Theology

a journey of unlearning

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.

Photo by Loren Kerns
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  • Anny

    A+

  • Ysolde

    I’m happy for you.

  • Grasshopper

    Hermeneutics is a word/concept that I still don’t understand. Does the Google definition, “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts” capture its full meaning? The only people I hear use the term are progressive Christians who were raised fundamentalist/evangelical. Does that have anything to do with the term’s meaning or is it coincidence that I’ve only ever heard those people use it? I often hear it in the context “hermeneutical approach”. If hermeneutics just means “interpretation”, then isn’t ANY approach towards reading the bible a hermeneutical approach? Is a “hermeneutical approach” a more specific type of analysis? Can hermeneutics be found in many different places or is it a particular branch of theological thought? Sorry if these are basic questions but the results of my googling are going over my head.

    • I think you might see it more often from ex-fundamentalists because we’re most likely to have had the realization that everyone interprets what we read, that the act of interpretation is fundamental to reading.

      In progressive contexts, that’s a given. Mainline protestant kids largely grow up with this, but fundies don’t. We don’t really consider how various presuppositions, biases, assumptions, motivations, etc, can profoundly affect what a text “obviously” means. This is supported by the fact that fundamentalist interpretation mostly comes from bigoted straight white men, so when they all share the same “obvious” interpretations you don’t question it much.

      Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. It’s an attempt to understand how written language works, usually in the context of the Bible. How can something so arbitrary like alphabets and phonemes communicate meaning? What happens when we read? What is a text? What is “meaning”? How do we — can we– achieve “meaning” through reading, or only an approximation of it?

      These are all complicated academic questions, though. Mostly when someone uses the word “hermeneutics” they’re talking about whatever model a particular interpreter is using when they read the Bible. Does their model account for genre, historical context, etc.

      • I realized the role of interpretation when I first read JW literature and their case for annihilation and their anti-war case (considering the jingoism in Fundamentalism).

      • Grasshopper

        Thank you for the explanation! I hope you continue to post your papers from seminary; I really appreciate your insights and hearing your thought processes. I’m going to look into the hermeneutic of suspicion more. It sounds like a refreshing view.

  • Melody

    “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.”

    Like you experienced, the church where I grew up in, placed a lot of emphasis on people (men) being Spirit-led. We didn’t have a reverend of any sort, just men who preached when they were Spirit-led. This meant that the guidance of the Spirit was the only thing that mattered and education, politics, whatever, didn’t. Later, when my brother and I were both going to college, this did begin to feel more and more suspect. Surely preachers with a college education did know more about the Bible, history, Hebrew and Greek? Shouldn’t their opinions be taken into account as well, since they had more expertise? Knowledge didn’t seem to matter much, only conviction did, conviction and charisma, and being the right sex, i.e. a man. In fact, these highly educated theologians were suspect because they had a formal education: they would be influenced by the World making them more progressive and less open to the Spirit.

    I agree with Grasshopper that the term “hermeneutic of suspicion” doesn’t ring any bells and sounds very interesting but that a Google search doesn’t really help in explaining it further. I found this definition: “a distinctively modern style of interpretation that circumvents obvious or self-evident meanings in order to draw out less visible and less flattering truths,” by Rita Felski, but am not sure how that would fit in a Biblical context. Perhaps you could write some more about it sometime or give an example? I like what you wrote about it thusfar as it’s always felt a little strange to me to make the Bible be more progressive than it appeared on the surface. It felt like putting your own ideas into the Bible to make it more palatable and I know I’ve done that myself with less-friendly scripture about women. I couldn’t deal with them without doing so but it did feel a little off. It’s what initially drew me to more progressive explanations of the Bible but what also felt like it was trying to fit the Bible into our own cultures and era (which isn’t necessary for any old historical source, but is very important when it comes to the Bible as it is supposed to for all people of all ages and times.)

    • I personally am not informed on the hermeneutic of suspicion. Concerning your thoughts on the Bible, have you ever read Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood? He addresses the tendency of conservatives to excuse troubling biblical passages (like the terror passages) and of liberals to cherry pick.

      • Melody

        No, I haven’t read that one. From looking at the reviews it seems quite interesting as it does deal with the difficult passages and how to explain them in a different light. Might be one for the reading list.

    • In essence, a “hermeneutic of suspicion” is basically approaching texts like the Bible with the awareness that these passages are either mostly or entirely written by men from a place of power and privilege. Not only were they written by men, they’re also codified in the cannon by men, translated by men, analyzed by men, given authority by men.

      It doesn’t mean we don’t respect the Bible, it just means that when something in the Bible looks sexist, we’re probably not going to balk much. We’ll investigate to see if there are other explanations besides the author being sexist and attempting to enforce sexism (is there a better interpretation of the original language, for example) … but if the answer is “nope he was just sexist” we’re more content to leave it be.

      • Melody

        Thanks. It sounds like an interesting approach that takes the historical context into account as well and doesn’t result in cherry picking or altering the meaning of something to make it more modern somehow.

        It does make sense for the Bible to be quite sexist in places considering that at the time women were sold and given away like cattle half the time. It’s only that we live in this day and age and with a belief that the Bible has to be pure and perfect that problems with these texts arise. Either the Bible is perfect and we (falsely) believe ourselves to be more moral than the people and God of the past, or the Bible isn’t perfect and we can therefore judge these passages as reflective of their own times rather than as a rulebook for us today.

      • Ooooh I like this concept. (But why is it called “hermeneutic of suspicion”? Who are we “suspicious” of?) So instead of being like “well this passage sounds terrible but the author couldn’t have possibly really meant it that way, let’s keep searching until we find some better explanation” we can be like “yeah, the bible says that, but it’s just wrong.” Like the Canaanite genocide. The fact that God commanded it and the biblical authors talked about it like it was a good thing means nothing to me- it was wrong and there’s nothing anyone can say to convince me it wasn’t wrong. (Even though I no longer believe it really happened. But the authors are still terrible for writing about something like that as if it was a good thing.)

    • Stephanie Rice

      I had never heard the term “hermeneutic of suspicion” until this post, but it sounds very similar to Scot McKnight’s refrain “that was then, this is now” from The Blue Parakeet. Yes, the Bible is sexist at times. It is SUPER weird sometimes (the time in Judges when a guys bowels and feces fell out of his body? Super weird). It is violent sometimes. But that was then, this is now.

  • Great post! Here’s a link to my posts about my own journey: https://seekeroftruthweb.wordpress.com/my-story/

    Thank you for sharing your story and contributing your thoughts; it’s been helpful.

    • They know that *they* heard from God so whoever agrees with them must also have heard from God. The inverse is also true.

      • For us there was some recognition of other groups, but we were taught that you weren’t Spirit-filled unless you spoke in tongues. Also, there were people who thought groups, like the Baptists, who are Cessationist, have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof(2 Tom. 3:5).

  • keefanda

    To address “submission”: For Ephesians 5:22-23, there are two English translations I know of that try to get away from using “submit” or something that has the same meaning, like “be subject to”. One of them is the New International Reader’s Version, which uses some variant of “follow the lead”. Not much better though. This translation is like almost all the others in that it translates from Greek texts of the New Testament. The Passion Translation (still in the making), which I think is the freest translation by far, translates the New Testament not just from Greek texts but from Aramaic texts and sometimes from Hebrew texts in spite of the fact that the New Testament was penned in Greek. (This is a liberal thing to do, which is interesting since the chief translator is very conservative theologically. But he is not conservative on everything. He takes a liberal position on the “submit” teaching, and says that it’s one of the most terrible teachings of the Church for 2000 years.) The Passion Translation uses some variant of “to be tenderly devoted to” – that is what it says in Aramaic texts. Here it is: “Wives be tenderly devoted to your husband as the church is tenderly devoted to Christ.” (Paul’s primary language may have been Aramaic. He like some bilingual people may have sometimes had meanings of his primary language in mind even while he wrote in a secondary language. That might justify consulting all the texts in all the relevant languages for translation. Such positive results as getting rid of “submit” might show such an approach to be acceptable.)

  • One advantage to becoming Orthodox: I’ve been studying Greek from an actual Greek speaker, so I can find out what those Greek words actually mean, not what a translation says they mean! 😀