I am currently teaching a series of lessons on how to study the Bible at my church. This week is lesson two of the ten week series. The lesson is about the goal and challenges of Biblical interpretation. I'm arguing that the goal of interpretation is to discover the author's intended meaning (nothing new there). The challenges, as many have pointed out, are numerous. The majority of the "challenges" section, however, will focus on how preunderstanding impacts interpretation. The ways in which our preconceptions influence how we read the Bible are too numerous to count or even in many cases recognize.
As I was preparing this lesson I casually made a visit to Dr. Lowery's blog. Lowery is my main professor in seminary and is currently teaching overseas on "Biblical Eschatology." During his travels he read a Newsweek article criticizing the portrayal of Sonia Sotomayor as an affirmative action beneficiary who isn't intellectually up to the task of being a supreme court justice. Regardless of your view of Sotomayor, the article makes some compelling points about preconceptions. The author of the article, Ellis Cose, writes, "Surely anyone who has closely followed the high court knows it is impossible for judges to separate their backgrounds—and biases—from their judging." Lowery uses the article as an introduction to the question I'm trying to ask-- How do our preunderstandings influence how we read the Bible?
As Cose articulates for judge Sotomayer the same principle is true for those who hope to understand the Bible. It is impossible for anyone to read the Bible and separate their backgrounds and biases from their interpretation. I do think we can, to some degree, think outside of our own experience. After all, the premise of abstract thought assumes we can think beyond what we have experienced. Still, our experiences and biases drastically influence how we read the Bible. How then can we have good biases for reading the scriptures?
One thing I've learned since being in full time ministry is that pastors can interpret the Bible, in some ways, better than other people by the nature or their role as pastors. Paul, after all, was a pastor. Missionaries too have an advantage. Those who have traveled and experienced different cultures are better equipped to read the Bible, a book written in and to a very different culture than modern America. Great, so only trained professionals can read the scriptures? No, but only those who put themselves in a position to understand God can truly hear the scriptures. What do I mean? If you want to understand the scriptures you must put yourself in a position to hear by serving, spending time with the poor, listening to people who think differently than you do, encountering other cultures and hearing how other people interpret the Bible. Biases are a reality, and maybe they can actually be good.