Reading the Bible like a real bookWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
There’s an ancient story about the Greek oracle at Dodona, the less famous cousin of the one at Delphi. Once upon a time, a king came to Dodona to consult the oracle about his fate in an upcoming battle.
“Shall I go out to face my foe?” the king asked.
“Go. Return. Never perish in battle,” replied the oracle.
Taking this as a guarantee of success, the king went out to meet his enemy – and was promptly killed, his army scattered. One of his surviving troops came back to Dodona, begging an explanation.
“You misheard,” said the oracle, repeating her prophecy. “Go. Return never. Perish in battle.”
The story is a dark humorous take on how vague wording and punctuation (to say nothing of modern sound bite editing) can be used to make a statement mean any number of contradictory things. Horoscopes and fortune cookies use the same trick: short, ambiguous phrases, free of context, which can be interpreted however the reader desires.
Sadly, the principle isn’t that different from how some people approach the Scriptures.
There’s the classic random verse technique. After uttering a quick prayer, the reader allows the Bible to fall open, jabs a finger down on the page, and wherever it lands must be God’s word to them in that moment.
More subtle, but no less hazardous, is the practice of proof texting: finding a verse (or even a phrase) and yanking it from its contextual moorings to support a belief or justify an action.
Nobody reads any other kind of writing this way. People don’t pick up books or magazines and pore over them for short, epigrammatic snippets to interpret any way they choose. They approach the text as a unit, in context, aware of its style and intent, seeking to learn something or to find enjoyment or to encounter the mind of the author.
And that’s just how the Bible should be engaged – like a real book.
In TV courtroom dramas, there’s a standard scene in which a lawyer will ask a witness to read aloud from a transcript. She instructs the witness to read only the highlighted passage; if he tries to read further or to explain what he just read, she cuts him off. She’s not interested in the truth, only in shaping it to build her case.
Journalists at times use the same tactic, creatively editing an interview to make it say something other than what was intended. It’s not uncommon to hear interviewees protest, sometimes with good cause: “My comments were taken out of context.”
When it comes to the proper understanding of any communication, written or spoken, there’s no single factor as important as context. Without it, even apparent statements of fact can be made to mean practically anything.
This is why the Apostle Peter warns the church about individuals who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Throughout church history, heresies have been born and individuals gravely harmed by the misuse of Scripture pulled out of context.
It’s imperative, therefore, to ask the right questions when approaching any text, especially a passage of Scripture. What is the immediate setting? What comes right before and after it? How does it fit with the rest of the book? Under what circumstances was it written? What is its place and function in the overall scheme of God’s Word?
Throughout their lives, most people have to write a variety of things for different occasions: term papers, job applications, notes to loved ones, public speeches, work reports. Similarly, they’ll read books of different kinds, whether out of necessity or choice: textbooks, novels, poetry, biographies, travel guides, instruction manuals.
All these genres have their own conventions of tone, grammar, structure, and so on. Some make extensive use of symbols and metaphors while others deal mostly in facts. These stylistic cues are evident to both authors and readers. Nobody confuses a historical novel with a furniture catalogue. If asked to produce a financial report, an employee won’t write a love letter by mistake.
And so it is with the Bible, a collection of 66 documents written by different human authors in a variety of settings over a span of 1,500 years. It contains a diverse palette of genres: history, poetry, prophecy, law codes, letters, and more. These genres cannot be read with a one-size-fits-all approach. History must be allowed to speak as history, not as myth or metaphor to comply with modern prejudices. On the other hand, poetry must be permitted its full effect, not dissected phrase by phrase, its metaphors reduced to wooden literalisms.
Thanks to the lingering influence of postmodernism, it has become unfashionable in academic literary circles to speak of authorial intent. We cannot know for certain what an author intended or even what his text truly means, hardline postmodernists will insist. All we can do is bring our own interpretation to the text, drawn from our own cultural biases.
Such an idea doesn’t bear up under scrutiny, however. The intent behind a traffic sign or warning label is clear – or at least it had better be. Writers aren’t engaged in a fool’s errand. They have something to say and usually succeed in saying it, relying on the reader’s ability to understand what they meant.
To be sure, every reader brings his or her personal and cultural assumptions to a text. But that doesn’t make it impossible to derive the text’s true meaning, or render it open to every feasible interpretation.
The human authors of Scripture wrote with purpose. They each used their own style and voice to speak into their own situation, addressing the issues of their day. At the same time, they were instruments in God’s hands, writing the words he wished to convey, both to their generation and to future ones as well.
There’s undeniable mystery here. And yet, discovering the intent of the divine and human authors is one of the great rewards – as well as joys – of reading Scripture.
Reading for pleasure is generally associated with reading fiction as a leisure activity, perhaps lying on a beach with a cold drink and a pile of novels. But that’s far too narrow a definition. For many readers, a history book, biography or travelogue is at least as pleasurable as a novel, if not more so. There are even those who derive the greatest pleasure from a book on mathematics or theoretical physics.
All well-written books can be beautiful on their own terms, regardless of subject. They have the power to move the mind, inspire the imagination, and delight the eye and ear with their artful use of language.
This is to be expected. God loves beauty and creativity. He made a world teeming with it, and humans who can respond to it and produce it themselves. His Word is full of stirring narratives, beautiful songs and elegantly framed wisdom. It’s not meant to be merely absorbed and analyzed, but rather to be savoured and enjoyed. Bible readers do themselves a disservice – not to mention dishonour to their God – when they fail to do so.
People who love books often describe the reading experience as encountering the author. They don’t just mean the author’s ideas; they mean the author herself or himself. Through the words on the page, the author’s mind, heart and personality appear. The result is a kind of intimacy, an acquaintance or even a friendship made over distances of time and place.
In the Scriptures, readers encounter the poetic soul of David, the grief of Jeremiah, the historical care of Luke, the love of John.
But of course, the Bible is far more than just a human book, written by mortal authors who are long gone. It’s also the eternal Word of the living God, through which he reveals his mind and heart, his character and purposes.
In his book, A Peculiar Glory, John Piper makes a compelling case that the Scriptures are not so much a picture of God, but rather a portal through which to see God. Piper likens it to the difference between a painting of the mountains hanging on a wall, and a large window opening onto a breathtaking vista of those same mountains.
And that’s precisely what the Bible, read as a real book, offers the reader: direct, life-shaping encounter with the God of the universe in all his beauty and glory, ultimately displayed in the person of his Son Jesus.
Sources and further reading
John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, Crossway, 2016.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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