The risk and responsibility of interpretation
Meghan Larissa Good, author
Wrapping up a three-day retreat focused on the biblical prophets, I felt a light tug on my sleeve. I turned to find a woman in her 80s, a delicate covering pinned over her snow-white hair. “I wasn’t going to come to the retreat this year,” she began. “I heard you were speaking on Hosea, and I didn’t think I could stand to hear all that violence.”
Seated at a table with seasoned lay leaders, I inquired what spiritual practices were currently forming their faith. One by one they confessed, with a mixture of shame and defiance, that they’d given up reading the Bible years ago. Oh, they still believed in the Bible’s authority, they quickly reassured me. They just didn’t think they were getting anything out of reading it.
Sunk deep into the cushions of an ancient youth-room sofa, I asked a group of church-going teens to each name their greatest question about Christian faith. After brief conversation, they agreed their central questions were all the same: where did the Bible come from, and why on earth should they care what it says?
A 2015 report by the Barna Group classifies “Bible readers” as those who open a Bible a minimum of three to four times a year. This turns out to include just 52 percent of U.S. adults. According to a study recently reported by Christianity Today, one in five active church attendees never reads the Bible at all.
Declining rates of biblical literacy among Americans have been documented for decades, but less obvious are all the factors contributing to this precipitous decline. Less children being raised in church-going households means that an increasing number reach adulthood without any exposure to the Bible. Nearly every week brings me in contact with post-Christian skeptics who believe that science has unmasked the Bible as a work of motivated fiction. Young adults regularly stumble into my church feeling burned by established religion, wondering if they can ditch the book with its outdated laws and genocides and just follow Jesus without it.
But the stories I hear the most often belong to Christians who’ve sat in the pews every Sunday for 20, 40, 60 years but somewhere along the way quietly stopped reading. There was no crisis that drove them away from the Bible. It was just too strange, too foreign, too perplexing. Perhaps they’d encountered some place of tension between the text and lived experience, and the discomfort of unresolved questions gradually drove them to avoidance. Perhaps they thought they knew the basic rules, the commandments that mattered, and the rest just didn’t feel that urgent. They were busy, or bored, and drifted away without noticing any difference.
Five hundred years ago, a great Reformation changed the landscape of the church. This Reformation represented in many ways a rediscovery of Scripture. A community of faith that had increasingly vested authority in a few religious elites rediscovered the power of the living word to speak for itself.
But if there’s one thing the last five centuries of church history have made evident, it’s that while the Bible speaks for itself, it does not interpret itself. It is communities and individuals, grounded in the Spirit (or not), who listen and discern how complex threads weave together to form a full design, how the God-breathed call comes home to the ground of diverse contexts. It’s possible to read well, and it’s possible to read poorly—both with significant consequences. There is no way to avoid the risk and responsibility of interpretation.
Yet even more dangerous is not to read at all. This course, chosen by default by an increasingly large swath of the church, results in walking blind. It risks exalting a Jesus who is little more than a projection of our personal philosophies or desires. It risks forming a faith that reflects little more than the zeitgeist of our age or the whims of shifting ideological allegiances. It risks following a voice that is little more than an echo of our own.
It’s my belief that the church stands on the brink of another reformation, both like and unlike the one that came before. At the center lies an ancient book and an all-important question: where exactly does Christian authority lie, and how does it operate?
My hope is that we will find, as our earliest forebears did, that Christian authority is neither the property of a pope in his palace nor of an individual alone in her bedroom, but rather emerges in a Spirit-filled community gathered around the inspired story of a God who stepped into history and has never left it. This, in the end, is why I wrote The Bible Unwrapped. I wanted to aid the church in rediscovering the power of living voice of Scripture but even more in rediscovering the One toward whom it points and by whose revelation every page is rightly interpreted—Jesus Christ, the Word who became flesh and has not stopped speaking since.
May God give us the ears to hear, and even more, the courage to obey.
1. State of the Bible 2015 Report (New York: American Bible Society, 2015), 13, accessed December 6, 2015, http://www.americanbible.org/uploads/content/State_of_the_Bible_2015_report.pdf.
2. Ed Stetzer, “The Epidemic of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Churches,” The Exchange (blog), Christianity Today, July 6, 2015, accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/july/epidemic-of-bible-illiteracy-in-our-churches.html.