May  2016 17
Biblical Interpretation Advances Our Self Interests

Sometimes a week presents a bonanza of opportunities to point out the painfully obvious: Christians and others use the Bible to advance their own interests, and Believers interpret the Bible so differently, while claiming that God is on “my” side, that our claims to divine inspiration and being on God’s side will be believed only by those advancing the claim.

Examples:

  • A full page ad in last Sunday’s Tulsa World by the Freedom from Religion Foundation which cited numerous passages in the Bible to show how the Bible portrays a God who is not consistently pro-life or pro-children, and that the book says nothing negative about abortion.
  • The seminary’s graduation attracted protesters last Saturday. The group, which claims to advocate for the abolition of abortion but which is oddly obsessed with sexuality, accosted the ears of ceremony participants and guests as we entered and left the church. At some point, a ceremony-goer called out to them, “God is love!” The retort was a megaphoned rant about all the things, sins, and persons God HATES.
  • In Oklahoma, a state legislator reacted to a letter signed by about 150 clergy in the state (including me and lots of folks with Phillips connections), asking the legislature to remember the poor as they decide where to cut the budget. The Bible-savvy legislator scolded church leaders for neglecting their responsibility to help the poor, while interpreting the scripture “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar” in a manner that distances government from aiding the poor and that makes me want to swear and cuss!

image of trophies lined upI may have the seminary start giving an award for Most Egregiously Bad and Self-Serving Interpretation. We would not want for worthy candidates.

So, here’s the deal. The Bible does not speak. We interpret. While we can claim (and I would claim) that God can and does speak through the Bible, the Bible per se does not speak.

We—meaning every individual who reads it, and every group or community who reads together—must take the risk of interpretation and claim the ethical responsibility for that interpretation!

Over my years in church and also in theological education, I’ve come to see the absolute importance of how we read the Bible, who are our reading companions, and of claiming our interpretive perspective as just that: a perspective.

Here is my overall interpretive perspective (to use the seminary word: my hermeneutical perspective):

In the Christian Bible, the fundamental story is the Exodus. God sees the suffering of a people in bondage to a great Empire. Rather than side with the Empire, God sides with the suffering. God leads the suffering from bondage to freedom, gives them the bases for a civilization that is founded on mutual love, dignity, and justice as determined by treatment of the “least.”

This is the story the great prophets of Israel re-counted and reinterpreted for the people. This is the story arc of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the fundamental story, albeit with some profound differences, of synagogue and of church.

The story must be told anew and seen anew in every age. The way to read the story, especially the “how do we prove to be neighbor to others” part, in the 21st century is very different from the 4th century, or even the 20th century. 

Now, I fully acknowledge there are many other perspectives on how to interpret scripture. For example: God created a good creation, there was a Garden, human beings were given dominance over creation, Adam and Eve disobeyed God (Fall), humankind trying to please God but failed time and again, until the appearance of the Son of God who through a vicarious atonement took away the sins of the world.

From then on, a pathway to God has been opened exclusively through the Risen Christ. All who believe can enter. All who do not believe are living in a form of hell in this life and will exist in hell in the next.

There is also the fundamental difference between those who understand the holiness of God as purity, meaning that God burns away anything that is sin (and, in some viewpoints, anyone who sins and has not confessed Jesus and repented), and those who see the holiness of God as love and compassion.

The differences in interpretive perspective are so profound that I (along with many others) are beginning to say “Christianities” rather than “Christianity.”

Undoubtedly, one can find “justification” for many perspectives and many courses of action in the Bible. Contradictory perspectives. Contradictory actions.

Assuming you believe any perspective could be right, or more right than others, how can you tell which is better? That requires a leap of faith. Faith is trust, it is not belief.

Do you trust that God is love? If you do, you’ll interpret the Bible through that lens.

Do you trust that God sides with the righteous in battle against the unrighteous and will ultimately cleanse the heavens and earth of all the unclean? Then you’ll interpret the Bible through that lens.

Really, the messages in the Bible are not self-evident. Each of us who reads must interpret, and make a choice.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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