[This was originally a guest post on Tim Fall’s blog: “Just One Train Wreck After Another,” it has been edited and updated.]
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start (indeed). When you read you begin with A B C, yes? Yes, but it is not a simple step from learning an alphabet to advanced reading comprehension, not even in one’s first language. Children learning “the quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” must have some concept of foxes and dogs, not just know their letters, to understand the basic statement this pangram is making.
Before a child can move from Little Golden Books about pokey little puppies to the Harry Potter series, she must also learn about the society in which she lives; if she is not British, then a touch of information about that society would help. She must know about school, trains, bullies, good versus evil, and how chocolate makes one feel.
She must also have a very elementary grasp of genre: the Harry Potter books are not textbooks on how to become a wizard, they are fiction meant to entertain. It is also meant to encourage young minds to think deeply about things like love, honor, courage, fear, anger, selflessness, friendship, etc. Yet she does not need to be aware of this effect on her to properly read the series.
This all may seem quite obvious, but these truths are often taken for granted, especially when it comes to reading the Bible.
I am not saying the only way a person can properly read and understand the Bible is to first learn Hebrew and Greek, and then take seminary courses on ancient Israelite society, Greco-Roman society, and historical/literary methods of analyzing scripture (although I do highly recommend this). I am pointing out that comprehension of whatever one reads first requires basic knowledge of the society/culture in and/or for whom it was written, as well as the intended genre. Interpretation comes next.
As I said above, a child can properly enjoy the Harry Potter series without ever realizing that JK Rowling is simultaneously teaching her about life, love, and friendship. Adults tend to pick up on those lessons in fiction, but they do not confuse fiction that teaches truth with a text that teaches fact (at least, not if they understand how genre works).
Furthermore, not all adults agree with JK Rowling’s perspective. Both the author and the reader see with their own metaphorical set of cultural and personal lenses which tint how they understand what is written and read. Many people have had such awful experiences with forms of witchcraft in the real world that they resent Rowling for using magic to delight young minds in her quest to tell a story which actually has nothing to do with magic.
In the Harry Potter series the existence of magic is merely a literary device. The books are not meant to be propaganda for the pursuit of magic in the real world. The magical context allows Rowling to take what is so familiar as to be taken for granted and cast it in a fresh light, to make the reader see in fiction what she has become blind to in her daily life: the very fabric of our society, our cultural expressions, the framework of our political philosophies, etc.
This is true of all fantasy and science fiction works (I highly recommend reading the introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Hermione’s fight for the freedom and dignity of house elves is nothing less than a fight for civil rights. Children who read learn empathy, and children who become empathetic to house elves and Hermione will grow into adults who stand for the civil rights of disenfranchised groups in real life.
Magic is not the point, love is.
If we read these books “literally,” then everything gets confused. Likewise, if we disregard genre and context when reading the Bible, then we easily confuse metaphor with literalism, poetic truth with scientific fact, or descriptive statements with prescriptive, universal commands.
Much of Jesus’ teaching is focused on correcting misinterpretations of Israel’s scriptures, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”, etc., because #badtheologykills. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus criticizes Israel for killing the prophets sent before him (Luke 11:45-52). He, too, is killed because Israel fails to recognize him. His entire conversation with the men on the road to Emmaus is one long lesson in scriptural interpretation.
In the Acts of the Apostles (aka the Gospel of Luke, vol. 2), Peter calls Jesus “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22). The Israelites were expected by God to use their reason and experience with Jesus to help them understand the holy scriptures and ancient traditions which had been passed down to them. They ignored that his healings and other miracles were all obviously good works of God, and instead accused him of conspiring with the devil because they read that it is a sin to do work on the Sabbath, it is unclean to touch a leper, etc., and so they killed him.
Next time someone says personal experience is not a valid lens through which to interpret scripture, I would remind them that 1) it is impossible to be purely objective, and 2) God expects us to pay attention to what we experience (like God working through women preachers, or God using a LGBT Christian to be a neighbor/Good Samaritan to her fundamentalist coworker), in order to help us better interpret scripture.
(See Acts 10 for a precedent-setting example of using experience to change our minds on a theological point: Peter has a vision from God instructing him to “not call profane, what God has made clean.” Peter then preaches to the Gentile, Cornelius, and his household, who all receive the Holy Spirit. Peter’s experience of the vision together with witnessing the Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit leads to the inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 15).
If I had to choose the most valuable lesson from my undergraduate studies in literature, and my graduate studies in theology, it would be the importance of knowing how to read, and learning to be self aware as I am reading.
The Christians who tend to be slower to quarrel with those of differing theological perspectives are those who recognize the poverty of their own “knowledge” about God. Those most fiercely committed to their theological views are more likely to equate themselves being potentially wrong with the truth in scripture being potentially false. Their love and devotion to God and “the w/Word” are genuine, but their inability to distinguish between their limited comprehension of the scriptures and the mystery of God’s will for the scriptures is where the real theological problems are bred.
We all do this to some extent. The more careful we are to balance socio-historical analysis with literary analysis as we seek to interpret scripture, the less resistant we will be to recognizing our own potential mistakes, and the more gracious we can be to one another.