Tuesday 4 August 2009

The author might be dead, but the reader ain't

Christians talk so much about what ‘the Bible says’ that it’s easy to forget that the Bible doesn’t ‘just say’ anything. As soon as we pick up the Bible to read it, we are already interpreting it. We make decisions about which bits to read, which bits to skip or to skim. We choose study guides to read alongside it; we read bits and are reminded of things that have happened to us, stories we’ve heard, sermons we’ve listened to. But most of all, we read: we read because we have ideas about what the Bible is and what it is important. Because we think it will be interesting or because we expect it to be a load of rubbish. Because we think it is the Word of God (whatever that means). Because we think God will speak to us, or because if we don’t read, God will be angry with us. We bring to the text all sorts of assumptions, ideas, and beliefs, and those things shape our reading, whether we’re aware of them or not.

We cannot help interpreting, but we often forget that that’s what we’re doing and we think that we’re just reading. The first step to reading better is to realise that how we read matters. To help you think about what you do when you read, here is a list of (some of) the different forms that biblical interpretation might take:

  • Editions of the Bible. We have lots of old copies of the biblical texts but they, er, don’t always agree. Sometimes, I’m afraid to say, they contradict each other. So, even before we start translating, we have to decide what text we will translate. Editions of the Bible such as the Nestlé-Aland edition of the New Testament or the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia version of the Old Testament gather together all the available manuscripts and make decisions about which ones are most likely to be the originals. That is, they interpret.
  • Translations. When you translate, you make decisions about what you think the text really means. Did Ruth cover Boaz’ feet or his ‘feet’? You have to interpret the text in order to translate it.
  • Paraphrases. When people produce paraphrases of the Bible – the Message, the Geordie Bible, children’s Bibles etc. - they again have to make interpretive decisions. Which elements of the story are really important? Which bits can be left out? Do we have to include the story about Noah’s daughters getting him drunk and sleeping with him in My First Bible Stories?
  • Commentaries. Pretty obvious, no?
  • Exegesis. Exegesis is detailed line-by-line commentary on a biblical text. You can get whole books of exegesis, but little bits often pop up in sermons, commentaries, works of theology, and all sorts of other places.
  • Homilies and sermons. Sermons, you may be surprised to hear, aren’t always pure biblical interpretation, though how much biblical interpretation you’re in for probably depends what sort of church you go to.
  • Critical and theological studies.
  • Transpositions into other texts. Lots of ‘versions’ of biblical texts exist, both verbal and non-verbal: poetry, prose, plays , films, sculpture, paintings, dance. All of these interpret the text on which they’re based. Tennyson’s Journey of the Magi tells the story of the three kings from the perspective of a king; Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent retells the rape of Dinah in the style of Mills and Boon; Jesus of Montréal imagines Jesus in 20th century Canada; Handel’s Messiah, Michelangelo’s David: enough now?
  • The canons of Scripture themselves. Perhaps the most fundamental decision of biblical interpretation is ‘What counts as the Bible?’ Which texts are authoritative enough to get in there in the first place? These fundamental decisions were made by people, by the church, and they were interpretive decisions. The order of books is also important – texts look different depending on which texts you read them alongside, and different orderings give priority to different texts.
Acknowledgements: this post is based on notes I made at a class with Anna Williams, so the good stuff is all hers.

1 comment:

Toby said...

Am I allowed to include the Holy Spirit in my list?

I've had the opinion for some time that if I'm instructed to do something because 'the bible says so' then itsquite a low view of scripture. Worst of all was being told to 'delight in the Lord' and then being asked why I wasn't smiling.

All these hermeneutical techniques I find are best done in a group. That way any revelation that comes out can quickly be challenged. Even if everyone goes away thinking they're the only one shown to be utterly wrong, at least they had most of the biscuits.