My wife and I are in the process of buying a house, and we had the home inspected this week. It turned out that the home inspector was the son of a missionary, and considered going into the ministry until he was drafted, and was, in his words, "uncalled." I'm just guessing from the conversation that he grew up on the conservative end of the church, although as an adult he did attend a United Methodist congregation. But something he said during our time together struck me, although I can't remember what the context was that began it.
He said that one of the troubles in the church is in people "interpreting" the Bible rather than just reading what the Bible has to say. I hear or read this a lot, most especially amongst conservatives; that we can't bring what we want to the Bible that we have to read and see what the Bible says not what we want it to say. In some ways I agree with this, that reading ourselves into the Bible, or forcing the Bible to say things because that's what we want, is indeed a true issue to be aware of.
But the problem is that it is impossible not to bring ourselves to scripture. It is impossible not to have certain lens through which we read scripture. A comment I recently read by Burton Visotsky, a rabbi, gets to the heart of this for me. He said "“We don’t have a lot of choice (in how we approach scripture) – the twentieth-century lens
is the only one we have. I study how the
church fathers and rabbis read this story, but even as I do that, I’m keenly
aware that I’m reading church fathers and rabbis through my twentieth-century
I read scripture with the lens of a twenty-first century over-educated white American liberal heterosexual male who is married with two daughters who didn't grow up in the church. Being cognizant of those things helps me to see things in scripture that I might otherwise miss, but if I am not cognizant of it than I force myself onto the text, because that is all I can bring to scripture, and assume that it is God speaking. If I were single, or female, or uneducated, or not-American, or non-white, or if I had sons rather than daughters, I would read scripture differently. There is simply no way to just read the Bible "as it is." I cannot remove these lenses because they are who I am.
The problem I find though is that so many people are so unaware they even have these lenses that they therefore bring them to scripture without being cognizant of them and then are convinced that they are reading only "what the Bible says" and not what they want it to say. Now I know that I want the Bible to say some things, and not say other things, but because I am aware of that I can struggle and be in dialogue and conflict with scripture, which is what has really been going on for millenia.
I can seek to understand the scriptures original context, but I can never read it as a 1st century rabbi or Christian, because that has never been my worldview and it will never be my worldview. I can only read it as I am, who I am and where I am, and that will invariably impact my interpretation of the text. I cannot ever not interpret. But, it is then that I can truly engage in study of scripture and also truly engage in conversation with others who are different than me and who read scripture differently, which is really everyone.