Reading the Bible may not be easy. First of all, some sections of it are pretty dry and require a serious commitment to read through. The book of Leviticus comes to mind. Second, it is a politicized book that was interpreted over and over again to serve political ends. Just to overcome the hype and read the book diligently requires bracketing a lot of stuff.
But even if you jump through the hoops of barriers and land in its pages you still may not understand it as it is intended. You, yes, you also have certain reading habits that often distort your understanding of the Bible. We all have reading habits and some of those habits veil and hide insights that the scripture offers. Being aware of these habits can help every committed reader of the Bible learn to lessen their own negative impact.
In this short post, I will introduce some of the mental habits or assumptions that when applied to the Bible distort your — our — understanding of the sacred text. Here we go.
1.Assuming that you will understand the biblical text in depth just by reading it.
This assumption treats the biblical text like a lighthearted book written to be read on the beach as if it’s not mentally taxing. Of course, simply reading a text on how to buy a domain may be enough to understand that in depth. And that’s because that subject matter is not as complex as, say, Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge. But the assumption that the biblical texts can be understood in depth just by reading it is not justified.
Some biblical texts may let you know from the get-go that you’ll have to do some digging to understand them in depth. For example, just by reading Matt. 1:2–16, it would be difficult to understand the genealogy of Jesus in depth. So from the get-go, you know that you have to do some work to understand the genealogy more. Like why does the genealogy of Jesus actually matter?
Other biblical texts may be deceptively simple. Take the famous John 3:16, the “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…” verse. At the level of grasping the general idea of the text, it’s easy as pie. But if you want to understand this verse in depth, you need to do some serious work of research. Like, how it is possible for God to have son? Or what does John mean by the word “God”?
2.Refusing to recognize the gaps between you and the sacred text.
Many people read the Bible in order to apply its teaching to their lives because they believe the divine wisdom is communicated through these texts. That’s fine. But what’s not fine is that we do this while ignoring the cultural and worldview gaps between us and the scripture. Some of us are unaware of these gaps; others simply refuse it, assuming that the text can be applied to their situation like a parental command. Your dad says something, you do it, and you are done.
Wrong! To begin with, divinely inspired authors of the Bible assumed a lot of things about their original readers or those people who were the first readers of the text. They assume that their readers share some cultural, geographical knowledge with them. For example, Amos assumes that you know where the Bashan is and are familiar enough with it. So he mentions “cows of Bashan”, relying on that familiarity to create a rhetorical effect.
But we, the readers of today, lack this knowledge, and that lack creates a gap between us and the author. Unless you do the research and find ways of bridging that gap.
Another and more sinister gap is the gap in worldviews. Most of us in the West are fruits of an individualistic worldview. Unfortunately, the center of our world is us, our family, then our nation, and then our God. In ancient Israel, people were not individualistic. They were living in a world that was more community-oriented.
Here is an example of how that can affect our understanding of the Bible. In 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the body image as part of his argument. He teaches that you are a temple of God. But he does not necessarily mean you as an individual. He means “you” as in “you all together in church,” the corporate body. This does not make an individualistic interpretation — “you” as a temple meaning “your individual body” as a temple — of the concept wrong. But the awareness of the corporate “you” should affect our interpretation and understanding of the text.
Just reading would not be enough to bridge these gaps. You need to do some exploration in order to bridge the gaps and understand the text in depth.
3.Not paying attention to the genre, context, or historical background.
The Bible has several genres, and each genre has its own features that you have to pay attention to in order to understand the text properly. For example, the Psalms are poems, and your emotional investment in them is appropriate. They are not intended to describe facts though they do state certain facts in a poetic fashion. Poetry as a genre allows for more free flights of imagination.
But this may not be true for the events described in Paul’s Letter to Philemon. The reader has a certain amount of freedom in interpreting the letters in order to understand them, but you are not expected to use the text of Philemon as a starting point for some imaginative flights of fancy. Philemon addresses a down-to-earth need in a concrete situation. Your understanding of the text would be more in depth if you spent some time learning the background, the context, and the addressees of the letters. The epistolary genre requires this kind of approach while in your deeper understanding of a psalm, you may not need to do research on the exact occasions that gave rise to the Psalms.
Now it’s your turn. Comment and let us know what other mental habits we may bring into our reading of the Bible that distort an in depth apprehension of the scripture.
Also, share the post if you think it may help others to make their Bible reading more nuanced. You may like the other relevant posts too.