Telling our cultural stories is one thing; interpreting them is quite another. In the highly acclaimed ‘12 Rules for Life’ by Jordan Peterson, in the chapter (or ‘Rule 5’) entitled ‘Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them’ (ahem – note to self), Peterson offers a compelling hermeneutic for the classic Fairy Tale
Christians hold a very high regard for the notion of ‘The Word of God’ and rightly so. But it does seem to me at least, that we confuse categories and blur boundaries.
There are three Words:
- The Word that is Scripture
- The Word that is Christ
- The Word that is Preaching
Evangelicals (and I count myself among them – the UK ones at least) in particular are especially bound to such a high view of Scripture that they call it ‘inerrant’ and a ‘final authority.’ I think this often leads to a classic confusion of the written Word usurping the enfleshed Word, Christ. It calls for great hermeneutical care to allow the three Words to be what they are in themselves, independent yet inter-related in very complex and subtle ways.
In yet another excellent sermon published in ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’ (ed. Jason Goroncy), P. T. Forsyth skillfully exposes, by force of logic, the poverty of ignorance in understanding Christian things in general, and specifically in this section of the sermon, Creeds in particular. He calls these contemporary interpreters of Christian things people of “narrow mind” and “narrow soul”.
By contrast, the Christian teacher, the “preacher-scholar” is an “exegete of the eternal” and that includes history, culture and so on, but especially the scriptures and the creeds. So many people, many of them Christians, are so quick to dismiss things they don’t understand, that (quoting Ernest Renan) he writes, “We begin examining before we have appropriated enough to fit us to examine. Very few people have acquired the right to disbelieve in Christianity.”
People dismiss great historic institutions like the creeds out of ignorance and even novelty for things that are new (as is supposed). But, argues Forsyth, “Our creeds are at once old and new. It is not abolition the need but reinterpretation. Many people don’t bother to understand, arguing instead for such deceptively slippery concepts as the “simple directness” of plain speaking, as though it were the only “mode of spiritual expression.” He writes, “Plainness of speech is not worth the price if it costs squatness of thought and baldness of vision.”
J. John interviewing the brilliant Tom Wright, asks a question from the audience (the Youtube video can be viewed at the end of the post):
[Warning: Long sentence alert]!
“How do you understand the specific scriptures concerning God’s promises to the Jewish people today and also concerning the actual land of Israel?”
In many places within the Bible, names are highly significant, and aid interpretation of the text. I’m about to start a mini preaching series on Ruth as part of a wider preaching series, and Ruth is a book I’ve never preached on before, mainly because it is the chick-flick book of the Bible…..girl-meets-boy sort of thing….or so I thought!
So yes I repent of that, and acknowledge that whilst it is that, it is also so much more! In my early study investigations I came accross my old Ruth notes from when I studied it on the YWAM School of Biblical Studies. In these notes I found a scrap of paper which told the story of Ruth using the meaning of the names of the characters involved.
Here’s a list of the character names and the meanings, including, not insignificantly, Bethlehem:
Bethlehem (= house of bread)
Elimelech (= my God is king)
Naomi (= delight, pleasurable)
Mahlon (= sickness, sterility)
Kilion (= consumption)
Orpha (= neck, back of the neck)
Ruth (= friend)
Mara (= bitter)
Boaz (= in him is strength)
Nameless man (the one who refused to redeem Ruth and give her his name for fear of corrupting his family property is himself unnamed in the book)
So taking these names and their meaning, here is the beginning of the story of Ruth rarely heard:
“There was famine in the House of Bread. The man whose king was God went with his wife, Delight, to live in a foreign land.
While there, the couple’s two sons, Sickness and Consumption, married Moabites. The man My God is King and his two sons, Sickness and Consumption, died, leaving Delight with two widowed daughters-in-law, Back of the Neck and Friend, and no posterity.
After hearing that the drought had ended in the House of Bread, Delight determined to return home.
Her daughters-in-law asked to return with her, but after some discussion, Back of the Neck turned back to her ancestral home. Only Friend stayed with Delight. Together the two returned empty and alone to the House of Bread.
Delight was so devastated by her recent circumstances that she requested her old friends to change her name to Bitter….”
The nameless man who refused to redeem Ruth and so perpetuate her name, not only remains nameless in all of history, but his stinginess contributed to his own name not being perpetuated, an ironic twist of fate to the miserly and ungenerous!
The quote is by Guerric of Igny, Liturgical sermons, vol. 2, translated by ‘Monks of Mount Saint Bernard, CF 32, 1971, page 81.
“What I have placed before you brethren, is like an egg or a nut; break the shell and you will find the food. Beneath the image of Joseph you will find the Paschal Lamb, Jesus, the one for whom you yearn. The great depth at which he is hidden and the diligence necessary in seeking him and the difficulty you will have in finding him will only make him sweeter to your taste. . . . And so here is the explanation in a nutshell: If we think with faith and reverence about the meaning of his name (Gen 30:24 : Joseph=”May He Add”; sounds like Heb. ”He has taken away” – my comment). . . . That after he had been sold by his own he redeemed his own from death, that he was humbled even to imprisonment, then elevated to a throne, and was rewarded for his work by being given a new name among the nations (Gen 41:45) – ‘The Saviour of the World’ – if we think about all these things reverently and faithfully, we shall surely recognize how truly it was said by the Lord (Hos 12:10), “Through the prophets, I gave parables.”
Anyone who opens up their Bible becomes an interpreter. The task of an interpreter is to correctly interpret, to separate the Word for all time over and against that which is merely cultural or temporary.
For example, on Saturday I had a rare steak and it oozed with blood, contrary to Acts 15:29. I have also never had my feet washed in church (John 13:14). Both of these are scriptural New Testament commands, so the question becomes, as we interpret the text – how am I interpreting this text over and against another text?
Below is a list put together from a missionary who was (is?) based in Ethiopia, and so obviously had to contend with cross-cultural interpretation as well as basic biblical hermeneutics. The point of the list is to raise the question of each text: what is meant to be temporary and what is meant to be timeless? It would be a great exercise to use in any Bible study with adults and I think, especially teenagers who are learning to read Scripture well, and help to prevent the classic line we often hear, “But the Bible says….!”
I came across the list when I worked with the mission agency YWAM, and we used it on the School of Biblical Studies. Enjoy!