Jesus and the dirty words.

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?

About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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5 Responses to Jesus and the dirty words.

  1. Perhaps something to think about next time you open your Bible… How do you read it?

    First, and I think this is unavoidable, I read any passage (in any writing, really) as it first speaks to me, attempting as needed to resolve any questions or absorb meaning as it all first comes to me. Of course my ability with language, my experiences, my prior knowledge of the text, and so on factor into this. Beyond that, I like to have reference to citations. If a text quotes or alludes to something else, I’d like to catch that. And I read Scripture with reference to Holy Tradition. What did the Church Fathers say about this or that? How is this text reflected in Church dogma? Indeed even how does it answer heretical notions that I am aware of? And how does it fit into the services. This last point is particularly salient in Orthodoxy. Our liturgy is replete with quotation, paraphrases, and countless other forms of reference to Holy Scripture. Our hymnody is overflowingly Biblical. The experience of Scripture through Church services, like consulting the Fathers or reading history, casts light.

  2. Carwyn Grav says:

    It seems possible to affirm on the one hand that there is a ‘right’ interpretation and on the other to acknowledge that we don’t *know* what it is. We can go further as Christians, do some historical hermeneutics and be confident that we (the Church) ‘know’ some things, because of the Spirit. Maybe?

    • Claire says:

      So if we don’t always know what the ‘right’ interpretation of something is, does this idea of ‘right’ have less meaning? If we can glean different sorts of things from a text, can we just say that some are more helpful, others less helpful, and perhaps some pretty misguided, without having to decide on one as ‘right’ which makes it more important than the others?

      • Carwyn Grav says:

        It feels like there’s a parallel though with the ‘right’ way of behaving; often we ‘know’ what that is and looks like practically, at other times we know what the theory says but don’t see how that would work in practice, at other times it is foggier still. In other words, there is this greater or lesser gap between our ideal of behaviour and our practice. This gap does not however mean that the idea of ‘right behaviour’ has less meaning.
        To get back to Biblical interpretation; the ‘right’ here is probably defined by practice. But also by the Bible itself: Scripture certainly does interpret scripture (though not necessarily, or as obviously, in the way that phrase is sometimes used), witness Jesus’ use of OT, Paul and Abraham etc etc. So Scripture (NT) interprets the Law for us (to use a BIG example, and a minefield :p ), and as it does so it points us towards certain principles to use when we do so.
        On a side note: how can we say that certain things are more or less ‘helpful’ without certain benchmarks? I assume you don’t want to put the reader, with her own whims, individual experiences and background in the position of authority to decide what is or isn’t helpful? This, it seems, was the unintended consequence of Luther’s meddling, and has led to a bit of a void at the heart of Protestantism down the years.
        So, this looks like semantics to me; because what is the difference between what is helpful and what is right? Authority, wherever we choose to place it (or acknowledge it), is behind both of them.
        (To stop being cryptic: I would put the authority in the church, collective and through history, and acknowledge that from our perspective, on the surface, that gives Christianity a huge amount of inherent diversity. Nevertheless, all centered around worship and witness. This in turn suggests the primacy of those two things; an impression which one might also get from a reading of the Bible….maybe things work a little like that? 🙂 )

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