Bible “Ignorance” as Interpretation

As a native Nebraskan, I was a bit surprised to see this headline in the Lincoln newspaper: “Minister’s Lecture to Examine How Ignorance of Scripture Hurts America.” I’m naturally interested in any story which connects ignorance with pain. I soon discovered the minister wasn’t talking about the ignorance of not knowing at all (which is ignorance) but the ignorance of not knowing his way (which is interpretation).

The story perfectly illustrates how “my right interpretation” trumps “your wrong interpretation” by claiming my interpretation is not really an interpretation whereas your interpretation is “ignorant.” I’m not sure who is more ignorant here, the reporter or the minister:

The Bible is one of the most beloved books in America. Yet it is also one of the most misused, misinterpreted and misunderstood books in this country, according to the Rev. Jim Keck. And it is this dichotomy — a nation so devoted to Scripture and yet so ignorant of what the Bible truly says — that is the basis for Keck’s lecture, “The Bible in America.”

Keck, who holds a doctorate in ministry, said this complete devotion and ignorance of Scripture has long been a concern, but perhaps no more than today when churches and politicians use dueling interpretations of the Bible to vilify, justify and demonize those who hold other beliefs and values. Christian ignorance of its most revered book has left America in a divisive, dangerous and very unChristian-like place, Keck said.

“It’s an interesting disparity — we have this huge affective emotional embrace of Scripture and yet we are fairly ignorant biblically,” Keck said. That ignorance becomes dangerous as churches declare battle lines over the role — and words — of Scripture, he said.

It was not always this way. “Early colonial society was Scripture saturated,” Keck said. People read the Bible at home. Parents read the Bible to their children. Teachers taught it in the classroom. Bible stories were a central part of school primers, the McGuffey Reader and the Noah Webster spellers, Keck said. “People were so deeply immersed in Scripture and Bible knowledge that their view of the world through Scripture was central,” Keck said. “Learning the Bible was a moral underpinning for society.”

The 1880s brought the Bible wars. Bible education was removed from public schools and churches became the place for religious education. Different denominations offered differing interpretations — and those differences sometimes led to bloodshed.

“One would have thought Christians would dutifully read the Bible, but they didn’t,” Keck said. “Once society became secularized, Christians dropped the ball. Now there are a lot of biblically illiterate people who do not hear the high call of Scripture.”

People expect the church to teach and interpret the Bible for the congregation. The American entrepreneurial zeal drives churches to compete for members under the assumption that its interpretation of the Bible is correct and therefore they are especially faithful, Keck said.

Speaking bluntly, Keck calls it “marketing crap. That’s what happens when churches get into interpretive wars. Churches create scandals and controversies over Scripture, and people are not biblically aware enough to weed through it on their own. They can only hear the slogans. They cannot interpret it. That’s how you engage if you don’t have the biblical knowledge.”

And it is setting the United States down a damaging and contentious path. “These Bible arguments of American churches are a horrible diversion from what really matters in the Bible. The Bible, in its fullness, is calling us to the reality of God, the importance of personal morality and social justice, and how to be a better person.”

But the lessons of Scripture are lost in political issues of abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women to the priesthood and more.

“It is an evasion of the real higher calling Scripture talks about,” Keck said. Far too often, political and moral stands are based on a single passage of Scripture interpreted in isolation.

“There is a high noble call in Scripture to love your neighbor, economic justice and love God. I deeply believe America needs that higher call,” Keck said. So what is the answer? “Churches have to do a better job of bringing people more deeply into a knowledge of the Bible,” Keck said. “At the very least, churches need to stop the slogans and competing with one another.”

“America has to get back to the Bible in a different way. In a way that honors the validity of other religions and the pluralism in our culture,” Keck said. “The only way to understand how to be a Christian is a higher fidelity to Scripture.”

There is so much wrong here it’s hard to know where to begin. While this is something perhaps better handled by my discourse-savvy friends over at Religion Bulletin, a few observations are in order:

— The minister imagines a time and place, the nostalgic old-timey days, where everyone read the bible without interpreting it. It’s as if the bible just inscribed itself on minds without being interpreted and there were no different interpretations. There was never such a time or place. All reading is interpretation.

— The minister, without irony, bemoans differing interpretations and then proceeds to offer his own interpretation which he anoints as authoritative with words like “true” and “real” and “fidelity” and “deep.” These are code words which mean only that the minister believes his interpretation is right and others are wrong.

— The minister repeatedly acknowledges there are different interpretations of the bible yet never acknowledges that his particular understanding of the bible is also an interpretation. His interpretive lessons (“we can’t read passages in isolation”) lead to interpretive conclusions (“the importance of personal morality and social justice”).

I could go on but you get the point. The minister’s doctoral training apparently didn’t include lessons in interpretation or discourse. The credulous reporter failed to ask the minister why his interpretations are better than others and why those other interpretations are “ignorant.”

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4 thoughts on “Bible “Ignorance” as Interpretation

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Amen, brother.
    Reminds me of a comment from a lecture: No one believes in myths. Myths are what others believe.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    Wow, pretty amazing. I wonder if Indians bemoan ignorance of the Mahabharata or the Vedas as the cause of all the corruption in their country.
    Or if perhaps Iraqis truly and deeply understood the Qur’an, they’d stop blowing each other up.

    Sorry, your great rant brought out rantness in me.

    Stephen Prothero (Boston Univ. Dept Religion) wrote “Religious Literacy: What every American needs to Know — and Doesn’t”.
    I read the book two years ago and strongly disliked it. Here is a guy strongly invested in understanding religion and he tells us why we should know it too. How suspect is that? I think there are lots of good reasons to ignore his call.
    Sure, knowing something about building, cooking, engines, health, weather, relationships, computers, math and much more can be important. Sure, religion knowledge can be useful, but much of the world gets buy without knowing anything of their neighbor’s religion.
    Maybe we should understand each others diets, languages, water sources, agricultural and mining practices ….

    Of course I love studying religion, but I don’t feel like a better person or a more able person because of it. Yes, we need knowledge of religion to fight the manipulations of religion, but we need knowledge of rhetoric to fight rhetoric too — and people have precious little of that.

    Sorry, Cris, way off topic.
    The interpretations of the Bible differ as do the interpretation of Religion. Any book, like Prothero’s, which tries to simplify religion and teach us the fundamentals will also be just another interpretation. And I don’t think Bible literacy or Religion literacy is going to help anyone much. Understanding how religions are created — well now, THAT would be useful, because understanding evolution is critically important for the sciences! That is part of why I read here.

  3. tony in san diego

    I think you are reading this uncharitably. I admit I did not read his article, but the sections you quoted at length do no appear to say: “Understand this my way!” Rather., he explicitly says those attitudes are wrong, and the scripture calls us to be better people, not simply adherents to his particular cult. He deplores politicization and sectarianism, it appears to me.

  4. Cris Post author

    It is an uncharitable reading because the minister conflates the issues. His position is contradictory.

    When reduced to essentials it goes like this: (1) there was a time when everyone read the bible and everyone read it the same way (false); (2) there was a later time when people started reading or interpreting the bible different ways and this resulted in politicization and sectarianism (true, and it has been this way since the beginning of Christianity); (3) my method of interpreting the bible is the right or proper way and is somehow self-evident (false); (4) my interpretation isn’t really an interpretation — it somehow is above interpretation (false); (5) other people are misinterpreting the bible or don’t know how to interpret it (false).

    It’s ironic that the minister bemoans political readings (and you mention politicization) and then proffers a reading or interpretation of the bible which is explicitly political: he asserts that economic and social justice are main “messages” from the bible. This is of course his (progressive-political) interpretation and others read it differently, with different emphases which result in different kinds of politics. All readings and interpretations of the bible have political implications.

    Bottom line: all readings of the bible are interpretations. I’m not interested in which are “right, wrong, true, or false.” These are things for theologians to argue about, which is something they’ve been doing for nearly 2,000 years without the slightest hint of resolution. This lack of resolution is perhaps the best indication that it’s all interpretation and when it’s all interpretation, there can be no resolution or definitive answer.

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