So if we aren’t to interpret the Bible, because the Bible is already an interpretation (see more here), then what are we to do with it?
I suggest that we are to treat it like any other book and try to understand it. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
It’s simple in the sense that that’s what we do with everything that we read. We’re trying to understand the text in front of us, whether it’s a poem or a newspaper article or a contract. We’re not seeking to interpret them, to give them meaning. We’re seeking to understand their meaning.
But it would be naive to think that this process was easy or straightforward. A lot is actually happening when we’re trying to understand a text, particularly if that text is claiming to describe an event that has occurred in history – whether that is a news article that happened yesterday, a scientific article about the beginning of our universe, or a biblical account of an incident in the life of Jesus.
In this case there are 4 basic movements:
Reader —-> Text —-> Author —-> Event
But it’s not that simple in real life. This is quite a naive way of understanding. Because there will be those times when, for example, you are reading an article about an event that you yourself actually witnessed and the description doesn’t mesh with what you know as an eyewitness. And so your naiveté unravels into something like this:
Reader —-> Text —-> Author <—-> Event
Instead of looking through the text and the author at the event, we now begin to suspect that the words aren’t “about” the event but they are just “about” the writer’s opinions. We hit the event, see the discrepancy, and begin to suspect that we’re mainly looking at the author, not mainly at the event.
Even more radical would be those who would propose that we can’t even get any access to what the author intended at all, and even if we could that would be unwanted. This type of view can be described like this:
Reader —-> Text <—-> Author Event
And so all we really have is the reader and the text, with the text seen as an independent reality. Reading is an interaction between a reader and a text, not between a reader and an author via a text. If we are to discuss anything we are to talk about the text itself, not about what the author was doing in writing this text.
And yet it can all collapse further still, so that it’s not just a reader reading the text but instead all I can really be aware of is myself in the presence of a text. The whole enterprise implodes into the feelings and thoughts I have while in the presence of this text. There is no event. There is no author. And now not even really a text. It’s all radically about reader response. And so this radical relativism means there is no “right” or “wrong” reading, just my reading and your reading. And so it would look like this:
Reader <—-> Text Author Event
Now this last one often seems the most stupid to most conservative flavours of Bible-readers, but it is actually often too close for comfort. This is often very close to the way a lot of conservative churches have spoken and modelled reading the bible. The devout, and likely unintentional, predecessor to the radical deconstructionism is the personal bible reading which focusses on what the Bible says to me, now. Where every Bible narrative is about me and has me as the hero. “What is the Goliath in my life that I need to slay?” A way of reading the Bible where this is the total of its meaning, with no remainder, which doesn’t even want to know about the author’s intention or what the event might have meant to the original readers, let alone to those involved in the event itself.
But the way forward isn’t to acquiesce to the radical scepticism that collapses events and texts into reader perception, nor to cling to the naive positivist way of reading. I’m not an expert in any of these things, but to my mind the way forward is to say both/and at every stage of reading rather than either/or. Which would look like this:
Reader <—-> Text <—-> Author <—-> Event
So at the reader/text stage it needs to acknowledge that the reader is a particular human being at a particular time with a particular set of assumptions and a specific perspective AND that the text is an entity in itself and not a ball of play-doh that can be moulded in any shape or fashion.
And the text/author stage that the author intended certain things AND that the text may contain other things that the author didn’t consciously intend but are nonetheless still there – like echoes and structures of other events or texts.
And at the author/event stage we need to say that the author is a human like the reader and so is a particular human being at a particular time with a particular set of assumptions and has a specific perspective of an event AND that they actually can write about real events and objects and convey truth about them.
And so the whole thing becomes a process, oftentimes quite a complex process, but a process nonetheless of seeking to understand. The thing becomes more like a conversation with assumptions and misunderstandings and corrections, with some back-and-forth, as we spiral closer to understanding.