interpreting the Book of Mormon. “It is the most correct book on earth” (meaning the principles it teaches) Thank goodness for the restoration of truth.

  18. This book is one of my recent favorites, and I have recommended it widely. Glad to see it getting some LDS press and discussion! I particularly enjoyed how she framed the chapters with conceptual stories–it would be neat to go through and do that with B of M in a similar format.

  19. A riff off “It does not have one single, authorized interpretation that represents the mind of God”

    What I have been taught and also experienced is that not only is there no one single authorized interpretation, but there are in fact multiple interpretations (some would argue an infinite number) and they are all true. No one of those interpretations is all or whole, but all are true.

    The way I rationalize this is to affirm that the meaning of “scripture” is that somehow the human stories are imbued with the mind of God, and when the mind of man or woman confronts the mind of God there are always multiple meanings. In a crude way it’s the blind men and the elephant story. The mind of God is incomprehsnsible—so alien and so large that we only ever see in part in th dark.

  20. Thank you Michael Austin — I really appreciate your posts, and this is another illuminating one.

  21. I don’t post every blog post I love.

    But this, this is profound, important stuff.

  22. Jader3rd, and others:
    I agree that the problem of proof texting is universal. It is also being proposed here that everyone misunderstands and misreads scripture. This isn’t the same, however, as simply saying that scripture can mean anything. It can say, however, that we should read and understand with humility and care. We may be wrong. We should read scripture as a way to change ourselves and to learn, and not to simply reflect ourselves.
    Our Stake President talks a lot about “triangulation.” Our GPS’s work because three independent satellites are able to “agree” on where we are. A single satellite could deeply mis-lead us. We can compare what we think the scriptures are saying, with what we think our church leaders are telling us, and compare that to what we believe is inspiration based on our own reading and experience. When all of these are in agreement we can feel comfortable. When there is disagreement we need to work through that tension.

  23. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    sch, I love that metaphor. It happens that my paternal grandfather was a radio navigator on a PBY Catalina looking for U-boats during WWII, so I know that it’s older than GPS. :)

    I seem to recall Boyd K. Packer having mentioned radio triangulation in a Conference talk once but it might have been another GA who spent a big chunk of his life in an airplane (and isn’t Dieter Uchtdorf).

  24. Heptaparaparshinokh,

    The existence of some ambiguity doesn’t change the purpose of the document. Statutes and regulations are certainly intended to mean specific things, but often come out sloppy in the drafting.

  25. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    The fact that the Constitution is intended to be self-interpreting doesn’t mean it actually functions as such. I’d imagine that most books of scripture in any tradition were written with the intent of self-interpretation, too.

    Admitting human frailty in these matters would be a helpful step.

  26. A “self-interpreting document” is not an actual thing. Neither the writers of the scriptures nor the writers of the Constitution intended to make self-interpreting documents. More to the point–since a “self-interpreting document” is a novel concept as far as I know–none of these writers thought they were producing documents that would not need interpretation. In the realm of law, this is a fundamental concept for anyone who understands the judicial function. The extent of myth-making about the Constitution and its fabulous powers is endlessly amazing.

  27. I realize that the following comment is beside the point of your very interesting post, but your characterization of originalism is really very far from the mark. To be sure, it is accurate that no one really takes seriously original intent as a method for interpreting the Constitution. But that’s only because when legal scholars and jurists talk about originalism they’re not referring to the original intent of the drafters. Rather, they mean to refer to the original understanding of the text at the time of ratification. And many scholars and indeed judges take that form of originalism very seriously. Moreover, I think you would be surprised at how original understanding as an interpretive method is not limited to just conservative scholars and judges.