Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Well, this is how it is. Few movies in my childhood affected me more than the classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man. You will never guess what it is about! While out on a boat, a man gets drenched by a mysterious sea mist; and then, as (bad) luck would have it, a few days later he gets sprayed by some insecticide. As a result, he starts shrinking . . . incredibly. First, his clothes don’t fit; then, he is living in a dollhouse; then, he ends up in an epic life-and-death duel with a spider (he ends up stabbing it with a pin that he uses as a sword). And in the end, he shrinks into nothingness. But even as he shrunk into oblivion, he had a religious epiphany. The quote of the movie: “All this vastness of creation, it had to mean something. And if so, then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.” Classic 50’s movie theology! Now, shrinking sea mist was only one of the causes of terrible things in the 50’s. In Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, the cause was an alien virus (at least it caused the 50-foot part; the attack part was caused by wanting revenge on a cheating husband). In Them, it was an early atomic test that caused common ants to mutate into monsters (them ants, them ants, them monster ants!). In The Blob (that’s right, the worst monster of the 50’s was a giant, gelatinous blob), trouble comes to earth on a meteor. You will be happy to know, we have now outlawed all hitchhiking in space so that we will never have to deal with the blob ever again. The Fly is all about a mad scientist who makes a rather horrible mistake and becomes (wait for it) a fly. And I didn’t get to mention either The Killer Shrews or Attack of the Giant Leeches! Bottom line: The 50’s tell us that bad things are going to happen; either aliens will do it to us or we will do it to ourselves, but we are doomed. And to think, when we made a TV series about the 50’s, we called it, Happy Days!
Today’s issue in interpreting the Bible revolves around where we start. There is a fascinating paragraph in Levine and Brettler’s book, The Bible With And Without Jesus, that wrestles with this question in general and, more specifically, on how Christians and Jews read the New Testament differently. I would love to get your take on this. They write on page 43:
“Christian evangelists have told us, multiple times, that if we correctly understood the scriptures of Israel, we would see how they all point to Jesus. It is true that when reading these scriptures in light of what Jesus did and said, and how his followers remembered him, these texts do seem to point to Jesus. Reading the scriptures of Israel retrospectively, believers concluded that Jesus fulfilled prophecies, including texts that were not, until this retrospective reading, understood to be prophetic. For example, Jesus asks his disciples on the Emmaus Road, ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:26). They would not have previously read their scriptures as having made this claim; in the light of Jesus’s sufferings and death, however, the claim becomes obvious for them. Such, after-the-fact reading does not make the conclusion wrong; rather, it makes it contingent of a prior set of beliefs. The person beginning with the view that Jesus is the culmination of the scriptures of Israel, and that all those scriptures point to him, will find confirmation of the views. The person who lacks such a prior belief is unlikely to be convinced by such Christological readings.”
There is an old Jewish joke that says, “two Jews, three opinions.” Here’s my response to this paragraph. They are absolutely right. They are absolutely wrong. And they are absolutely walking a fine line which may or may not be helpful. Here’s the first question: “How much of our reading is determined by our pre-understanding, our existing beliefs and our expectations?” The answer: a lot! It is as Anais Nin (and others) have said: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” Here’s the second question: “How then do we ever change?” The answer: slowly.
Now, theorists have suggested two ways we approach a text. First, we have the “Hermeneutical Circle” model. Hermeneutics is the swanky name we give to the process of interpretation (Officially, hermeneutics is the science and art of delineating principles or methods for interpreting an individual author’s meaning). Here is how the circle works. We approach a text with some expectation about what it means, and we read it through those expectations. But the text isn’t quite what we expected. And so, we interpret the text based on these differences. But note three things. First, these differences change our understanding of what the text means. As a result, the text has changed. It is not the same text that we originally thought it was. It is saying something different. Second, once we have read the text and accepted these new differences, we change. We’re not the same person who came to this text with those old preconceived notions. We can say it this way: not only have we interpreted the text, but the text has also interpreted us! But there is a third point. There are elements in the text that are different from our preconceived ideas that we have not yet seen. In fact, our expectations have prohibited us from even seeing them. And since we have changed, and the text has changed and there are still elements in the text that remain hidden from us, we need to start the whole process over again. We approach the text with our expectations. But the text is not what we expected. That informs how we read the text. But now we are different, and the text is different, and there are still elements of the text yet undiscovered, and so we need to reread the text yet again. Holy time loop, Batman! This is monotonous. You can now see why this is a hermeneutical circle. Like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going and going, but seldom arrives anywhere. The second approach is called the “Hermeneutical Spiral.” The process is the similar; but as we approach the text humbly and allow its words to influence us, we are no longer caught in a vicious circle with no end, but a spiral that moves us from where we are closer to the place where we can grasp the author’s intended meaning. This assumes we will allow the text to challenge our preconceived notions and correct our misunderstandings so that we can see its significance for us today.
Now, we can all see how we have been caught up in both the “Hermeneutical Circle” where the text basically simply reinforces our beliefs and expectations (because I am basically seeing myself in the text) and the “Hermeneutical Spiral” where the text forces us to leave behind a cherished belief and reshapes us. (I am reminded of an article in The Atlantic where Peter Wehner interviewed a pastor who said that he has heard of many congregants leaving their church because it didn’t match their politics, but he has never heard once of someone changing their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching. I would argue that this is because we are seeing only what we believe we will find in our Bibles, a classic example of the Hermeneutical Circle. Bottom line: our starting point is crucial; and if we truly want to engage the Bible seriously, we must acknowledge that starting point to the best of our ability and come to the text, humbly asking it to change us.
But that brings us back to TBWAWJ. Are we reading Jesus into the Old Testament? Are we hijacking the Old Testament and making it say things it never intended? Are we seeing things in the Old Testament because of a prior set of beliefs? Or is Jesus truly the culmination of the Scriptures of Israel? I think three things are telling in this paragraph. First, I so appreciate the authors’ willingness to say if you read the Scriptures through Jesus, they “seem to point to Jesus.” That is a very gracious and generous thing for these authors to say. Now, they will quickly turn around and say that if you start with the Old Testament, you won’t end up with Jesus, but I can understand how they might say that. Second, they say that many of the prophecies quoted from the Old Testament by the New Testament authors were never intended to be prophetic; and when read in context, they bear no connection with Jesus, with the Messiah, or with the future. Now, I get their point. Anyone who has read Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son”) understands that Matthew is doing something “different” with this verse. However, everyone was reading the Old Testament “differently” back then (just read some of the Dead Sea Scrolls for proof). What Matthew was doing was a legitimate form of biblical interpretation for his day. We may not get it, but they did. We may think it is abusing Scripture and good hermeneutics, but they wouldn’t. (An aside here: I believe our job is not so much to duplicate the hermeneutics of the apostles when we read the Old Testament and to see Christ everywhere, but to understand how the New Testament authors read the Old Testament and to take note of their methods. Let me say that again because it is important. Our job is to understand what the biblical authors wrote, not to duplicate their methods.) In other words, I am glad Matthew saw that connection between Jesus and Egypt, but if he didn’t and you did, I would think that maybe you were crazy. Third, I find it fascinating that when TBWAWJ authors talk about the encounter on the Road to Emmaus, they talk about Jesus’ sufferings and death as the pivotal things that made the disciples see the Old Testament Scriptures as pointing to Jesus. I would like to suggest that if it was only Jesus’ suffering and death at stake here, they would never have believed that the Old Testament pointed to Jesus. To do that required the resurrection, something casually ignored by our good friends here. But an encounter with the resurrected Jesus would definitely make anyone rethink how they were reading their Bible.
There is no doubt that where we start influences how we read our Bibles. The key then is to hold our expectations loosely and humbly approach the text willing to be changed. But before we can do that, we need to know where we are starting from, what we are expecting, what we want the text to say and what we already understand it to say. No one comes to the Bible perfectly neutral. We all come from somewhere. We all have baggage and history and expectations. But when we come to the text, our goal should always be to grow (in grace, in love, in compassion, in patience, in giving and in worship) and never to shrink. And if we can do that, well, that would be incredible.