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Understanding the Bible


It’s not a piece of cake

by Aric Clark | Writer, speaker, and Presbyterian minister living near Portland, Oregon. He is also the creator of LectionARIC, a YouTube channel devoted to reading the text of religion and culture with “geeky irreverence.”

Why do we think the Bible is so easy to understand when we so easily misunderstand one another in day-to-day communication?

When texting on cell phones first became a popular form of communication, there were lots of news stories about the incomprehensible new lingo that was emerging, particularly among teenagers. Local news reporters did folksy human-interest stories explaining the various abbreviations, from OMG (Oh, my God!) to IDK (I don’t know) and YMMV (Your mileage may vary). Often these reports would include amusing anecdotes about the dangers of misunderstanding, such as when a well-meaning parent sent condolences to family and friends upon the death of a relative; the parent used the acronym LOL, believing it meant lots of love, when it really means laughing out loud.

Even real-life communication has room for error, like my good-natured arguments with my wife over the lyrics of songs we both think we know pretty well. One of us has to be wrong because we’re each singing completely different words to the chorus.

When people speak different languages, the difficulties in translation reveal just how thick and contextually dependent linguistic interpretation is. Try explaining the meaning of the idiom “piece of cake” to a brand-new English speaker.

We can fail to understand one another even when we speak the same language and share the same culture.

This is because communication is a complex process involving far more than the surface understanding of the meaning of words. Cultural context, ideology, intonation, inflection, colloquialisms, pop-culture references, dialect, the depth of relationship between the speaker and the listener, and especially the dense subjectivity that comes out of identity and a lifetime of experience are just some of the factors that can inform a given act of verbal communication.

Now consider the position we’re in regarding the Bible. We don’t share a culture with the authors of Scripture. We don’t share a language. We don’t even share a millennium. The Bible is just about as strange to us as any communication can be. Moreover, because the Bible is a library of texts, we don’t have the benefit of intonation, inflection, or body language. We can’t interrogate the authors of Scripture for clarification. All we have is this collection of thoughts and ideas probably riddled with colloquialisms, pop-culture references relevant to their own period, and insider jargon for which we lack an adequate glossary.

How strange is the Bible.

To the authors of Genesis, a wife trading conjugal rights with her husband for mandrakes made sense (Genesis 30:15).

To the author(s) of 2 Kings, having 42 boys mauled by a bear for calling a man “baldy” was something a prophet of God might do (2 Kings 2:23–24).

The author of the Gospel according to Mark obviously thought that a young man running away naked after Jesus was arrested would mean something to his audience (Mark 14:51–52).

The real problem isn’t the stuff that we recognize as strange in the Bible. The real problem is the strange stuff we mistakenly think is familiar, phrases that might function like “piece of cake.” Lacking the cultural cues to unlock their colloquial or figurative meanings, we might read them woodenly as referring to literal pieces of cake when the authors of Scripture never meant to imply baked goods.

Whenever we read the Bible, we’d be wise to remember just how strange the Bible really is to us, and how challenging the task of interpretation will therefore be. Personally, I find this realization profoundly thrilling. The Bible is like a faraway country, inviting us to wander as prodigals and explore it. We will probably get lost, but we can be sure it is always possible to come home to the love of God.

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