This is my first official paper for seminary. It’s for my hermenuetics class, answering the question “Who and what circumstances made me the kind of interpreter of religious texts that I am today?” A lot of this y’all have heard from me before, but I do mention a few concepts I haven’t talked about on the blog before, so if you have questions about anything I say here, feel free to ask– this was written for a man familiar with speech-act theory, after all. 🙂
When I was ten, my family moved to northwest Florida where we joined an Independent Fundamental Baptist church. For the next ten years we attend a church that began as unhealthy, turned toxic, and ultimately became a cult-like environment. Eventually I would attend a small fundamentalist school that was equally toxic and cult-like. Totalitarian control of our lives, especially our spiritual lives, became what I considered normal.
One of the best tools the “pastor” and the college administration used to control us was through our understanding of Scripture: what it is, how it functions, and how we are to understand it. I was taught that God preserved his Word for us, and that preserved word is the Bible, handed down to us through the “Received Texts” and translated for us into English in the Authorized Version. Not only did God preserve his Word in this manner, he also continually preserves it in our interpretations of it. Scripture will be foolish nonsense to the non-believer, but those who possess the Holy Spirit will be guided by God to a proper understanding of his Word. This is possible because of Inspiration and Inerrancy, and always results in believers comprehending the “plain meaning” of a text. We can read the Bible translated in English, devoid of any historical context or awareness of linguistic peculiarities, and arrive at a “correct” and “Spirit-led” understanding. In short, a person can rely on their status as a believer to justify any interpretation they make, for it is not really their interpretation at all.
After I graduated from college and my family had been excommunicated from our church, I finally had the opportunity to begin reassessing my framework for hermeneutics. That process began when I read God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson. Reading it was an illuminating experience, and I began questioning what I had been taught about “preservation.” I had been raised to revere the King James translators, and thought of them in the same terms as the Masoretes. I thought the 1611 translation had been a moment of divine intervention in history, a time when God brought the brightest minds of a generation together to accomplish his work on earth. Learning that the translators were just human, flawed men who politicked and lied, who were controlled by a monarch with political goals for his Bible, who sometimes misrepresented the words in order to create more beauty and poetry in English troubled me profoundly. I was forced to re-evaluate what it might mean for God to “preserve” his Word.
When I was in graduate school studying English, I was exposed to literary theory for the first time. The professor introduced us to a variety of approaches, from post-structuralism to phenomenology to psychoanalysis. One of the methods he taught us was how to “deconstruct” a text, and for homework asked us to deconstruct Genesis 3. I was confident that the Bible would be immune to deconstruction, and when I discovered the opposite I was devastated. Not only was it possible to deconstruct the Bible, it was easy. At first I did not know how to respond to this revelation, but after several years of processing my traumatic faith experiences, I felt comfortable interrogating concepts like Inerrancy and Inspiration and whether or not they should affect the act of interpretation.
Literary theory gave me the ability to understand what it means to interpret, and to be an interpreter. I confronted theories like “Death of the Author” and thought about what they might mean for the Bible. My professor provoked intense discussions about the location of the text, about meaning, about differánce and the relationship between the signifier and the signified. I began applying all those concepts to the Bible, and discovered anew beauty and value in it. Literary theory enabled me to divorce the Bible from the harmful teachings of my youth.
One of the events that helped me heal from my toxic religious upbringing was discovering feminism for myself. My background in the Quiverful and Biblical Patriarchy movements had taught me that feminism was anti-God and wholly evil, so when I encountered feminism as affirming, powerful, and truth-filled, it began unraveling my interpretations of many biblical passages. I rejected complementarianism, the doctrine that men have “headship” over women and began seeking alternate explanations for passages like Ephesians 5. This led me to Christian egalitarian circles, which seek to apply an abundance of historical context and analysis to texts, instead of relying on the “plain meaning” I had grown up with. I learned about things like the Greco-Roman Household Codes, the difference between history and myth, and appreciated the argument that the Bible cannot be separated from its historical time and place. For a while I felt invigorated, believing that the Bible could be a tool for liberation and not just the oppression I had experienced.
My feminist journey has been six years long at this point, and rather circuitous and wandering. For a long time I clung to Inspiration as a significant doctrine, although my application of it evolved for several years. My faith needed the Bible to be “of God” in a real—although ineffable—way. However, I recently came to the conclusion that whether or not Inspiration is “true” is irrelevant to how I approach interpretation. What is more important to me is an idea feminist theologians have termed a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which sounds more ominous than it is. Before I began approaching the Bible this way, I was attempting to “re-interpret” passages to support my feminism. I was doing it with the best of intentions, but I now feel that some earnest egalitarian Christians might be allowing their needs to override an accurate rendering of the text. With a hermeneutic of suspicion, a biblical passage can be sexist, or even misogynistic, and I do not feel the need to argue with that. I approach biblical passages now with more acceptance and authenticity than I ever have before, because I no longer need those passages to “do” anything in particular.
In short, I learned to let the Bible be no more or less than what it actually is and to at least somewhat disconnect my theological system from it. I am a feminist Christian reading a Bible moored in cultures that included the oppression of women and other vulnerable minorities, and I believe it would be inaccurate to attempt to explain those oppressions away. I can believe that God is Love and the Bible is occasionally hateful without having a crisis of faith.