Peter Gomes begins chapter two of The Good Book with a warning: “it is not just trendy theologians or liberal Christian bishops who get into trouble over its interpretation [The Bible’s].” We can all get into trouble.
In my previous post, I commented on the process of interpretation and I evaluated Gomes’ ideas on interpretation. In my experience I agree with his thoughts, a word in any book is a symbol meant to represent some thing and as readers, we take those symbols and try to make meaning from them. Symbols represent things. Some words elicit complex responses, while others elicit much simpler responses. It would be naïve to say that words mean the same things to all people. Common sense applied to the writing of symbols and reading of symbols would tell us all that writers are individuals attempting to transmit meaning and readers are diverse individuals attempting to decode symbols. It is often not a simple process.
What makes this whole discussion more intense is when we think of interpretation as it applies to God’s Word.
After opening chapter two with this general discussion, Gomes gets more specific in a section he entitles “The Danger of Interpretation.” When we think about symbols representing things, how do we respond to someone who uses the word “danger.” That is a word that elicits a complex response. It catches attention.
Let’s go further. Gomes writes that there is great irony regarding the serious nature of Bible study. The more people study, the more they are tempted to obscure its meaning, pervert its meaning and lose correct meaning entirely. He writes: “The temptation to see in the Bible only the Bible, and to see no further than our own understanding of what we see, has frequently led to an idolatry of Scripture as dangerous and perverse as any blandishment of Satan in the Garden or in the wilderness.” What does he mean here? Anytime we read a book we bring our own experience to the reading. We can’t help but do this; experience is our lens through which we interpret. It seems to me that we should acknowledge this.
Let me see if I can provide an example of this process using a book that is much less Divine. Recently my book club read a book by Amor Towles entitled A Gentleman in Moscow . Without spoiling the book for any reader of this post, this novel is set in the early twentieth century and it deals with the life of a Russian aristocrat who is under long-term house arrest in a lavish Moscow hotel. This man’s knowledge of the tasteful life of aristocratic society is amazing, his acute sensitivity, his ability to find the right word for any occasion, his sense of upper class behavior and all the accoutrements that go along with that lifestyle. I plunged headlong into the book and I soon found myself afloat in a world that I could not relate to but I enjoyed it anyway. I read along as well as I could, making sense the best that I could.
But what if the book I am reading is The Bible, a book that many regard as “powerful.” Gomes writes “we want that power for ourselves, to order our lives by it and to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves” .
What do we do to this Divine Book? Like any book, we bring our experience to the reading. We bring our lens through which we interpret the meaning of the words.
Gomes says this leads to “temptations” and he pinpoints three ways that serious Bible readers are tempted: first, we worship The Bible, making it an object of veneration. Secondly, we worship the text, making the letter of The Bible more important than the spirit. Thirdly we worship our culture and we force the Bible to conform to the prevailing values of our times. He labels these bibliolatry, literalism and culturism. Each plays a part in interpreting the Bible. Each can lead to “dangerous” interpretations.
As I decide to comment on a book, I try to find divisions within the work to break it apart. That allows me to tackle parts that are digestible for me as commentator and digestible for anyone who reads my blog.
Something tells me to slow down and take some time with bibliolatry, literalism and culturism. These ideas may be foundational for the arguments that Gomes will make later in his book. I should not skim over them.
In my next post I will turn my attention to bibliolatry, an attitude that I can easily find in some of my Christian friends.
Let us keep in mind that whether the topic is bibliolatry, literalism or culturism, Gomes feels that they are all three forms of idolatry, “all related and equally dangerous” .
Let me use his words to end on a strong note: these temptations “violate the first commandment, and they violate the believer just as Adam and Eve were violated, and just as Satan would have violated Jesus in the wilderness if he could have” [Gomes, 35].
Next post: “bibliolatry.”