Monday, December 06, 2004

The Art and Science of Biblical Interpretation

One of my best friends, John, who is a medical doctor, married, father of two, agnostic, lives in a small eastern Tennessee town, and all around swell guy sent the following email to me:

My bible reading project has not started yet. Sodom and Gamora is the most often quoted argument I hear around hear, and usually just the fact that I bring up an alternative view of why Sodom and Gamora are destroyed they start backpeddeling which tells me that most people use the Bible to argue position having never read the source. They are simply taking someone elses interpretation.

In medicine (which is more art than science every day that I practice) I used to take as fact things that were taught to me by respected professors.
Now that I have read some of the source material myself I have found many things in medicine are done on tradition and there is no good evidence for some practices. So I can imagine if I have come across so many instances of misinterpretation in medicine that Biblical lore is probably worse.

John explained in his initial email to me that people around him constantly bring up Sodom and Gomorrah when explaining the sins of gay marriage or homosexuality in general. But, as I explained to John, that's one of the worst passages they could use to justify their righteous indignation.

If you start thinking about it, it's hard to see a story involving gang rape as an indictment against consentual homosexual relationships. It's gets a little more difficult when you realize that Lot offers his daughters to appease the violent crowd. I don't think female virgins would placate a mob of rabid queers.When the the prophet Ezekiel discusses this incident later, he states the sin specifically: "Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." (Ezekiel 16:49 -KJV)

So, please pick a more artful argument next time.

But John makes an excellent point about the art of Biblical interpretation. While John continues to erode the little trust I had in modern medicine with his revelations of how so much of it is a guessing game, he properly illuminates a problem with modern theology, particularly within the evangelical/fundamentalist community.

Most followers don't take the time to check out the source material. They believe what they are fed by popular pundits, local pastors, tradition or even fictional literature. (The Left Behind series is an immensely popular book series based on a particular interpretation of the Book of Revelations, a theological bent that the authors insist is The Truth.) Modern church-goers might know their Bible verses forward and backwards and follow along when prompted during sermons, but few take time to truly read the Bible contextually. And this type of reading is no easy task.

Reading any book is more work than people typically consider. There is a whole field of study on the reading process and how we make meaning of what we read. Even casting the process of reading aside, when reading the Bible, one must read it with the appropriate surrounding text to understand the full context. To single any one verse out, as many ministers seem to base their sermons on, actually robs that verse of its full meaning. Nobody would dream of reading any other book or poem this way, yet modern Christians regularly use the Bible verse by out-of-context verse.

Understanding the Bible is further complicated by the need to understand some the words' original meanings in Hebrew or Greek. You have to understand ancient culture. You have to understand that some words were used differently than they are now and a direct translation of the word does not necessarily convey the author's intended meaning or frame of reference. All of these components, and more, is fundamental to truly understanding what is being said. How many evangelicals even know that the gospels were handed down orally and were not transcribed until decades after those events happened? How many understand the concept of the synoptic gospels? I certainly never learned these things in church, and I doubt many people do.

Given all the work it takes to understand the words that have been passed down to us, it's not surprising that most people don't undertake it (many probably are not aware that this much work is necessary). Instead, interpretation is left up to ministers, who while certainly qualified, are trained in certain traditions and schools of theology, bringing their own biases, prejudices, preconceptions, and, yes, agendas into the interpretive mix. I often wonder how many ministers get to seminary, come to different conclusions that what they are being taught based on their own work, yet still go along with the denominational line because that is an easier path to tread.

Karl Marx said that relgion is the opium of the masses. And, for those churches that do not teach their parishioners about how to read the Bible for themsleves, he's right. I certainly believe that fundamentalism, a characteristic of the Religious Right, is an anti-intellectual movement. It ignores or belittles a historical-critical analysis of the Bible. Fundamentalism insists that you turn off your brain not just at the church door, but at the Bible cover.

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