What Is God Up To?: Thoughts On Scripture & Interpretation

Last year there was an uproar among more fundamentalist strands of the Christian Church when President Barack Obama came out in support of marriage equality. The Sunday following Obama’s interview with Robin Roberts many parishioners heard sermons reaffirming the Church’s traditional (read, dominating/mainstream) stance on marriage: “marriage between one man and one woman.”

While the uproar was common among conservative Christian communities in general, the story dominating mainstream media was one of conflict between President Obama and the black community – specifically “The Black Church.” It seemed like every news network quickly summoned their token black conservative religious pundit to talk about why “The Black Church” was standing against Obama in his support of marriage equality.

Less than 24 hours after Obama’s announcement mainstream media made it seem like all black people were united in their conservative, Bible-thumping antagonism toward Obama. For a short period, things quieted down a bit: Obama had taken his stance, the black conservative religious guard had taken theirs, and both parties went their own ways. Then reality hit. And that reality is, The Black Church is not a monolithic phenomenon: when we are honest, we talk about black churchES as opposed to THE black church. All black religious leaders were not against Obama’s newfound affirmation of marriage equality.

Rev. Al Sharpton was among the first of black religious leaders to respond to conservative Black pastors and their opposition to Obama: because everyone knows you can’t have black religious drama without hearing from the good reverend. Sharpton – whose track record suggests that he’s politically progressive and religiously ambiguous on marriage equality – nuanced the conversation in ways that relied on neo-separation-of-church-and-state arguments, calling for people to interrogate their religious conservatism and how they were using it in the civil society.

The central concern for mainstream media seemed to be how Obama’s stance on marriage equality would affect him come election time. In the media’s reporting, and even in Sharpton’s response to his conservative colleagues, the theological dynamics fueling the fire were seldom discussed. At the end of the day, the primary concern was the black voter turn out in November.

***

Although this conversation about black (Christian) voters was the loudest one being had, the theological dynamics of the conversation were being had in (black) churches across the country, albeit without much depth in many cases. The religious communities I found myself in at the time were working hard to build the case for their understanding of marriage – again, between a man and a woman. Often times fear mongering was used to create this notion that the church was now, in some way, under attack by the liberal society. Indeed, many fundamentalists doubled down on previous religious convictions refusing to move at all.

But again, this theologically conservative response was not the only one being given by black religious leaders. The Sunday morning following Obama’s interview, I chose not to attend a church service to avoid the inevitable hyper-religious psychobabble.  I tuned into Trinity United Church of Christ live stream instead and heard Rev. Otis Moss, III read a letter he’d written to a colleague regarding the question of President Obama’s stance on marriage equality and the response from black churches.

What is most striking about Moss’s shared letter for my concerns herein is the fact that he began to publicly wrestle with the theological assumptions and scriptural interpretations undergirding the conservative opposition to Obama. While portions of Moss’s letter were, like Sharpton’s plea, concerned with voter turn out in November, he pushes the dialogue a bit further. Moss not only challenges the unnamed colleague to whom he is writing to support Obama politically in November, but Moss also challenges the colleague to wrestle with her/his religious convictions.

Moss diagnoses the real problem at hand. For Moss, the problem is not that Obama came out in support of marriage equality, but that religious leaders (white, black, and brown alike) were – and still are – failing to truly wrestle with the faith claims they make and how those faith claims are lived out in the world. Moss said:

“When we make biblical claims without sound interpretation we adopt doctrinal positions devoid of the love ethic. Deep faith may resonate in our position: but the ethic of love will always force you to reexamine and prayerfully reconsider your position.”

This gets to the heart of the question that I want to raise herein. In Mashaun’s first post on The Parking Lot Blog he wrestled with the question, “Even if the Bible is clear on homosexuality, does that mean God is as well?”  Mashaun’s post gave much attention to the latter half of his question – “…does that mean God is as well?” I would like to give a bit of attention to the first half of the question he raises – i.e., the place the Bible holds in our faith and the way we interpret it.

***

To be clear, the end goal of this post is not to get people to jump on the marriage equality bandwagon or to establish a Christian ethic of sexuality, per se. Though it may be unclear at this point, my concern is one of scriptural interpretation. Nevertheless, I would like to tarry here a little longer as I think this particular debate lends itself to my point of concern. Thusly, I offer one more example from this dialogue to help further explore the point I’m trying to make.

On August 6, 2012 Dr. Brad Braxton, pastor of The Open Church (Baltimore, Maryland), went on record in an interview with Houston Style Magazine as a black pastor supporting marriage equality.[1] For me and the faith community I call my home church, this one hit a little closer to home. Dr. Braxton taught for a brief time in the city of my home church. During his time there, he was a somewhat regular attendee of my home church and even preached a few times. Fully aware that people would be discussing this – particularly people in my city/church of origin –  I posted a link to the interview on Facebook with the following quote from the interview:

“African Americans historically have been a ‘jazz people’ as it relates to the interpretation of the Bible. For the sake of justice and peace, we have often engaged in an ‘improvisational riff’ on the Bible and not stuck to the literal notes on the page. We are not literal when it comes to many other topics the Bible addresses, but we want to be hyper-literal when addressing LGBT people and issues. Churches need to be more honest and less hypocritical…”

Fairly quickly a minister colleague from my home church posted the following response:

“Let’s not forget what’s stated in Romans 1:24-28. God is against same sex marriage without a doubt. Just because a man states the opposite of God does not make the man right!!! No matter how educated he or she is in the word, God is always right!!!”

Another minister colleague posted a response shortly thereafter with similar sentiments drawing distinctions between the academy and the church. He also claimed he would value “foolishness” over “wisdom” if what Dr. Braxton was offering was indeed wisdom. He cited 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 as scriptural support.

Most interesting about both responses was the improvisational nature of each of their claims.  Specifically, in Romans 1:24-28 the Bible does not say what my colleague wanted it to. For me, there is nothing saying “God is against same sex marriage without a doubt” in the passage, but you can read it for yourself and draw your own conclusion. My point is, utilizing the exegetical tools he knew of, my colleague made an interpretive move to draw a conclusion that wasn’t necessarily spelled out explicitly in the scriptural text he referenced. At least not how he wanted it to be.

[Beat.] Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not attempting to make the Bible this happy-go-lucky book that is not problematic. I am also not attempting to separate the Bible from its histories of interpretation. There are texts that talk about slaves submitting to their masters, women submitting to men (specifically, wives to husbands), women keeping silent in the church, and humans dominating creation. In the same way, there are a few texts that explicitly speak against sexual relations between persons of the same sex – normally men – as they were experienced in the time of the biblical writers. And a few more that have a tradition of being read through a homophobic/heteronormative lens. Yep, these things are in the Bible!

However, I am not one of these, “God said it, I believe, that settles it” type of Christians. At least not when it comes to interpreting scripture. Nothing irks me more than hearing ministers preach sexist, racist, heteronormative, etc. sermons only to follow them up with comments like, “Don’t get mad at me! I didn’t write it, I just read it!” Maybe that’s part of the problem? The fact of the matter is the Bible doesn’t have some magical power that relinquishes readers of their interpretive responsibility.

On the flip side, I’m also not one of these lock-step liberal type Christians who’d throw the scriptures out in favor of some lovey-dovey-mush-mush God. One must not be liberal over-against scripture, one can be – should be liberal in the name of scripture. Scripture is always authoritative in Christian life and must be taken into account at every turn. However, authoritative does not equal normative (HT – LTJ, Candler). The Bible does not function like, let’s say, the U.S. Constitution. It’s not a legal code that outlines laws for how we are to live, at least not all of it. It’s not even the Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth as email forwards that have been circulating since the 1990s try to convince us. It’s much more complex than that!

Even folks who claim to “speak when the Bible speaks” are interpreting the Bible; granted, they are interpreting it in ways consistent with the dominant historical interpretation/narrative of the Church. The point is, at some point in history someone made a decision to interpret a text a certain way. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing:  interpretation is how scripture gets its life. However, the words of scripture don’t always directly correlate to the language we use today. Furthermore, the context of the biblical writers and our current context are drastically different.

Does that mean there is no word from God for our current situation? Absolutely not!

It means we have to do a little more homework to investigate what’s at the heart of the scriptures we read as opposed to taking them at face value. The words don’t do the homework for us. To further Dr. Braxton’s jazz metaphor, the ‘notes’ don’t come to life by themselves. The notes come to life when someone reads them, breathes into the instrument, and plays them; when the Holy Spirit breaks into our reading and studying and breathes life into our interpretation. Every person who picks up the Bible – from the pulpit, to the choir stand, to the back door – must consider our priestly task of making the words (‘notes’) on the pages come to life.

As I take my seat…[2]

We must realize and/or remember that the Bible is not prescriptive for defining life with God, but descriptive.  I recently came across a blog post by Rachel Held Evans titled, “In Search of a Better Conversation About Biblical Womanhood, Part 1”.  In the blog post, Evans wrestles with some of the pressures that some evangelical Christian communities put on women through ‘biblical expectations’. At the end of the post, Evans writes:

And yet “biblical womanhood” hangs so heavy over the heads of Christian women that many live in nearly constant fear of disappointing their husbands, their children, or their God.

At the root of the problem is the fact that we have grown accustomed to using the word “biblical” prescriptively (to mean, “what God wants”) rather than descriptively (to mean, “that which is found in the Bible”). We have forgotten that behind every claim to a biblical lifestyle or ideology lies a complex set of assumptions regarding interpretation and application.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick [it] in front of another loaded word (like “womanhood,” “politics,” “economics,” and “marriage”) more often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Indeed, when we make the Bible some prescriptive tool for how we live or what God wants, we misuse – I might even say, abuse – it.  When used properly the Bible should be a guide for how we live. We should read it, not to figure out what God has said, but in order to figure what God is currently saying in light of what has already been said.

The word and work of creation is ongoing. God is still speaking today. Creation is still happening today. God creates our world in every moment. Not only does scripture have the power of revelation, but also every moment of every day bears within it the potential for creation and revelation. It is our responsibility to figure out how (the word of) God is speaking to us today.

I’m going to my seat now, but before I go…

There is one key thing to consider in all our interpretive efforts; and this is particularly for folks leery of interpreting scripture. In the words of Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson in a lecture at Candler School of Theology, “If you’re a Christian, you are already re-reading scripture.” Christianity is an attempt to re-read Jewish scripture in a way that includes Gentiles in light of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament we see the practical and difficult ways folks attempt to work through this seeming contradiction.

Specifically, The Acts of the Apostles recounts the very torturous path of the first Jews who decided to include the Gentiles. Their question –  “How do we include these heathens in a holy people?”  This question forced the community to ask a follow up question –  “What is God up to?”

Today, as we interpret scripture and attempt to live lives in response to God, we’re in the business of asking the same question – what is God up to?

Our interpretation can be backward-looking, assuming that God has spoken and speaks no more; trying to force our context into that of the Bible’s. Deep faith may very well be grounding the interpretation. But I ask, deep faith to what? To whom? Ourselves? The Bible? A certain worldview?

On the flip side, our interpretation can be open to the ‘improvisational riffs’ of the Spirit of the living God – the God who is still speaking. For this Christian, at the end of the day, obedience to the living God trumps scripture every time for the name of our Lord is truth, not tradition.[3]


[1] If you don’t want to read Dr. Braxton’s interview you can watch another interview with PBS where he echoes and expands some of the points from his interview with Houston Style Magazine.

[2] Folks raised in a black Bapthodicostal church know what that means. The rest of y’all gone learn today…

[3] Hat Tip: LTJ, again.

6 thoughts on “What Is God Up To?: Thoughts On Scripture & Interpretation

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Brandon. Thanks for sharing!
    Based on what you said in this post, and given that our study of scripture ideally comes to life by the Holy Spirit like you said, how will our interpretations compare? Should mine be the same as yours?

    1. Sorry for the delayed response, Marcus. You raise an interesting question; one I haven’t given much thought to, to be honest.

      I guess my follow up question would be, what is at stake in the desire for sameness or the illusion of unity (not that I perceive you to be pushing for this, per se)?

      In long… I don’t know if sameness should be the goal of interpretation. I think people often believe that if God’s spirit is moving, then we should all be thinking/saying the same thing. I contend, however, that when God’s spirit is moving things are being stirred up, which raises questions and fosters the need for interpretation.

      Furthermore, the quest for sameness in interpretation does not take seriously our humanness in the process. By that I mean, we all – conservatives/liberals, catholics/protestants, etc. – have vested interests and baggage that we bring to the table when we interpret scripture; whether those interests are named or not. These interests inevitably effect the way we choose to interpret scripture.

      When our interpretations aren’t the same, I think that’s when we have to ask (difficult) questions – like, what is it undergirding certain scriptural interpretations? Or which leg of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesleyan_Quadrilateral)
      are we leaning on most heavily to support our various interpretations?

      Even more difficult – What changes about God, or our conception of God, should we make or accept a new interpretation of (a certain) scripture? How do WE change when we make a different interpretive move?

      So, in short… I don’t think our interpretations will always be the same. Our quest, however, should be solidarity, not sameness. When we are solid with one another, our differences aren’t stifled/stamped out but they are honestly wrestled with and the creative tension of our differences has the potential to foster something new.

      Make sense?

  2. Philosophy, politics, and homosexuality, which of these topics did Christ promote? He said that he came to do the will of his father. If more of us had that prevelant in our hearts, we would not be so easily mislead by our own selfish motives. Most of us have heard of God’s loves for us. My question is, what about our love for him? This article suggest that the church should think critically about theological, political, and social issues in an effort to look at the scripture anew. God is Holy and perfect in all his ways. He cannot change his nature and we cannot change the truth of his word. What about our reverence for his holiness and excellence? Can someone interpret that?

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