interpretation

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.

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.

Vanilla Ketchup And Understanding the Bible

In 1999 a little study was conducted in Germany using ketchup. The Germans who were formula fed as an infant, preferred ketchup that was scented with vanilla than the Germans who were breast fed as infants. Those who preferred the vanilla scented ketchup did not make the connection that how they were fed as infants influenced their later in life ketchup preference later in life. (Citation). It is a silly little example of something that we all know - what foods you like and dislike are influenced by your experiences. 

We accept this about our tastes in food as well as of other things that are even more silly. For instance, expecting parents will not give their baby the same name of someone they know and think is a jerk. There was no way our boys were going to be named Ryan or Eric for this exact reason. We all know that there is nothing wrong with those names but our experiences, even irrationally, affect our decisions. 

The same is true for understanding the Bible. We want to think that we can objectively read and understand the Bible. We want to think that we "just looking at the scriptures" when we try to understand them. We want to think that we can read the Bible in isolation of our experiences. Additionally, we tend to think that others are more prone to allow experiences/culture to influence their interpretation of the Bible than we are. 

I think vanilla scented ketchup sounds disgusting, I am not sure that I want to call it real ketchup.  However, many others believe ketchup without vanilla scent is incomplete ketchup. Both sides are unaware of how their infant diet affects their understanding of orthodox ketchup.

Maybe our understanding of what is orthodox is less influenced by a rational and objective set of decisions, and more about experiences we never would imagine would matter.

Dysfluency: A case for making the Bible difficult to understand

There is a lot of work these days to try to make things easier to understand. Preachers are not immune to this trend. Pastors are encouraged to make the Bible easy for people to understand. Making the Gospel message more accessible to more people is a worthy effort. However, I wonder if in our efforts to make things easy to understand could unintentionally make them easy to forget? 

When I was in college, my university gave laptops to all incoming students. In part this effort was to make note-taking easier. Years later, studies have shown that taking notes by hand rather than typing them is better if you want to retain the information. Likewise, using slightly difficult to read fonts promote better recall. Sometimes when things are easier to do, they are easier to forget. 

There is a push in some areas of the world to promote something called Dysfluency. This is the process of making something slightly difficult in order to promote greater recall, retention and integration. (Clarification: dysfluency is not the same as disfluency).

I wonder what it would look like for us preachers to embrace dysfluency when it comes to preaching and teaching the scriptures.