Sunday Meditations: White-Out

I was going to write about something else, today, but a good friend and brother in the Lord texted me a link to this article and asked what I thought, so this is literally a Sunday morning meditation for me.  What follows is what I sent him with some minor edits based on reading it a second time and keying it to a (marginally) wider audience:

In my own opinion, I think the article is right on for the most part.  Biblical interpretation is something that happens in our brains, and our brains have been shaped by our experiences, and our experiences have been shaped by race, socioeconomics, nationality, culture, zeitgeist, etc.

One powerful example that comes to mind is the time in America’s history when the white theological conservatives were not only 100% certain that the Bible condoned slavery, but that any suggestion that the Scriptures did not condone slavery (or opposed slavery) was nothing more than liberal capitulation to the culture.  Presbyterians were especially bad about this.  Black theologians, however, argued that slavery was incompatible with the Bible.  It is amazing how so incredibly certain our Presbyterian forefathers were that the Bible was pro-slavery and how strident their critiques of cultural relativism were to anyone who argued otherwise.  I almost wonder if the very accusation of relativism isn’t a white thing, and by it we mean “interpretations that aren’t ours.”

Furthermore, we also recognize that Scripture will hit different people in different ways and have significance to them in different ways, even if these ways were not originally intended or envisioned by the author.  For example, in the American black church, many identified with Israel in Egypt, and the story of God’s liberation of Israel from her slavery was a great hope and encouragement to them.  We might look at that and say that was illegitimate, but why?  Is it any more arbitrary than viewing Israel in Egypt as an allegory for being in slavery to sin and death?  Is it any more arbitrary than a Christian reading a Psalm that David wrote about his experiences as king of an embattled Israel and finding a resonance there with their own emotions regarding spiritual struggle?

Understanding that different people groups will read the Bible in different ways is how God can speak in the church; listening to other groups to help us with our blind spots.  White Presbyterians should have listened to Black Methodists in the 1800s.

This is not the same, however, as saying that all readings are equally cogent, valuable, or likely.  This is something we acknowledge with every commentary we read, right?  Christians disagree about almost every point of doctrine you can imagine, and while some of these views can be complementary or corrective to one another, they can’t all be 100% correct.

But what we can’t do – and this is where I think we go wrong – is evaluate the validity of a reading based on how well it conforms to our existing reading, and this is more or less the whole story of Western theology.  When this happens, biblical interpretation is just a power struggle.  Whoever’s paradigm is on top gets to dictate orthodoxy.  And, honestly, this is a big part of the Western church’s history.

If we reject that idea – if we believe there is truth in the Bible that does not depend on a single group’s controlling narrative – then we really owe it to ourselves to listen to these diverse readings and allow them to speak to us.  Are we less influenced by our culture than other cultures?  Do we have more of the Spirit than they?  I would say the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no,” and that means we need to be in a receptive posture when it comes to hearing from quarters of the church that are not going to read the Bible like we do.

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