Is There a Right Way to Interpret the Bible? One Woman Lives “Biblically” for a Year

What is biblical womanhood supposed to look like? Rachel Held Evans, author of Evolving in Monkey Town, has committed one year to following the Bible’s instructions to women as literally as possible. She has blogged about her experience and intends to publish a book with Thomas Nelson in 2012. She interviews women with differing views, camps in her backyard following Levitical laws, and grows out her hair. Nine months in, she said this about her experience:

I had long questioned the notion that the Bible presents one uniform prescription for how to be a woman, and these past nine months of research and experimentation have confirmed the fact that the whole concept of ‘biblical womanhood’ can be terribly misleading.

In any project involving research and experimentation, one’s methods will largely influence the results. For example, suppose I want to discover which weight loss program – Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, etc. – is most effective for my body type. I decide to try each for one week and whichever sheds the most pounds I will crown as “most effective”. At the end I will have a new perspective, but it is determined largely by my method. One program may be effective for a week, but another may be more effective if practiced regularly. One may benefit from the achievements of last week’s program and skew the results. The amount of exercise I engage in may affect the results in ways I have not measured. My method of research and experimentation will lead me to a result, but it may not be the right one.

The same holds true with Rachel Evans’ research into Biblical Womanhood which prompted her to view the concept as “terribly misleading” and to declare “none of us is actually practicing biblical womanhood.” Her method, while it entertains and will attract an audience, ignores basic practices of interpretation. It has the effect of making Bible interpretation seem utterly hopeless; the best we can do is try to make sense of it for ourselves and not judge others who see it differently. Thankfully, one of the long-held doctrines of the Christian faith is the “clarity” of the Scriptures. The Bible is written so its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it, desiring God’s help, and being willing to follow it (Ps. 19:7, 119:130, Matt. 12:3-5, 21:42, 22:31, Luke 16:29-31, etc.). The Bible is not a hopelessly confusing book leading different people down different paths but a clear book that rewards faithful study with the truth God has revealed.

This will make some uncomfortable, but there is a right and a wrong way to interpret the Bible. We already believe this to be true of other documents. We are not free to interpret our bank statement, a restaurant menu, the tax code, an algebra book, or a Hemingway novel however we wish. While interpretations may vary, there is a right and a wrong way to read those things. It is the same with the Bible. While individual interpretations will vary, there is a right and a wrong way to interpret it. Let’s take a look at some of Evans’ comments and see three practical things to keep in mind in our own interpreting.

She says her most eye-opening experience was turning Proverbs 31 into a to-do list and finding it impossible. Of course it’s impossible! It’s a poem, not a list of commands. When interpreting the Bible, always keep in mind the genre of literature you are studying. The Bible is composed of narratives, laws, poetry, letters, apocalypses, prophecies, and wisdom. Each genre has its own rules and must be read on those terms. If I write a poem to my wife and say, “If I don’t see you my heart will stop beating” she doesn’t assume eye contact will prevent my death. She knows it is an expression of longing. In the same way, Proverbs 31 is an acrostic poem depicting the excellent wife. The author literally intended it not to be taken as a to-do list.

She also camps in her backyard to observe her “time of impurity” as prescribed in Leviticus. While this makes for good reading, it ignores a basic principle: the parts of the Bible are understood in light of the whole. I recently assembled a bookcase using a manual with ten steps. I couldn’t imagine trying to assemble it using only step three! I can only understand the bookcase in light of the whole manual. Similarly, I can’t understand Leviticus without understanding the whole story of the Bible. Paul declares in Romans 7:6 “But now we are released from the law…” So the laws guarding against impurity have been fulfilled and done away with in Christ. In forming our biblical view on womanhood or anything else, we must take into account all of what God has revealed in the Bible.

She also makes this statement: “…technically speaking it is ‘biblical’ for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, ‘biblical’ for her to be forced to marry her rapist and ‘biblical’ for her to be one of many wives!” She also researches woman in the Bible who “defy what many people perceive to be the traits of a biblical woman.” The problem with basing your views off of stories and characters in the Bible is that narrative is not normative. There are certain things the Bible reports and certain things the Bible teaches. Because something happened does not mean God approved of it or prescribes it for us. The Bible teaches marriage is between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5-6) yet through the stories of the patriarchs and their multiple wives shows how denying this teaching leads to suffering. The characters of the Bible are not mythic heroes to emulate but sinners used by God to bring about redemption through Jesus Christ.

What methods guide your interpretation of the Scriptures? If we simply take into account literary genres, attempt to understand passages of Scripture within the context of the whole, and distinguish the events in the Bible from the teachings of the Bible we can be more effective interpreters.

Does it mean we won’t disagree? No.

Does it mean we won’t struggle to understand? No.

Does it mean we’ll always get it right? No.

It does mean we can faithfully, humbly, and obediently pursue truth God has revealed.

After perusing Rachel Evans’ blog I found her to be thoughtful and well-informed, though I often disagreed with her. Her book will likely be entertaining and insightful. But our goal in interpreting the Bible isn’t to entertain or even to unearth shocking new insights. If we’re willing to set aside the humor of modern day attempts to follow Levitical laws and understand the text on its own terms we can know its truth and it will transform our lives, provoking even more beneficial discussion. Truth matters – about biblical womanhood and anything else. Let’s pursue it.

-Brian

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God Has Spoken, but Is Anyone Listening? Christians and the Bible

In the 2010 movie, The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington plays Eli; a man on a mission to take the last copy of the Bible across post-apocalyptic America to a place of safety. In his journey, Eli arrives at a town run by the ruthless Carnegie who will stop at nothing to acquire a copy of the Scriptures. In his quest for power in the midst of a devastated world, Carnegie believes the words of the Bible will help him manipulate and control the masses. He says this about the Bible:

“It’s a weapon. A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them… People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ‘em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it will happen again.”

Carnegie believes he can use the Bible to control people for two reasons: first, they believe it to be the word of God and second, they don’t know what it says. Sadly many of us fit this description.

More than three quarters of Americans claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God, according to several Gallup surveys conducted in 2007, and two thirds believe it contains the answers to “all or most of life’s basic questions.”  The Bible continues to be the best-selling book ever with Americans buying 25 million copies a year. Yet Americans seem to not know what is actually in it. Only half of U.S. adults can name one of the four gospels and less than that can name the first book of the Bible. George Gallup summed up the surveys by saying, “Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, don’t read it.”

The same could be said of those who sit in churches every Sunday. It would be an enlightening pulpit experiment for a pastor to ask those who have read the entire Bible to stand. How many who have been Christians for decades, if they were honest, would still be seated? How many teachers? How many choir members? How many deacons? If the Bible is the Word of God can we continue to justify our lack of engagement with it?

Bible illiteracy can take different forms. The first is “vague illiteracy.” A person experiencing this Bible dysfunction claims to have read the Bible, or most of it.  The problem is, while they can talk vaguely or generally about things in the Bible, they cannot name any specifics. Their knowledge of the Scriptures most resembles a high school student’s knowledge of The Grapes of Wrath – they have some idea of the plot but seem to have been chatting on Facebook while scanning the pages.

The second form is “once upon a time” illiteracy. A person fitting this description read the Bible once upon a time. It may have been five years ago, but they claim to still grasp the Scriptures without recently studying them. In college, I studied financial accounting and knew the subject well enough to graduate with a 3.5 GPA. A mere five years later I couldn’t have told you what belonged on a balance sheet. What happened? I stopped studying it. The danger of “once upon a time” and “vague” illiteracy is the person is confident in their beliefs because they “read the Bible” but cannot support them and their vagueness allows them to be easily changed. Worse, they live their lives, make decisions, teach others, and wield influence in the church based on their flimsy thoughts and experiences and not on the Bible.

The third form is “devotional” illiteracy. This dysfunction can appear in those with regular church and small group attendance, who read Christian books and devotionals and who have the ability to quote well-known verses with ease. While this person smells of Bible knowledge, it is mostly second-hand through devotionals, sermons, Bible studies, and inspirational calendars – they have never actually read the Scriptures themselves from Genesis to Revelation. They tend to know the stories and verses most often taught but fail to grasp the grand narrative and themes of the Bible. Tragically, their faith remains shallow and ineffective since they’ve never had to wrestle and come to terms with the God of the Bible.

The fourth form is “just plain” illiteracy. This person simply hasn’t read much or any of the Bible while claiming to be a follower of Christ. They may be armed with excuses to justify themselves, be frustrated at their own failure, or just shrug their shoulders in defeat. Whatever the attitude, the result is the same: their actions fail to line up with their beliefs. How can one claim to believe God has spoken, claim to have surrendered their life to this God, and then care less about what He has said then Jack Sparrow does about personal hygiene? The result can only be hypocrisy and a severe lack of spiritual growth.

How do we, as Peter said in 2 Peter 1:19, “Pay attention [to the Word] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”? We have to stop our lame excuses.

If we have time to go fishing, play Xbox, watch “America’s Got Talent”, or browse YouTube videos we are not too busy for the Scriptures. To be too busy for the Bible is to be too busy.

If we can’t understand what we are reading, we keep at it. Leviticus might as well still be written in Hebrew the first time you read it; the fifth time it starts to reveal treasures previously unimagined.

If we don’t like to read, pick up an audio Bible. Then work to enjoy reading – not only will it prevent you from being an intellectual weakling, it will allow you to rejoice in the beauty of God’s Word.

If we are haunted by past failures in studying the Scriptures there is grace. We read and study not to earn God’s love, but because He first loved us in Christ. Our past failures to dive into the Scriptures may stem from a failure to truly understand God’s love for us.

In The Book of Eli, Eli treasures God’s Word and commits it to memory while Carnegie wants to use it for his own selfish ends. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. What can we do today to know more of the Bible? God has given His Word and it will ignite our worship and transform our lives if we’ll drop our excuses and let it.

-Brian

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Boy, Girl, or Something Else? Gender Confusion Reaches Children

We live in confusing times. One facet of life that seems straightforward – gender – is rapidly becoming more confusing. In April, a controversial ad for J. Crew depicted the company’s president, Jenna Lyons, painting the toenails of her son, Beckett, hot pink. The caption below the picture read, “Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.” This ignited a brief skirmish between those who, disdaining  gender stereotypes, celebrated the ad and those who saw a mother encouraging her boy to paint his toenails hot pink as transgender propaganda.

Fast forward one month to the story of a couple in Toronto who have decided to raise their newborn baby without gender identity. They will keep the baby’s gender secret and allow “it” to choose “its” own identity from the toys “it” plays with to the clothes “it” wears. Naming the child “Storm”, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker announced to friends and family in an email, “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime.” The kind of genderless world Storm’s parents envision may be a pipe-dream – wishful thinking won’t change biology or anatomy – but it is a world dreamed of by more and more.

Or take the case of Andrew Viveros. Last week the transgendered teen known to classmates as “Andii” was voted by seniors at McFatter Technical High School in Davie, FL to be their prom queen.  He is the first transgender prom queen at a public high school in the United States and won the title over 14 girls who competed against him. In an article in the Miami Herald Oscar Viveros, father of Andrew/Andii, offered this advice to parents in similar situations: “Let them grow to be whatever they want to be, as long as they’re good. Let them blossom into whatever they want to be. Support them 100 percent.”

The message builds from Beckett to Storm to Andrew with increasing clarity. The individual is god. No one can restrain “my” freedom and “my” choices. “I” will not be determined or ruled by anything. Parents, institutions, cultures, norms, communities, families, and now biology and God himself have no authority over the little god of self. Of course, this thinking is ultimately ridiculous. A man may wish to be a woman or vice versa, but hormones and surgery can still not change the biological reality. You may want to have the basketball skills of Lebron James, the intelligence of Stephen Hawking, and the voice of Scotty McCreery, but no amount of self-determination or identity manipulation will change the reality that you have the basketball skills of Napoleon Dynamite, the intelligence of Larry the Cable Guy, and a voice that sounds like a hyena attacking a wildebeest. We may want to be free of the authority of our family, community, culture, and God, but we are not. So we rebel against that authority and against God.

This is how sin began in Genesis. Adam and Eve were presented with nearly limitless freedom except for one provision in Genesis  2:17, “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” But that wasn’t good enough for our forebears. They refused God’s authority, doubted His goodness, questioned His character, rebelled against their Creator, and attempted to become gods themselves. While the results of their sin was disastrous, we have continued their project ever since.

At the heart of these stories of gender confusion is a rebellion against our Creator who “created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” God has created each of us with a gender identity of male or female; to reject this is to reject His design. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Paul is not passing on tips for hair stylists; in this context he is encouraging the church to avoid gender confusion in the way they fellowship and worship. Men should look and act like men and women like women.

At the beginning of the music video for her song “Born This Way”, Lady Gaga announces that the current generation is a “race which bears boundless freedom.” While the idea of boundless freedom is silly (All freedom has limitations – I can’t breathe underwater, buy a Lamborghini, or even eat a cement block) it summarizes the attitude of our time. This ultimate freedom of the self to determine its identity and course and to follow its desires and urges is what has spawned the present gender confusion.

Christians have been graciously redeemed for a better way – not of rebellion against the Creator but of obedience to Him. Freedom isn’t found in self-determination but in self-surrender. Our example isn’t the person who “did it their way” but the One who “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Our lives should declare with the Psalmist, “With my whole heart I seek you, let me not wander from your commandments” (Ps. 119:10).

As Christians, let us celebrate the Creator’s good gift of gender and not embrace the confusion. Our freedom is found in Christ and in joyful obedience to God’s design and commands; not in the freedom of becoming our own god through self-determination. At the same time, let us love those caught in the confusion with the love Christ showed to us in our rebellion. We can never look down on those made in God’s image; my sin leaves me just as guilty before a holy God as the most gender confused among us. Christ loves and died for those who struggle with this particular form of rebellion. May the Becketts, Storms, and Andrews of this world find the joy and freedom only surrender and obedience to the God Who died for us can bring.

-Brian

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The Desires of Your Heart: Is God Santa?

Christians have many favorite Bible verses. You can find them on shirts, mugs and office walls. Among the favorites is Psalm 37:4 which says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Is Scripture true? Yes. Is there a context? Yes. Often, this verse is removed from the frame of the Bible, God and man and is used as a formula for acquiring a desire.

Consider first the context of this verse. Just like sentences in a novel, a Bible verse cannot be plucked, pasted, and given isolated meaning. In the first seven of the 40 verses in this chapter, the author asks readers to do four things: trust in the Lord, delight in the Lord, commit to the Lord and be still before the Lord. In verse 34, the author says to wait upon the Lord. This Psalm is about Him and no one else. While it mentions others, its objective is to reveal to readers a God who does not forsake His saints and is worthy of worship. The focus is not on how a believer can improve his or her life and gain blessings, but rather the eternal value of pursuing the Lord in every way.

Also consider the condition of the human heart, a topic the Bible is not silent on:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9

“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” – Genesis 6:5

“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” – Ecclesiastes 8:11

To presume that the desires of our heart are right or even God-glorifying, we are choosing to believe the very best about ourselves. While Christians are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, they are still sinners who are capable of evil and self-serving desires. If someone is not in the practice of asking the Lord to examine his heart (Psalm 26:2) and clean out the corners not surrendered to him, how can he trust his desires? In the movie, Bruce Almighty, God grants to Bruce Nolan, a news reporter in Buffalo, many of his powers. Bruce uses the powers of God to grant to people anything they want only to discover his generosity actually makes their lives worse. Why? We do not consider the full impact of a desire granted, only the potential for self-gratification. Woody Allen is famous for saying of his affair with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, “The heart wants what it wants.” He’s right; this does not mean what our hearts want is always good or that we have to pursue it.

Lastly, remember the first part of the verse: “Delight yourself in the Lord…” Typically, readers hurdle over this part so they can hurry up and get their desires. Does this mean that one lists his desires and then decides to take delight in God to get them? Many think so, but this is a flawed plan. While mediating a preschool conflict, telling the child they will get candy if they say they are sorry will always yield an apology, but are they truly sorry? No, they are truly greedy. We are surely wise enough to know this, but if the Lord said to you, “If you delight in me I will give you this…do you delight in me?” what would you say? The Psalmist claimed that if one genuinely delights in the Lord, his heart is positioned so that his desires will be granted by default. Those desires are more of God’s presence, guidance and truth. When our hearts mirror God’s, our heart’s desires are satisfied. By delighting in Him, He gives us more of Him, a desire completely aligned with His will. What does it mean to delight in Him? To take greater enjoyment and pleasure in God than in anything else. No earthly desire can compete with that. If a desire eclipses one’s delight in God, he will never be satisfied with anything.

God’s word is absolutely true. If it says delighting in the Lord will bring about our heart’s desires, it’s true, but we must think about what that means in the context of the Bible, God and man. Otherwise, Christians are left with a shallow view of a God who functions like a crotchety Santa Clause, demanding our affection in return for goods.  When we truly delight in Him, the void we had for something else will vanish and be filled with Christ, the only Satisfier.

-Emily

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