Sunday, February 14, 2016

Liberals and Biblical Interpretation

How do liberal Christians interpret the Bible? We begin with an understanding that the Bible is not a single book. This is more critical to scriptural interpretation than it might appear. The Bible is a more like a library. Like a library, it has many kinds of books on its shelves. While you won’t find science books there, you will find history books such Samuel and Kings. You’ll also find myths such as in Genesis.

Readers will find memoirs like the Gospels and letters from Paul. There are the poems of the Psalms, the morality sayings of Proverbs, and the sermons of the book of the Hebrews.

Just like you wouldn’t read the front-page of the newspaper the same way you’d read the comic page, readers need to differentiate between the various genres of the Bible. Each genre must be approached differently when seeking an accurate interpretation.

Reader should cast off any need for factual fundamentalism. As theologian Marcus Borg often pointed out, “truth and factuality” are not the same. For centuries, Christians understood that there is more truth in myth than in what passes for history.

For example, reading the myth of the Garden of Eden as “fact” leads to unfortunate misinterpretations. Such readings support misogynist views of scripture and a theology many progressive Christians reject, “original sin.” Liberal Christians find this story on the “myth” shelf of the library where it tells us about a God with great hope for all of creation who provides us everything we need to achieve God’s dream. The myth explains free will and the responsibility we have to make choices that lead to God.

We spend a great deal of time reading the four memoirs; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John where we learn to apply Jesus’s teachings in our search for God’s truth. This is also where we learn that at the core of Jesus’s teaching is the admonition to avoid strict interpretation of scripture.

When he healed on the Sabbath, dined with tax collectors, or socialized with prostitutes, those who interpreted scripture strictly came unhinged. They were able to point to specific verses in their Bible to prove their point.

In contrast, Jesus taught the greatest commandments are to love God and one another, adding, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus made the point with his “you’ve heard it said” list in Matthew 5. “You’ve heard it said” for example, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, we can’t follow the great commandments by interpreting scripture in a way that prevents us from loving God and one another.

As we read the Gospel memoirs, we encounter a storyteller. Jesus taught through parable and was a master of metaphor, allegory, and imagery. As children, “Winnie the Pooh” prepared us to interpret Jesus’s stories.

Through Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh we witnessed the centrality of love to all relationships. “Love is taking a few steps backward, maybe even more,” said Winnie, “to give way to the happiness of the person you love.” That’s the “bear” Gospel. A.A. Milne’s characters taught us our earliest lessons about metaphor, allegory, and imagery. We didn’t have to suspend our beliefs and argue about whether bears and tigers and kangaroos can actually talk in order to learn the lessons Milne taught.

Jesus the Jewish Rabbi said, “I am the way.” He wasn’t saying Christianity, a religion that didn’t exist at the time, is the exclusive path to God. Jesus used metaphor to teach that by following his path, we’ll find ourselves closer to God.

Finally, don’t leave it to your preacher to interpret the Bible for you. Don’t limit your scriptural study to people of a like mind. Study in a diverse community with people of different perspectives. You’ll get closer to a helpful interpretation.

And please don’t tell me “Winnie the Pooh” was not Divinely inspired.

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