Friday, February 07, 2014

Holding the Bible Lightly

How we interpret our sacred Scriptures matters quite a lot. I served a congregation in Wisconsin for six years that owned two lovely and historic church buildings. The Norwegian Lutherans had split in the mid-1890s over what was at the time a huge issue—single vs. double predestination. As a result of the split, two beautiful rural churches were built two hundred yards apart from each other on adjacent sides of the cemetery. 

Prior to the predestination controversy, Norwegian Lutherans had been split over whether or not the Bible condoned slavery. One group believed since it is not expressly condemned, it is condoned. Another group believed the overall arc of Scripture indicated condemnation of slavery. Each group read the same Scriptures, but in different ways, and came to fundamentally different conclusions based on exactly the same text.

At the root of both of these controversies were differing interpretive strategies. One approach assumes that the text, and our interpretation of the text, are essentially the same thing. The other approach cultivates a greater awareness that there might actually be a much wider chasm between the text and our interpretation of the text.

Simmering underneath almost all controversies—whether they are religious or political ones—are differences in how we interpret, and these two ways of interpreting—I am painting with a somewhat broad brush here—often become the sides of our bipartisan fallings out.

The fancy word for all of this is hermeneutics, the science of interpretive studies. Hermeneutics recognizes that how we interpret matters. Even more importantly, it recognizes that our lack of awareness of differing approaches to interpretation underlines and reinforces many of our cultural and religious differences.

I like to think there is a rather simple way to illustrate the two ways of holding Scripture. The first way is to grip the text tightly. In this approach, the interpreter believes they understand and grasp the text well. How they interpret it is exactly what the text means. This group of readers tends to say things like, “You know as well as I do that the Bible says…” or “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” 

The other way to hold Scripture is to hold it lightly. In this approach, the interpreter seeks an understanding of the text, but honors the fact that there are many stages of interpretation between what the text originally says and what the interpreter comes to understand as the meaning of the text. At the very least, with most texts, there are at least these stages—the author, the text, the translation of the text, the reading of the text, the reader, and the reader’s ultimate application of the text as it relates to life in the world. 

Those are a lot of stages, and because the process is so much more complicated than is often recognized, the interpreter who holds Scripture lightly opts to submit to the truth they hope they are discovering in the text without assuming that they have come to the final and settled single and best interpretation. To hold a text lightly is to keep our eyes open to this complex and beautiful interpretive process.

Here is an example. This winter I have been teaching a class on the Psalms. These beautiful songs and prayers can and have been read any number of ways. One of my personal favorite approaches is to read the psalms as if we are joining Christ in his prayer. There is some indication this is an appropriate Christian reading of the psalms, because Christ himself often quotes the psalms (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me—Psalm 22), and the New Testament quotes the psalms regularly as well.

As a Christian reader of the psalms, it makes quite a lot of sense to read the psalms in this way. In fact, it aids praying passages that seem inappropriate to pray otherwise. Joining Christ in Christ’s prayer gives us confidence, and brings to greater recognition the community of prayer we join whenever we pray them.

However, I know the Psalms are Scripture we share with other faiths. Reading the Psalms with communities of faith other than my own, I need a different set of tools, another way of reading the psalms, that still makes sense as shared song to God. I can keep my Christological reading of the Scripture for my own devotion and prayer. I can even share this Christological reading of the psalms with my neighbors of other faiths. But I can only do so lightly, gently, palm up and hand open, entrusting my own way of reading Scripture to the wider community of readers of the text. 

When I read the Bible in this way, I honestly believe it makes my reading of Christian Scripture more attractive. I try to bring this same hermeneutic to bear in every conversation I have with others about Scripture. When we look at a text together, if you say to me, “The Bible obviously says… (insert here any number of hot button topics we currently argue about),” I am going to say, “Let’s see if it really says that. What’s the wider context? What kinds of cultural assumptions do we bring to the text? Is this a loving interpretation of the text, even if you think it is the ‘right’ interpretation of the text?”

Think about the different ways you have seen people present something of beauty to you. When they grasp it, Gollum-like, calling it precious and clasping it as their own, do you find it desirable? Do you really think people love and trust the things they squeeze and grasp tightly?

Or if they bring something of beauty to you, gently and lovingly, like a newly discovered kitten, does another and better string play on your heart? Can you see their care of that beautiful thing, their life committed to it, in their gentle open hands?

I hold the Scriptures lightly for the same reason I hold the hands of my family members lightly. Because I love them.


Published February 8th in the Northwest Arkansas Times.


  1. This is a nice piece, particularly as it applies to how we approach interpersonal, ecumenical, or interfaith discussions of the Bible. But I'd challenge you to nuance this a little, and exactly at the point of your final sentence. One does not alway hold lightly the hands of loved ones. When my children were little and we were out walking the streets of Hyde Park or St. Petersburg, I held their hands firmly. (I'm sure you've had the experience of holding the hand of a young child who tripped and ended up hanging from your arm because you did not let her/him fall.) I have also held my love ones' hands firmly in moments of crisis and fear. And my wife did a number on my hand when she was in labor. Does not the Christian cling tightly to the (biblical) promises of the Gospel, especially in times of crisis, fear, doubt, etc.? (This of course is not the same as holding tightly to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3, for instance, and it opens another whole discussion on the nature of the Bible, what it is and what it is for from the Lutheran perspective.)

    1. I think any metaphor breaks down at some point, this one included. I guess I don't think the Bible needs protection in the same way small children need our protection. I do like the idea that we cling tightly to it because we want to hold on to the gospel, although another image might be that the gospel holds us rather than us holding the gospel.

  2. Very nice. And let me add another perspective that I've found very helpful in thinking about different ways we approach Scripture.

    Both the hold lightly and hold tightly approaches tend to focus on the details in the text (focusing on the beauty of the diamonds in the mountain rather than the beauty of the mountain) while placing a high value on making sure the details don't conflict with each other. The focus on the details can trigger a lot of anxiety if the whole seems like a grand equation where any change - like a plus to a minus or a decimal point in the wrong place - threatens the value of the whole thing by giving you the "wrong answer." (Hold Lightly folks are in a better place to manage that anxiety through hermeneutical humility.)

    As an alternative, I've found it helpful to suggest that we can approach Scripture like a mosaic portrait. As a mosaic, the details certainly are essential to the overall image you see, but the image is hugely resilient to "mistakes" in the details. And as a portrait, it's main effect is to introduce us to a person and give us a sense of their character in their facial expression and body language.

    Scripture as portrait of the person of God, revealing God's loving gaze and open arms. That's what I see. There surely are details that don't easily harmonize with that, but regardless of how the details are regarded, the image remains clear.

  3. I really appreciate your explanation, Clint. I think that many evil things like enslaving African Americans and burning "witches" at the stake, have been justified because the Bible says it's okay.