A rather lot of the time, what the Bible has to say to us is influenced by the ideas we bring to the text. As I’ve pointed out earlier, we generally have a theological framework in our heads (formally delivered or not), and when we come to the Bible, this has a profound influence on how we understand it. For example, if we have in our heads that an evil, apocalyptic figure will appear near the end of the world (e.g. the Antichrist), then any passage in the Bible that mentions an evil person in the future from the standpoint of the text will sound to us like it’s talking about this evil figure at the end of the world. Because of this, such disparate works as Daniel, Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica, and John’s Apocalypse appear (to such a reader) to all talk about the same person.
Related to this issue, although subtly different, is the fact that the questions we bring to the Bible also influence what we hear from it.
Years ago, I taught a basic HTML class at Intel in California. As part of the class, I was talking about HTML tables (which we don’t use for layout, people) and made the offhand comment that, if I were going to build a complex table, I’d sketch it out first on paper.
After the class, a lady came up to me to tell me how meaningful my comment about sketching out the table was to her, because for so many of her endeavors in life, writing them out first helped her to clarify her goals and outcomes and helped her stay on track to achieving them. So, she really appreciated me sharing that.
Now, I’m not saying that what she got out of that was wrong, exactly. I can tell you 100% that it was not my intent to communicate that; I was just sharing a way to make HTML tables that I found helpful. If you were coming to my class asking the question, “How can I keep my life on track?” you would get different things out of it than if you were asking the question, “How can I create complex HTML tables?” Those things are not necessarily incompatible, but at the very least, I’d want to make sure this lady still knew how to make HTML tables, because that was actually my intent and the value I was trying to bring to my students in that class. It was not my intent at all to give life coaching advice on accomplishing goals.
This lady was looking for something from the text that the text was not designed to give her.
Along with our existing theology, we have to be aware of the questions we are bringing to the Bible, because they can also shape what we hear. If we come to the Bible asking how to live moral lives, that’s what we’ll hear back. If we come to the Bible asking how we can go to heaven when we die, that’s what we’ll hear back. If we come to the Bible asking whether or not transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom that fits their gender identification, that’s what we’ll hear back.
But like the very well-intentioned lady in my HTML class, if we come to the Bible with our questions, the “answers” we get back are rather suspect. It’s unlikely that a writer in the Levant over two millennia ago is writing to answer the questions a 21st century American might have about life, or even the questions such a person would have about God.
What’s more, we run the risk of getting our answer and assuming that’s all the Bible had to say to us. We might very well miss what the author had intended to get across because we went with our goal in mind, and when that goal was met, we were done. When the lady at my class told me about the life-changing revelation I had given her, I just wanted to ask, “Ok, but you also know how to make HTML tables, right? That was kind of the point of all that stuff.”
Along with reading the Bible without imposing our theological framework on top of what it has to say, we also want to be careful about imposing our questions on top of what it has to say. We may discover that a given biblical text has no interest in our question whatsoever. It may be addressing a set of questions completely different from our own. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find our own answers, but it does mean we shouldn’t mistake that process for “what the Bible teaches” any more than it would be legitimate for that lady to tell her coworkers that I showed up to Intel to teach them all how to reach their life goals and recommend my HTML class to anyone who was struggling with life.
I would offer that one way to get out of our own heads and meet the Bible on a more level playing field is to explore the concerns and questions of the author of a text and/or the people who would be receiving it. What was in their heads? What was their day to day reality? What were they looking for in the future, and why? What were their frustrations and problems?
We might begin to discover that the Bible has a lot to say about issues that simply aren’t relevant to us, which may be disconcerting at first, but once we can hear it speak into those issues, we are much better prepared to transpose things into our world where appropriate.