Simple Misunderstanding

Not long ago, I got into a conversation talking about understanding Christianity. After a couple of days, I realized that the comments I had made were as good as blog entry, so I cleaned them up slightly and added a little bonus content in order to post them. The question being considered was: “Why can’t people just read the Bible?” Here’s my thoughts on why it’s not as simple as ‘just reading the Bible’:

I grew up with a certain emphasis when scripture was interpreted. As a result, When I read the words, it is filtered through that emphasis. Black and white words become associated with ideas and concepts and colored by shades of hue and meaning not written in Scripture – so oftentimes I need a little help cutting through the static in order to get a clear picture of the Gospel. Reading books about what Christ said actually helps to focus on the heart of Jesus’ message. Were I to just read the Gospels, that filter of mine kicks back in and keeps me from seeing certain things that are written and in effect adds to scripture to obscure what it really says. That’s what toxic Christianity does.

I would just read the Gospels if I could, but for me, words switch meaning. With passages like: “For God so loved the world …” my filter kicks in and translate that as: “For God so loved the elect …” Or a word like “mutual” no longer refers to an action that two people do to one another but something held in common by two people without reciprocity. I lack the ability to turn it off. When I read a book written by somebody else, it registers as a new perspective – which the filter isn’t equipped to sabotage so it’s able to sneak past under the radar as it were. Here and there it might kick in a little with specific churchy words, but for the most part it’s easier. I have so much that I have to unlearn, so much baggage that it really weighs me down. At the moment, i just don’t feel like getting into it. It started not that long ago when I noticed a verse that says: “because of the angels” in English was translated to: “a fact that the angels verify” in another language and it really hit home how biased translations can easily be used to manipulate and twist the scriptures.

That’s why when I feel like reading, I try to balance different perspectives, I don’t just read ‘sugar’ but ‘meat’ and ‘potatoes’ as well as ‘fruit’, ‘vegetables’, ‘beans’, and ‘rice’. The error I ran into was just having one source from which to understand and draw from. Just the other day, I was in a fascinating conversation about the role of tricliniums in the New Testament. ‘Triclinum’ isn’t a word you’re likely to find in the Bible, but it describes something that is vaguely mentioned: the dinning room tables. When we approach scripture imaging the same sorts of tables we eat off of, the same kinds of houses we live in, the same public areas we interact with as the setting for what’s going on, we miss key cultural elements because they’re what goes unsaid. I learned from “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” that by virtue of being a westerner, we approach reading scripture with our own biases and as a result we tend to misinterpret the text. That’s where it’s helpful to read books that break down the honor / shame dynamic in Scripture – because there’s a lot that’s in there that goes unsaid or went without saying and so it doesn’t translate to our own context very well. These and other books can help fill in the gaps for us.

What would make understanding the Bible easier for me would be a culturally aware version of the Bible – one that doesn’t hesitate to stop at Matthew 19 and talk about the famous debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, one that talks about tricliniums and how they were used to make a point about humility in Luke 14 , one that breaks down the ancient honor/shame dynamic that would have existed in the background of every social interaction much as songs are in the background when we go shopping at most stores. I think that if we understood the social, historical, and cultural background of this text, we’d have a better picture about what Jesus was really trying to teach us. He did, after all, use things that he saw around him in his illustrations. When we don’t understand what he was looking at or how the thing he was looking at was being referred to in his parables, we miss out on a lot of meaning. If we had a culturally aware version of the Bible, then we would have a context for the interpretation and application of Scripture. But it would have a consequence, misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture would be far more difficult and as a result, it would not be so easy to take passages out of their cultural context once people know what it is.People will see that some passages cannot mean what somebody told them they said. What we understand as a teaching based on cobbled-together verses from different books will be little more than verses taken out of context just because they seem to have a common theme apart from their context – much as random sentences taken from the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Narnia series would be a nonsensical teaching all put together even if they shared a common theme.

After all, anyone can take verses about not being a stumbling block (Romans 14:13, 1 Corinthians 8:9, or 2 Cor. 6:3), the consequences for causing a person to stumble (Mark 9:42-50) about women wearing modest clothing (1 Timothy 2:9-10, 1 Peter 3:3-4), reminding Christians to be loving (pick one or two, there’s plenty to choose from), and say that the Bible clearly says that: “Women should dress modestly as not to put a stumbling block in their bother’s way by tempting men to lust after them because they love their brothers. The consequences for not dressing modestly are terrible.” Sure you had to take everything out of context, mix up the gospels with the epistles, and disregard what Jesus/Paul/Peter were really saying in these passages of Scripture, but hey, it’s Biblical. If Jesus had said it, or Paul and Peter had written it, it would have turned out exactly like we say it does. Except, well, they didn’t, so we helped them out a little by putting everything in the right order and teaching it with the right emphasis – giving it a more coherent context in the process.

It is a lot to unlearn. And it a lot easier to learn something than to unlearn something. So I keep on trying to learn new things, to dillute the concentration of the teaching and diminish it’s power over me. It also leaves me with no desire to read scripture for days and weeks at a time. Reading books about the Bible often helps though, learning things that went unsaid, figuring out how people arrived at an interpretation, breaking it down into simpler words, it’s all things that comes and goes. Sooner or later, I’ll be back at it. Then I’ll lose interest again. It can’t be helped – it’s not in me to stick with it 24/7. But I don’t stick with staying it from it either. More and more it seems to me that balance is key, balance in the word and out of it, balance about the word and just the word itself, balance of perspectives and ideas, and a good healthy break from it all to process it’s mystery only to return to puzzle out some new thing later on. But just reading the Bible? I’m pretty sure that’s something I just can’t do.

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2 thoughts on “Simple Misunderstanding

  1. I read that one of the most helpful things in the study of Jesus in most recent years is to place him securely as a 1st century Jew in 1st century Palestine. I love reading the Bible, learning to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to me as my Teacher, and part of that is loving books ABOUT the Bible as well. I have found some that have been quite good for me. Do you have any suggestions??

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    1. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien is the only book I’ve read on the subject, and I’d recommend it to anyone. Amazon suggest to me two similar books: Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians and Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. They seem interesting.

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