A Matter of Interpretation

The great Kant couldn’t but experience wonder and awe because of “the starry heavens above him and the moral law within him”. But we don’t always have to look that far/deep to experience awe. Sometimes it’s enough simply to listen to and read what people say. A few days ago, for example, in a discussion on a certain internet forum someone declared that “he is not interested in any human interpretation, because he follows only what the Scripture says”. Later it became clear that any vision of the Scripture other than his own is for that person such an “interpretation”. Only how he reads the Scripture himself is not an interpretation but the “pure Word of God”.

This, quite grotesque, conversation reminded us of a text written by Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes who died prematurely about a year ago. Let the below short fragment of The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus be our humble tribute to this Baptist minister with “an Anglican over-soul” and Harvard Professor, whose sermons we used to listen to regularly and whose writings we regularly come back to.

There is the doubtlessly apocryphal story of the accountant in a
large firm who handled a deceptively simple question put by his boss, “What is two times two?” by replying, “What would you like it to be, sir?” and thereby landed a plum job. To many people the notion of interpretation, particularly where the Bible is concerned, seems much akin to that of our wily accountant, for interpretation is somehow seen as an alien and intervening force between the reader and the truth of the text.

For many years I have taught a course in Harvard College, . “The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation,” and at the conclusion of the introductory lecture I invite questions from the hundreds of opening-day “shopping” students who might under the right circumstances decide to take the course. Invariably someone asks, “Is this a course about what the Bible says, or is it a course about what people say the Bible says?” It is a hostile question, and I don’t make the situation any easier when I say that the very act of reading is an act of interpretation, and that in a course of this sort it, is impossible not to read what people are both finding in the text and bringing to it. One does not have to be a postdoctoral student in literary criticism to know that a sixteenth-century German Lutheran and a twenty-first-century Latin American Catholic are likely to read and interpret scripture differently. My course is a survey of how readings of the same constant text have varied over the centuries, from the formation of the canon to our present time, dependent on context and subtext. A community in exile will read differently from a community in apparent full possession of all it surveys, with those who have nothing welcoming the promised overturning of the standing order, and those who have much of this world’s goods not longing for the end of the age.

Depending, then, upon how one reads and interprets, either the Bible is a textbook for the status quo, a book of quiescent pieties and promises, or it is a recipe for social change and transformation. There are churches dedicated to each point of view, each claiming its share of the good news; but what is good news for some is often bad news for somebody else.

Source: Gomes P.J., “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. What’s So Good About the Good News?”, 2007, p. 11-12.

The phrase that everything is a matter of interpretation can be also abused. Obviously, we should always be aware that there are different approaches, schools, traditions and doctrines. But sometimes we make the borderlines between them absolute. Then we conclude that a Protestant sees it like that and a Catholic otherwise, a Liberal in this way and a Conservative in another, and – as we also read in a recent discussion on the internet – the pope should not be criticized for the way he wrote “Jesus of Nazareth”, because he couldn’t have written it otherwise, for he… is a pope. For us these are examples of making borderlines and positions absolute, while it gets most interesting when the borderlines become porous, and positions less unchangeable than we had thought. That a sixteenth-century German Lutheran reads the Bible differently than a twentieth-century Liberation Theologian from South America, is obvious. But does it make any dialogue between them impossible? Perhaps they do have something to tell each other? And not despite the differences between their points of view and the contexts which shaped them, but BECAUSE OF THE DIFFERENCES?

A snapshot from the movie "Luther"

Today the Episcopal Church commemorates the Reformer from Wittenberg, Martin Luther. His “adventure” with God and his Word had a very contextual character, but it was because of these personal experiences and reflections of someone who in so many respects was simply a typical representative of his time, that the vision was created which till this day is able to inspire, and not only people calling themselves Lutherans.

The message of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is at the same time very Anglican, very African and very personal. But Archbishop Desmond became for many one of the most eminent spiritual teachers of the contemporary world. For context doesn’t have to be a cage where we are locked. Noticing it and realizing the role it plays when our interpretations are shaped may be a beginning of dialogue with people in other contexts and devoted to different interpretations. And the church can be a place of dialogue. One more thing can be said: this dialogue doesn’t have to be peaceful and harmonious. Sometimes it can become a hot discussion, and even a quarrel. And there is nothing odd about it. For Peter J. Gomes wrote not without a reason that what is good news for some is often bad news for somebody else…

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