I know this will shock you. But I need to say it: I knew some dirty words as a kid.
Sure, there were the ones that all the cool kids used in the playground. I pretended to know what they meant along with everyone else, and secretly looked them up in a dictionary during a rainy playtime. (That wasn’t much help actually, the definitions presented me with another few words I didn’t know the meaning of.)
But there was another set of dirty words, these ones much more subtle, that I picked up not in school but at church.
Growing up in a conservative church tradition, I learnt that apparently innocent sounding words had special meanings when people at church used them; they were sort of code words. The most obvious was ‘liberal’. As my family are politically pretty anti-Tory, and the long-standing, generally liked MP in our area was a Liberal Democrat, it took me a bit of time to get used to the idea that the positive or negative values attached to the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ were opposite depending on whether we were talking about theology or politics. Conservative politics were bad, but, my young self discerned, liberal theology was a much worse thing to be accused of.
It was a dirty word because it meant you weren’t a real, biblically-sound Christian. Instead, you were half-hearted, your gospel was diluted, you thought Christianity was about being nice to people rather than preaching about the cross, and worst of all, you might believe that everyone would end up in heaven. That’s a lot of bad news to be contained in one little word.
But there was also another word, even more subtle than that. At first it sounded reasonable, rational, the sort of word that keeps people friends even when they disagree. But, I soon worked out, the word ‘interpretation’ was code for an entirely wrong attitude to the Bible. It showed that you just didn’t understand the inerrancy of Scripture. See, if you talked about Bible as something we interpret, you were suggesting that there was more than one possible meaning of a text. It meant that the meaning might change depending on who was reading it. It gave license for a person to twist the meaning of God’s Word, so that it became man’s word instead.
In fact, the source of all liberal theology was probably interpretation.
Although I talk about these attitudes in the past tense, and I hope I’ve come a long way from some of the arrogant assumptions (and ignorant misunderstandings) of my teenage theology, the questions are still live ones for me. I’m still trying to work out what we mean by interpretation, how to go about good Biblical interpretation, whether there’s such thing as a bad interpretation and who gets to decide.
So I was interested to notice the other day a few words of Jesus that I’d not spotted before, when reading a familiar passage from Luke 10. It’s the preamble to the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus gets asked by an expert in the law, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I’ve commented before on the way Jesus answers that question, how different it is to the way our ‘formulae’ for leading someone to salvation seem to work. But I hadn’t noticed the importance of the question that Jesus asks him back…
“What is written in the law? How do you read it?“
It’s a question of interpretation. If you asked that question in some evangelical circles, you’d be shot down immediately. What a ridiculous question! Asking someone how they read the Scripture is to suggest it might mean something different for them than it does for me. It suggests that there’s some human input into reading it, rather than only the Spirit opening it to us. Surely there’s only one right, Biblical answer to this man’s question. What was Jesus playing at?!
On the flip side, when the guy gives his answer, Jesus affirms him as correct. So there’s little sense of him embracing a totally relativistic, it means whatever you take it to mean, point of view. Whatever we think about interpretation, there’s probably a challenge for us in Jesus’ words, one way or the other. On the one hand, he opens the conversation, he presents it as a question that it’s okay to discuss. He involves the perspective of the person reading Scripture, rather than appealing to some hard-and-fast, clear cut answers. On the other hand, he suggests there are good and bad directions for that discussion, there are useful insights and there are red herrings.
To me, that leaves two things to consider – firstly, in which direction do we err? The fear of interpretation and perspective and the influence of personal experience when reading the Bible? Or the idolisation of those same things, so as to consider every interpretation as equally useful and dismiss any sense of right, wrong, accurate and misguided? And how then do we tread the line between appreciating those different perspectives and yet also wanting to do justice to the texts as they were ‘intended’ to be read?
Perhaps something to think about next time you open your Bible… How do you read it?