I want to think for a second about the ways we tend to process language in different places. At our conference last weekend, Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke eloquently about how a sermon is a local event, preached to a specific people at a specific time in the contexts of the larger worship service, the community’s makeup, the identity of the pastor, and so on.

To use just one of these vectors, community makeup, a sermon on the prodigal son parable could differ by audience. To an audience of religious burnouts who have committed the obvious sins over and over, a focus on the younger son might be appropriate. To the stodgy religious faithful, the cautionary tale of the older brother might be a better focal point. To people steeped in the Jewish tradition or more theologically inclined, the story’s use of the Passover motif, later taken up by the Last Supper and Eucharist, might be interesting. In all cases, the father’s love would likely be a strong focus, but the angles into it would change.

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Nadia mentioned, if I remember correctly, how different angles of light may cast different shadows of the same object. But this idea can be at odds with our contemporary way of knowing things. We often want the ‘objective’ stance, the indubitable, universal stance of a detached observer, historical-critical researcher, or the painstakingly meticulous philological commentary. The contemporary person tends to approach everything like a scientific textbook, with each verse of the Bible presenting a self-contained datum with discrete, independent, univocal authority, to be grasped exactly as it is. We want to know it fully, all at once, and lose sight of how different factors, such as context, spiritual experience, and encounters with other parts of the Bible, limit our approach.

This is, of course, not how the texts of the Bible were written. They are not purely subjective – my opinion’s as good as yours – but neither are they a scientific text, in which someone might spend years analyzing Daniel to calculate a precise date for the second coming (something, not incidentally, which was not attempted until after the Enlightenment). The Enlightenment way of thinking has compromised our biblical interpretation by making us interrogate the text for utterly reliable, objective meaning. Such conflicts as Creationism versus The Big Bang do not represent the conflict between Christianity and Enlightenment thought, but rather between the scientific method as (properly) applied to scientific subject-matter and  scientific method as (improperly) applied to religious subject-matter. Thus when someone like Dawkins finds the Bible being factually refuted by science, and a fundamentalist bends over backward to reconcile the contradiction, the two are actually operating from the same (bad) assumption that the truth-criteria for science – non-contradiction, internal cogency, factual truth – are the same as the truth-criteria for religion. Which is to say that the New Atheists have not yet mounted a serious challenge to serious Christianity, nor have fundamentalists seriously defended it.

But the ‘scientific’ approach to the Bible goes well beyond fundamentalism, for all contemporary Western Christians (barring mystics) will subtly incorporate this view of the Bible as a collection of data into everyday readings. For instance, John’s Gospel and the Synoptics disagree on the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. If that bothers you – and it bothers me – then we’re at least to an extent snared by the need to harmonize the Bible according to scientific criteria.

There are a few implications from this reading of the Bible:

First, we miss context. The previous sentence, if you were to select it at random from this article and read only that, would not have much meaning. When I write a sentence, like “First, we miss context,” I intend it to be read and interpreted by someone who has read all of the preceding matter and views “First, we miss context” in light of that. Much of the Bible is no different – perhaps one reason why books of Jesus’s sayings, like the Nag Hammadi sayings or hypothetical ‘Q,’ did not make it into the biblical canon except as elements embedded within a narrative. If we were interpreting poetry and I asked someone the meaning of the line “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” you first response would be to look up the poem.

What happens if we interpret that line without looking up the whole? It works as a sentiment, perhaps a bit moralistic. I could give a whole sermon, based on that line, about the power of love, the importance of loyalty, how beautiful the world might look if we could all “be true / to one another!”. It is an inspiring, even elating, thought. I might take that line, never read its context, and still walk away feeling like I have ‘gotten something out of’ the poem, and something deep!

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Yet it is merely a thought, merely a sentiment, however lovely. It is one-dimensional, something I merely lift out of a poem, as with a crane, and plop awkwardly into my own thought. If I treat Arnold as an authority with a deep knowledge of love and life, I will hold onto this verse, treasure it. And the lack of context is useful to me, because I am free to fit this line to my individual life, however I wish, and still ascribe to it Arnold’s authority. Thus what started out as something speaking to me has become an empty thought, filled out with all my own ideas and feelings.

This is, in fact, how large swaths of the Bible are often cited or read. For example, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is taken to be a blueprint for how to tell people they’re sinning. God wants us to hold others accountable, to speak truth – the line of thought goes – but always in love.

I’m not entirely certain what I think of when and how we should correct others’ bad behavior, but I am certain that Ephesians 4:15 has almost nothing to do with it:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

The author is likely referring to truth as doctrine, specifically the writer’s view of adoption, redemption, high Christology, and so on. They should speak true doctrine within a loving community. ‘Shiela, I’ve noticed you’re staying over at your boyfriend’s a lot lately’ may or may not be a helpful thing for Shiela to hear, but again, Ephesians 4:15 has nothing to do with it.

Matthew Arnold, RIP, would be annoyed if I followed around everyone in a poetry reading group, exhorting them to be true to one another because Matthew Arnold said so. Let’s fill out the context:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In a brutal world of naked rationalism left by faith’s recession, romantic devotion to one other person may provide consolation and purpose, though the poem suggests the tragic futility of this new faith by ending on a note of despair. Or, the modern man may come to grips courageously with the world, without help of religious myths, and take a stand against it bravely. Or he is resignedly forced to. All meanings could be valid interpretations, though in tension with one another. Yet Arnold elicits feeling and experience, briefly capturing the ineffable, and thus it is rich, poignant, and saturated with meaning – beyond our ability to capture it – in a way that my empty quotation of him earlier was not.

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One could even, perhaps, interpret “let us be true / to one another” as the kind of empty, hollow sentiment which emerges once true faith, brimming with mystery, retreats – a merely formal, and formulaic, idea which cannot cope with our reality of being “Swept with confused alarms.” Hollow thoughts and ideas, even ones drawn from the Bible, are often insufficient to make sense of our world. When we skip too quickly to some ‘takeaway,’ shortcutting the text’s mystery, multiplicity of meaning, and resonance with human life, we rob ourselves and shear the Bible of much of its power.

It also reflects a disembodied approach to truth, one characteristic of a contemporary Western culture often labeled “sterile” by different cultures. When doing scientific research we can, to an extent, stand above truth, suppress our personality, and take a god’s-eye view of the object and laws we’re studying. And this is an appropriate attitude for empirical research. But it is tragic when the this approach is applied too much to religion; we cannot stand above the material because it fundamentally concerns us; we are always already enmeshed in it, entangled. To run from a passage’s particularity – its context and the various factors which limit its meaning, but also deepen it – is to reveal our own desire to escape our particularity, to take the god’s-eye view.

Yet this flight from particularity makes our interpretations less reliable. As with “let us be true / to one another” out of context, we cannot help but turn Bible verses into moralistic, one-dimensional, and ultimately anthropomorphic little thoughts when we take them too much out of context. They stop speaking to us – as with Ephesians 4:15 – and become vehicles for us to speak to ourselves, imputing divine authority to a predilection or social imperative. The Bible then becomes not the word from beyond, but another building-block of the Old Adam.

Part II coming soon.