Weapons-grade interpretation (Bible study #1)

In the 2004 film Saved, Hillary Faye (after misinterpreting some advice from Pastor Skip) snatches the pregnant Mary from the street, pulls her into a van, and attempts a hasty and ill-conceived exorcism on her. Mary struggles free, and Hillary Faye calls after her: “Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you.” Mary turns around and says, “You don’t know the first thing about love.” As Mary walks away, Hillary Faye chucks a Bible at her,  yelling: “I am filled with Christ’s love!” Picking up the recently hurled volume, Mary says, “This is not a weapon, you idiot!”

I think of this scene every time I begin the daunting and often humbling task of biblical interpretation. When I read the Bible, I breathe in the words of ancient men and women who had powerful and life-changing encounters with God, encounters which transformed their lives and altered the way they looked at the world. When I read the Bible, I am reminded that God still encounters people today and that studying the Bible makes me more aware of how God is moving in the world. When I read the Bible, I read how my life must change so that I can resonate more resoundingly with God’s presence.

At least, that’s how it works on the good days. On the bad days, I open up the PDF of the Bible I have on my laptop, search for a keyword, take a sentence completely out of context, and slam it down the throat of whoever is annoying me with an interpretation that is different from mine. On the bad days, I affix a trigger and barrel to my Bible and shoot verse-bullets at people who disagree with me.

Thankfully, my bad days are few and far between. But there are enough Christians in the world that there are always a couple bad days happening, a couple of bible-guns taking aim. And sadly, there are a few very vocal Christians who have built Heavy Water Reactors out of their Bibles and are constantly turning out weapons-grade interpretation.

Here are some warning signs to consider if you suspect WGI in your neighborhood:

  • Someone holds up a closed Bible while telling you what it says.
  • Someone says, “The Bible says…” and then strings together single verses from four different books.
  • Someone tells you that you should hate a particular group of people based on Scripture.
  • Someone says that if you don’t agree with his or her interpretation you are going to hell.

The vocal proponents of weapons-grade interpretation abuse the Bible for their own ends. Their agendas lead to irresponsible and destructive readings of the Bible, readings which prove rather than inform. The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. Let me say that again: The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. This leads to a closed book, closed minds, and closed hearts.

But biblical study should expand our hearts, not constrict them. It should open our minds to the wonders of God, not shut them in endless loops of refrigerator magnet theology. Good Bible study begins with a willingness to learn something new and enough humility to be surprised. Responsible Bible study doesn’t seek ammunition for attack, but nutrition for growth.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to post about the mechanics of biblical interpretation so as to foster responsible study for myself and others. I will ask questions such as these: How do we choose what piece of the Bible we are going to study? What should we be aware of when we read the Bible in English? What is the literary content of the passage? How does the passage function in its historical and societal contexts? How has the history of interpretation of the passage colored our understanding of it?

Tackling these questions is a step toward dismantling biblical Heavy Water Reactors. Weapons-grade interpretation damages our relationships with God and keeps people from seeking such relationships. I pray that the sad, unconscionable tradition of using the Bible as a weapon ceases so that the Good News of Jesus Christ can ring out undistorted.

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