Bible

Comic-Con Teaches Us About Bible Reading

Recently I came across a 2009 post which highlights for me a larger conversation in the world of fans. The post speaks of two different types of fans - affirmational fandom and transformational fandom.

(Hang with me this is really about how we read the Bible.)

As I understand it, these two types of fandom relate the the source material differently. Affirmational fans will memorize the source material and correct you if you are wrong. Affirmational fans might tell you that Dumbledore is an Old English word for “bumblebee and would be able to tell you what Voldemort would see if he looked at a boggart. The affirmational fan is about details and more details. They get these details from source material. The Harry Potter books, J.K. Rolling interviews, reading and making connections that are justified by the original source. The affirmational fan is what we think of when we think of a fan.

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If affirmational fans see the source material as the end of the conversation on a topic, the transformational fans sees the same material as a jumping off point. If is the transformational fan that might write fan-fiction, stories inspired by but not rigidly bound to the source. It is the transformational fan that might point out some of the shortcomings and oversights in the original and make a case to correct it. For instance, the transformational fan might point out the lack of racial diversity in the Harry Potter series and make a story of the founding wizards being people from non-anglo DNA.

You can see where the affirmational fan might take offense. What sort of person would take it upon themselves to make up a story about Ravenclaw being from China when clearly she was from England.

Here is the kicker - Affirmation and transformative fans are both fans. They are both expressing their devotion to a story in very beautiful ways. It might be said that one might not be able to be a transformative fan without appreciating the affirmational fan. And even the most ardent affirmational fan likes to imagine themselves in the story (even though they clearly are not a character in the book).

Likewise, Affirmational Bible readers and Transformational Bible readers are still big Bible readers. You may think that being a Christian is to know the details and the specific rules as a way to mark you as a true disciple. You might think that being a Christian means to know the stories of Jesus and then to have the imagination to dream what new thing God might be doing - even if it is seen as a deviation from the affirmational Bible readers idea of what it means to be a Christian.

Too often I find people who want to be a transformational bible reader but are squashed by the affirmational bible reader. Too often I find transformational bible readers rolling their eyes at the affirmational bible reader. The truth is that we need both the affirmational and the transformational bible readers. We need people to lift up the details and the source canon and we need others who will point out the flaws within the canon and imagine stories that can address the flaws.

Taking the Bible Literally and not Literarily

The Bible is not so much a book as it is a collection of books. This may be common in our approach, however there are times we forget. And like many collections of books that reside on a book self, the Bible has a number of different types or genres of books. There are books of poetry. There are books of sermons. There are letters and the genre called “apocalyptic.” These different types of books require a different set of eyes to read. For instance, if you sit down to read a children’s book (say the Giving Tree) you are going to view this book differently than if were to sit and read a murder mystery. Each genre requires a different set of eyes, and yet we often read the Bible with the same and single set of eyes.

The Bible is many books not one. Photo by  Dmitrij Paskevic  on  Unsplash

The Bible is many books not one. Photo by Dmitrij Paskevic on Unsplash

To put it another way, too often we take the Bible literally when we should be taking it literarily.   

Even though there is a journey and exploration in both types of books, we do not read “Oh The Places You Will God” as a travel guide. Just because the Bible has some moral or ethical guidelines, does not mean that the Bible is to be read as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” We need to take seriously the literarily role of the Bible or we will be able to quote the Bible but not live Biblical lives.

The Bible can be difficult to understand, not because we are moronic but that we often approach it like a “users guide” when it is much more than that. Here is a simple example to consider.

It makes sense to read the story of creation in Genesis first. It is at the beginning of the Bible and it is about the creation of the universe. Sophisticated readers will see that Genesis 1 is a poem and read it as a poem and not as modern science. We approach Genesis 1 with the eyes of poetry and not the eyes of historical fact.

What about a slightly more complicated example?

The stories of God liberating the enslaved people through Moses and company were not written down until the 5th centuries BCE. The Exodus story is written down at the time when the people of God were conquered by the Babylonians and sent into exile. Who cares? It matters because the story of Exodus is set at a time prior to the Babylonian exile but is speaking to the people who are in exile. The Exodus is a story set in the past but is speaking to and about the present.

If you have ever read Science-Fiction you get this. Science-Fiction is set in the future, but is addressing questions and the situation of the present. We do not watch or read Star Wars as what the future really looks like, but rather we use the story of Star Wars to address or raise the current questions.

The Bible is full of beauty, wonder and love, so lets stop taking it literally and consider it literarily.

Passage of Scripture

Christians talk about scripture passages or, in the singular, a passage of scripture. The emphasis is on the phrase is the word scripture. And understandably so. Scripture the first authority (not the only authority) that Christians use to make sense. There is wisdom in the scriptures that often remains hidden to us until we prayerfully engage and wrestle with it. But I do not have to extol the importance of scripture, but rather I wanted to highlight the other word: passage.

Scripture offers us different passages, different ways, different paths to see and understand the world. There is the prophetic passage. The pastoral passage. The priestly passage. There are more passages of scripture than we can list here to be certain. These different passages of scripture guide and lead us. Like other passages in our lives, scripture passages also have many things to see and notice that are just as important (sometimes more so) than the destination the passage takes us to.

Most people who read the Bible tend to journey such that a set of passages are more worn than others. This does not mean the other, less journeyed passages are unimportant, only that through discernment we attempt to find the well worn paths. Jesus preferred the passages of Isaiah and the Psalms over, say passages of Numbers or Nehemiah. We all have passages we walk and make clear for others to journey with us.

Some say that we are to take each section of the Bible with equal weight. I find this almost impossible to do. Even Jesus had his preferred passages. And so, if Jesus is our teacher and he says that we will do things greater than he (John 14:12-14), then is it possible that we too will have preferred passages of scripture?

Trajectory/Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics - Humans Driving Redemption

The fancy word to describe the process we all use to interpret the Bible is called “Hermeneutics”. There are many different hermeneutics, just like there are many different political philosophies. And like politics, hermeneutical processes are in tension with each other and these tensions are what makes theology fun and exciting. It is also what makes theology contentious.

One of the “newer” hermeneutics that I have come in contact with is called “Trajectory” or “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics” (RMH). How it works, as I understand it, is that the Biblical authors have a context and a culture that must be taken into account when interpreting the scriptures. The context allows us to see beyond the specific teaching, and allows us to ask in what direction is the teaching moving the people of God?

Some have found this hermeneutics helpful to address a number of topics. For example, It is argued, most notably in William J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, that there is an overall “trajectory” of liberation when it comes to slavery and women throughout the Bible. For instance, Exodus 21:7-11 says:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master (father), who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 

You may read this and think this sounds awful; however, what Webb and other trajectory thinkers would point us toward is that this scripture is redemptive because this commandment limits who the father can sell his daughter to. The daughter cannot be sold to foreign people and the daughter is given rights that were uncommon in the day. Webb suggests that God is pushing the boundaries of the male dominated world in such a way that women are to be liberated and free.

These signs give a ‘trajectory’ but there is much interpretation needed to arrive at Rio.  Photo by  Deanna Ritchie  on  Unsplash

These signs give a ‘trajectory’ but there is much interpretation needed to arrive at Rio.

Photo by Deanna Ritchie on Unsplash

Webb goes on to show the incremental ways God is pushing and pulling the people toward greater redemption and liberation of women and slaves and children. According to Webb, God does not push or pull the people too far or too fast but that “God brings his people along in ways that were feasible adaptations.” (p. 255).

And this is where this hermeneutic becomes counter to the basic idea that God is the primary mover of redemption.

God pushing for liberation of women in ways that were socially acceptable still permits God to allow for the sin of subjugating women. Yes, this commandment from Exodus may be more freeing than the culture in which it was written, but redefining who you can sell your daughter to still allows you to sell your daughter.

If selling your daughter is a ultimately reveled to be a sin, then why not prohibit the selling of all daughters in Exodus? Why is there a gradual softening of the position by God over the course of scripture?

For the moment, let’s accept that God prefers to have a gradual reveal of what is sinful in ways that are “feasible adaptations’ to culture. What do we do when the trajectory seems to shift? For instance take the trajectory of marriage. Adam and Eve are monogamous, but later scriptures endorse polygamy, but then when we get later into the Bible monogamy seems to take a privileged position. Of course this trajectory is called into question when marriage is no longer a part of the new creation.

Is there is trajectory? Is the Bible waffling on the definition of marriage? Or are these commandments just reflecting what was acceptable in the culture of the time and then given a divine veneer?

If God only moves in ways that are “feasible adaptations”, then we have to ask who is driving the work of redemption? Will God command the redemption of people only when it is “feasible” to achieve? Is God waiting on humans to be willing to change before God commands it?

As a evangelical progressive pastor I believe God has already revealed God’s desire in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The desires are stated by Jesus himself in several locations, none of which are feasible adaptions to culture. To name a few - the liberation of all people (Luke 4:17-21), mercy over purity (Matthew 9:13), supremacy of forgiveness (Luke 23:34), taking up the cross mandate (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27), give up possessions (Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22).

Christianity proclaims that the desire of God is most clear in Jesus Christ, but readers of the entire Bible know that these are not new revelations. Jesus fulfills the law which we have failed to do (Matthew 5:17-20). In doing so Jesus points us back to what is already known to us. Humans have done a good job at justifying why we are slow to live out the desires of God.

If Trajectory/Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics reveals anything, it reveals the same sin we have always done - justifying our delay to make real the desires of God.