Scripture is a gift. This has been affirmed by countless people in the Judeo-Christian tradition down through the ages. Not only affirmed, but demonstrated in the way that its words have been revered, preserved, and followed. But is is a very strange gift, full of unfamiliar modes of communication and stories that vacillate between the weird and the confusing and the often brutally violent. It is a gift that many in the twenty-first century world increasingly have little interest in accepting, both inside and outside of the church.
I spent three days this week at a theological studies conference near Calgary where we were looking at one of the most difficult books in all of Scripture, the book of Joshua. We were led by Canadian Mennonite University professor Gordon Matties to consider how this violent book full of divinely sanctioned slaughter and land appropriation could possibly be read in redeeming and life-giving ways.
One metaphor stood out to me throughout our time looking at Joshua and the problem of how to live with the nasty parts of the biblical narrative. The metaphor was transposition. Matties reminded us of how even within Scripture we constantly see writers reinterpreting and representing their own Scriptures in new ways as the story progresses, as God’s character and purposes become increasingly clear. Israel’s prophets and poets are continually working with, adjusting, expanding upon themes from the Deuteronomistic history. And, of course, both Jesus and the apostle Paul radically reinterpret the Jewish Scriptures and set them off on a trajectory that would have been unimaginable in earlier parts of the story.
The unfolding biblical narrative is one of constantly transposing the story of God into a new key, and the church has been doing this for two thousand years, as we seek to understand what faithfulness to the story of Jesus means in our own time and place. Scripture is not static and was never meant to be so. It is, to borrow Rene Girard’s term (and to pile on the metaphors), a “text in travail,” a text that is always giving birth to something new. And it is the interpreter’s task to participate in this birthing process.
I like this metaphor of transposition. I think it offers very helpful ways of understanding the nature of Scripture and of the task of interpretation. But it seems to me that, as with all metaphor, it has its limits. If the central task of interpretation is to transpose these very old songs that are sung in very strange keys into new keys for our time, the danger is that Scripture can become something like a reference manual for providing us with resources/tools for the songs that we want to sing.
To use an antiquated and unpopular term, we can lose any sense that Scripture has authority over its readers. We can easily come to ignore the possibility that the “song” of Scripture stands over us and, at times, steers us toward singing songs that we wouldn’t necessarily choose or that we don’t prefer. The metaphor of transposition can put the interpreter in the position of kind of final authority about what Scripture is and how it will be used. This happens all the time, of course. Indeed it is probably always operating to varying degrees at different times. All of us, whether our leanings are more liberal or conservative, tend to see what we want to see in Scripture.
So, yes, we are transposers of Scripture, this is a metaphor that is good and necessary, but I wonder how we might preserve the necessary conviction that the story or song of Jesus somehow exerts downward influence upon us as interpreters. We’re not just free to use it to sing whatever song we want.
The longer I live this life of faith, rooted as it is in this strange gift of Scripture, I find that increasingly what I crave is something to stand over my own preferences. I don’t crave this consistently or admirably or in ways worthy of emulation, but I think that in my more perceptive moments, I understand my need for this. I know full well the dark corners of my own heart and mind and my own preferences, my own proclivities, my own sins. And I understand that left to myself, I will sing a very bad song. Indeed, I may even prefer bad songs. Or at least songs that are not as good as they could or should be. I will, more likely than not, transpose the song of Scripture into a selfish and destructive or a careless and apathetic key.
Authority isn’t popular, I know, nor is the idea that there are normative demands that are imposed upon us from outside. We are repeatedly exhorted, from all angles, to find meaning for ourselves, to discover what works for us, to be true to ourselves, etc. But as I get older, I am less interested in my own story and song, and the way that it would go if left unattended. I am more interested in something that could pull my song in a direction, something that could judge it, something that could inspire and compel it, something that could expose and redeem it.
Perhaps all of this is simply a way of making the unremarkable point that I can be pretty unmusical when it comes to the song God wants to sing through Scripture. I don’t know the score. I cannot be trusted—at least not entirely or exclusively—with the task of transposition. Yes, I know, this is the point at which the “community hermeneutic” usually enters the fray. We are limited, fallen, self-interested, interpreted, yes, and that’s why we need multiple voices to help us discern, and the Spirit to guide us. I agree. But I’ve been in enough “discernment processes” to know that rhetoric tends to outrun reality when it comes to the “community hermeneutic.” Sometimes, by the grace of God, something like discernment can happen when multiple voices are consulted. But sometimes the sin and stupidity are just compounded and magnified.
This is starting to sound pretty bleak and hopeless, I know. Almost as if interpreting and living with Scripture is a hopeless task. It can certainly seem like this, at times, but I don’t think this is where we are left, and another metaphor that Gordon Matties brought up helps me to see why.
In a discussion about how divine inspiration and human authorship work together in the production of this library of texts that we call Scripture, Matties brought up the metaphor of adoption. Just as God adopts his people for the purposes of redemption, so God in a sense adopts Scripture. God takes the words and the writings of culturally embedded people who are shaped and determined by their culture and their own self-interest in ways that they may be almost completely unaware of, and adopts them, redeems them, and presses them into the service of his larger project.
I like this image very much. And if this is how God interacts with the composition of the texts that compose this strange gift of Scripture, then perhaps the same could be said of our attempts to interpret them all these years later. Perhaps God takes all of our conflicted, self-interested, culturally embedded, error-strewn interpretations and adopts them into his larger story. If God can advance the story of the inbreaking of his kingdom of peace by incorporating stories of brutal violence and ethnic hatred, he can surely use our attempts to read these faithfully and obediently as we seek to sing his song well.
This is such an important topic for any serious seeker(at least it should be). My views on the authority and inspiration of “scripture”, as Christianity presents it, have drastically changed over the past few years. I don’t doubt that the writers of the letters and short stories comprising the “New Testament” felt inspired of God, there are many times that I too have felt the inspiration of God both while writing and/or speaking, so I know that it happens and I know how flawed the process can be. In this same manor, through objective research we can discover for ourselves the many mistakes made,not only by the original authors, but by the scribes who copied them as well (not to mention their personal “additions” to the text). So it is in this light that I handle the “Word of God”. The closer I am to God the less I feel the need to interpret any of it. A living experience of God transcends the need for it.
And yet, there are many who have said similar things about what the voice of God has said to them apart from Scripture that I would cringe to accept. Surely we need something to stand over our (flawed) experiences of God as well, don’t we?
Ryan, thanks for this thoughtful and evocative reflection on and from your engagement with scripture as authoritative. Many who speak as Mike has of “the many mistakes made,not only by the original authors, but by the scribes who copied them as well (not to mention their personal “additions” to the text” straightforwardly dismiss it as irrelevant and meaningless for their lives, others effectively set it aside as less important than and not as helpful as their own “light” from “God.” It does seem that many want only to experience our inspired textual tradition as a spring board from which their spiritual imaginations can fly into new conceptual realms which the Apostles and authors of the New Testament would find not only incredible but abhorrent. Our task as transposers and interpreters of scripture is to faithfully reflect God’s purposes and will embodied in the texts rather than transcend the need to do so.
Yes, the “spring board” metaphor certainly is a good one for how we often approach Scripture. And it’s not necessarily a bad one. But, as you say, somehow we need to ensure that we are springing in directions that are congruous with the purposes of God.
” somehow we need to ensure that we are springing in directions that are congruous with the purposes of God.”
Isn’t life itself teaching you that you are not capable of knowing God’s purposes.
Not all of them, of course, but some, certainly… And I have enough trouble acting in accordance with the purposes that I think I do know.
“Our task as transposers and interpreters of scripture is to faithfully reflect God’s purposes and will embodied in the texts….”. ..That’s all very Noble and ambitious, but approaching the scriptures with such an agenda sounds very fundamentalist evangelical to me, and runs the risk of falling into the trap of “Confirmation Bias” which is OK *if that’s where your at now. I’m here to testify of a road less travelled, where the Holy Spirit within becomes both the Guide,Teacher and Interpreter. There is a proper time for memorizing and learning the Holy scripture by rote, but then there comes a time that we can lay down the Book *for the most part_ and allow the Holy Spirit to “quicken” the word through Life experiences and revelation Knowledge, if we fail to allow this process to unfold in this way then we will stagnate spiritually and become stuck in the rudiments of the Faith.
The way things sound can be misleading; I can assure you that I’m not a rote learner. My experience has been that those who mostly “lay down the Book” and are inclined to think they are receiving “revelation Knowledge” are more likely to get stuck in the rudiments of their own newly conceived “Faith” than be growing in knowing the true “Guide,Teacher and Interpreter,” the Holy Spirit who made the scriptures our guide on the way to the one teacher we most need to know, Jesus the Messiah, our Lord and Savior. If that sounds too evangelical or even fundamentalist it may not be because I am one.
..I would like to take this opportunity to call for calm and restraint for all present 🙂
….and how do we literally “know” the Christ? …It is through the holy writ that we can Learn *OF* Christ, but that’s not “knowing” him in any sense of the meaning, think about it, objectively.
The indwelling Holy Spirit is the only vehicle through which Christ/God manifest’s to us and makes himself “known”. If we know Jesus, it’s only because the Spirit of God has chosen to reveal him to us and not because of something we’ve read. It’s about relationship.
” And this is life eternal, that they might KNOW thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” John 17:3.
“And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” Matt 16:17
I do my subjective best to be objective in things theological. Caaaalm and restrained here; just striving for clarity of thought in writing for all present. 8>)
For me it was undoubtedly a mixture of reading the Bible and a direct experience of God in Christ, presumably all through the Holy Spirit, that I began my path toward knowing God. My own conversion-commitment experience included a waking dream revelation that pointed me to biblical scripture as the foremost source for understanding who God is.
From your last comment, Mike, I’d think it pretty clear that for you it isn’t a matter of an either/or since you quote the scriptures so directly to make your point about knowing God as over against reading about him. So, if you are striving to make a point that scripture makes: Well Done!
I honor your experience, RW. I too was a fundamentalist evangelical, so I know exactly where your coming from theologically speaking. I hope you continue to follow Ryan’s blog and I hope you will comment more often.
I already said I wasn’t one of those, but maybe you missed it; so I’m thinking you don’t know where I’m coming from experience wise or theologically. I may be something like an evangelical but since they would never have agreed I was one of them I’m pretty sure I’ve never been and am not now a fundy. Next time I’ll just plead the Fifth to every implied question and just move on.
I am not a theologian, just a 48 year old woman who came to see the truth in the Bible while going to church with my fiancee, and trying to follow that truth in my days since, through my 24 year marriage to that fiancee and raising two children, trying to teach them to do the same, trying to be peace and salt and light. As I journey my fourth time through the Bible now it is still as new, still as alive, still teaching me and guiding me and comforting me, confounding and challenging and changing me. I feel God using it to speak certain truths to my life. I simply read it now. I trust myself to understand it, though seperately I obviously read articles on what other people think, and the history behind the culture and languge interpretation. But while I read I simply read and simply just am a woman with her Lord.
Sounds like an admirable approach to Scripture, Jennifer, and one worthy of emulation.
The only thing I would disagree with in your comment above are the first five words 🙂 .
Mike, you sound like you have a sacramental heart. 🙂 If not already, you may find comfort in the Roman Catholic faith. I like what you say here about transcendence. I too believe that Holy Scripture is a means to a relational end and not an end in of itself. ( If I surmise your position correctly. ) His peace be with you always. 🙂
Thank you, Paul.
It’s grievous to me that so many followers (and even seekers) of Jesus are not being taught of the deeper aspects and mysteries of authentic relationship available to all who desire a more sustaining, intimate and fulfilling encounter with God.
I have on many occasions experienced unspeakable solace and renewal among the Roman Catholic monks at Gethsemani Abbey while on retreat there, and although I may never officially become a Catholic(because of doctrinal differences) I have the utmost respect for their reverence of God and sincerity in devotional practices. I would welcome the privilege to partake of the Holy Eucharist, but currently under cannon law, that’s not possible for a Protestant.
Gethsemani Abbey…wow….for some a “mecca” within the faith. 🙂 Thomas Merton’s, “Seeds Of Contemplation” was an important catalyst for me, suggesting as it does that, “unspeakable solace” of a more intimate encounter with Christ.
Thanks for the reminder. 🙂
Yes, I can be there in little over an hours drive. 🙂 🙂
I’ve had some amazing personal experiences while staying there. What’s Interesting I think is that if you didn’t know beforehand you might never even realize that this is a “Catholic” institution, You are welcomed solely as a spiritual seeker, there is no attempt whatsoever to proselytize in any way.
The best evangelizing is a holy presence. 🙂
..so well put, man