Reading the Bible: Interpretive Cultures

The most recent addition to my long list of things that I’m late to is Babylon Bee, a satire website poking fun at Christian culture. Basically it’s just a long list of injokes, but the entry requirements aren’t very high. Half of them you can get from the context, and the other half just spin out the joke contained in the title. Anyway, there was one in particular I was thinking about, and (funny though it is) it actually touches on some interesting issues.

As a post, this one fits into the second category – the article itself really just expands on the title:

The joke being – yeah, that. As an idea it’s more useful as a warning than an approach, because arguably there’s no such thing as a value-free reading. It’s the sort of idea that you can ad absurdam really quickly: “Jesus was nice person, says nice person”; “Jesus loved the poor, says person who loves poor”. You can see some well-meaning figure deploying the joke to discredit fringe readings as having ulterior motivations, but it’s not a safe bet. In order to support that position, you have to prove that your own reading has zero presuppositions, and that’s damn near impossible.

So the joke’s an unsustainably double-edged sword. As soon as you use it against somebody, they throw it back in your face, and you’re both left scrabbling on a relativistic ice rink. Rather than serving to defend any particular Biblical interpretation, it actually suggests that the Bible is entirely opaque – a mirror, rather than a revelation. If the Bible is, in fact, opaque, then it’s also basically useless for Christians, because it doesn’t reliably tell us anything about God’s nature. It doesn’t speak: it only reflects. That’s a terrible position to be in, because it means Christianity as a whole doesn’t contain a unique resource for understanding God’s nature – which is to say that there’s no reason to be a Christian. If the Bible doesn’t tell us something special about God, then non-Christians have equally reliable (or perhaps unreliable) information about who God is.

This is where things get hairy. There’s a bunch of Biblical interpreters who begin with a declaration of their biases – political readers, feminist readers, etc. On the one hand, this is a strength, because you know what their position is before they start reading. They’re emphasising their own subjectivity as readers, which is cool, because it means they’re not pretending to have value-free readings. For these readers, the very concept of a value-free reading is an oxymoron, a marker of both the innocent and exploitative. However, it kinda begs the question: where are they getting these biases from in the first place? Obviously they don’t come from the Bible, because they’re declared as biases before the reader starts reading. There’s one of two options here: either the reader is talking out their ass (possible), or the Bible isn’t the only authority on the nature of God.

So let’s take feminism, for example. A Christian feminist reader will approach the Bible and say “Right, I believe that men and women should be treated equally because it’s the morally decent thing to do.” The implication is that God Himself intended for men and women to be treated equally – because otherwise there would be no point arguing both a) that God is actually good and b) that gender equality is moral. Either God makes good laws and gender equality is one of them, or He’s not (or it isn’t). Let’s assume that the feminist is correct (which she fucking is, you nob). That implies that she knew something about God (that He supports gender equality) without finding that information in the Bible – because she’s come to the Bible with that understanding and is re-reading the Bible in the light of that feminist tradition.

To some extent this is prodding at the Protestant belief that the Bible alone is the authority on God – sola scriptura, they call it. We don’t need to remove sola scriptura as a principle, necessarily, but we are trying to inflict some pretty hefty footnotes on it. The original rule might read “The Bible alone is the sole source of God’s written revelation and is the standard against which all Christian activity may be measured.” Our footnotes might read “But any claim to an objective scientific Enlightenment-era value-free reading of the Bible is a fraudulant lie, because we read the Bible through a complex cultural lens which may in and of itself obscure certain parts of the Biblical revelation.” The Bible can be treated as the divine Word of God, no problem – but all of our reading has to be understood as taking place within a cultural context. It’s our job to interpret and re-interpret that tradition and culture, because our exposure to the Bible is rooted in that tradition. It’s not unreasonable to say that the tradition determines a substantial part of our reading.

This whole argument about the importance of tradition in the interpretation of the Biblical witness is part of a larger push against certain Enlightenment values that connect with the beginning of various Protestant movements. On the one hand, the Protestants were very right to shake up the Catholic traditions, because things which really weren’t that important (and frequently were in fact harmful) had calcified into God’s Law. The Protestants demanded a radical re-evaluation of those traditions based on the Bible alone, which was a good thing to do. The problem is this implicit assumption that by relying on the Bible alone, we avoid all these nasty unhelpful cultural or traditional understandings – and that’s just patently untrue. We exclusively read in the light of our cultural and traditional understandings, and that’s fine. It’s our job to stop those traditions hardening into Law, and one way to do that is by introducing external traditions (like feminism) and seeing how they shake up our understanding of things. There’s still this two-way process of negotiation between the Bible and feminism, in that each is used to interrogate the other – after all, we don’t want to compromise the Bible in favour of a tradition (not even a feminist tradition).

To return, then, to Babylon Bee: if the joke is that objectivity is impossible, that’s fine. Haha, we get it, let’s keep rolling. If the joke is that people need to stop bringing their external values to the Bible, then it’s a sack of shit. Show me a value-free reading and I’ll show you a liar (or possibly an idiot).


2 thoughts on “Reading the Bible: Interpretive Cultures

  1. Perhaps we should consider that whatever culture we test the Bible with, is in fact being tested by the Bible. Whichever we hold more strongly will do violence to the other. Even relatively good ideologies, e.g. democracy, if held to dogmatically will lead us astray.
    The important thing is to realise when they do fail each other. For example, when I wanted Jesus to be an anarchist, I was forced to realise He gave authority to His Apostles/Church. I think we hardly hear the scriptures until we hear them opposing us.
    A good test of interpretations is how much work they require. The Bible was made to be understood, and should therefore be easier to read right than wrong, so long as we’re detached from our interpretations.
    Really great post. God bless you 🙂


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