May 6, 2011
Rachael’s Rules for Bible Discussion – And Why it’s Difficult
Thanks Rachael Held-Evans for this list of rules to use when discussing the Bible:
- I won’t question your commitment to the Bible just because you interpret it differently than I do.
- I won’t use the Bible as a proof-texting weapon of mass destruction.
- I won’t accuse you of “picking and choosing” when we all employ some selectivity when interpreting and applying the Bible.
- I will use the word “biblical” properly—as a descriptive adjective, not a prescriptive one.
- I won’t use the words “plain” or “clear” when referring to an ancient collection of stories, poems, letters, laws, history, prophecy, and philosophy—all written in a language and culture very different from my own.
- I will keep in mind that my interpretation of the Bible is only as inerrant as I am.
- I will use the Bible as a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender.
I agree about the use of ”biblical”. As in when people compare some purportedly substandard approach to preaching with ”biblical preaching;” or when people use the phrase “it’s not biblical” to dismiss an alternate approach to an issue; or when you say, “the biblical view on such and such is…” It’s not that these are always invalid observations. It’s just that after years of hearing this sort of thing, I know it has become a shortcut to actual discussion about the Bible.
Ironically “biblical” often means “what I’ve been told and cling to and have sanctified by calling biblical, but with little reference to the text itself.”
Why it’s a problem in the first place
Let me add to Rachael’s contribution by pointing out seven reasons why discussing the Bible is difficult in the first place:
First. In my experience most Christians do not have a clear notion of how to a) interpret b) how to apply the Bible. There is a potpouri of rationales and methods that are randomly used depending on the issue. If we are talking about homosexuality, we cite the Old Testament. If we are talking about salvation, we dismiss it. Indeed, there is even confusion about what is meant by “application”. Is it emotional encounter, imitation, intellectual formation, community definition? It is common that when you ask people to apply the Bible they will respond, not by pointing to specific behaviors, but by buttressing specific ideas: “the application is that God forgives us.”
Second. Christians have almost zero space for discussing the Bible, space in which we may figure this thing out together in a non-charged environment. So when we do get around to Bible discussion it is often under strain and it very quickly becomes too emotional and therefore incoherent.
Third. The habit of using the Bible to justify preconceived ideas is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize we do it. Even when we think we are aware of the problem, we still do it! Of course this makes a mess of textually based discussions. That’s why I am often refreshed when I read non-believing scholarly commentary on the Bible. It’s not that they they are neutral (clearly not the case), but that they have a different set of presuppositions and often, lacking the regular set of evangelical notions, they help me achieve a greater clarity.
Fourth. The way Christian education generally works, Christians “in the pews” are taught ideas without being shown clearly how they are sourced in Scripture. These ideas are often “baptized” in verses or phrases, but there is little attempt to show how they arise from the Bible. Often this is because they don’t! (they are “unbiblical”! Oh no! Run awaaay!)
Fifth. By far the most common mode of biblical discourse involves the citation of biblical phrases or verses. This is problematic because, first, it is a disservice to the structure of biblical literature, which ought to be handled in coherent logical units of thought. Second, it is often based on a fairly limited set of verses and phrases. A cannon within a cannon, if you will.
Sixth. Most of our experience of Bible interpretation comes from listening to sermons. The sermon is naturally given to declarations and quickly assembled reasoning. Some preaching gurus will even tell you that the sermon is not the place to show the why, only the place to make affirmations. Well, that might work if there was another space for biblical interaction in the community. But I think the sermon becomes a model for our Bible conversation and so we are given to quick declarations that “cut to the quick” rather than discussion. Along these lines, I wish preachers would be honest about when they are not sure about what something in the Bible means. It’s a good example for the rest of us.
Seventh. Because of all these dynamics, many have given up on the coherence of scripture. It seems to me that there is a kind of fatalism in biblical discussions, the sinking feeling that we will never be able to get to what is Biblical. This makes a real discussion about the meaning and significance of the Bible very difficult indeed.