When I sit down with young people to discuss films, I often get a blank stare. They have not heard about the films that I and others consider to be classics. I need to be careful when I mention something from a film to illustrate a point since many people have never heard of the film. As a result, they can’t appreciate the point I’m trying to make from a particular scene.
There’s a lesson here in the way we approach the Bible. The Bible was written and compiled over many centuries and is distant from us since it was completed nearly 2000 years ago. Unless we know something about the time, audience, and purpose of a biblical book, it’s nearly impossible to determine what it means and how it was first applied and how it applies today. Imposing 21st-century ways of viewing and understanding the world is fraught with interpretive problems.
The following is from an article written by Jerry Bowyer, author of The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics:
Context matters. When Abraham Lincoln said during the Gettysburg address that the founding fathers were “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the context of where and when he was speaking is important. The same goes for when Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream,” [a speech given by King in 1963 in Washington, DC] and when Ronald Reagan said [in 1987], “Tear down this wall,” [speaking to Mikail Gorbechev about the Berlin Wall that began construction in 1961 that separated Communist East Berlin from non-Communist West Berlin. The wall eventually came down in 1989]. For all of them, their message was specific to the time, place, and audience. Those speeches are still in relatively-recent memory for Americans, so we’re aware of the historical and cultural context surrounding them. When reading the gospels [or any book of the Bible, especially the book of Revelation], however, I think a lot of the contextual importance is lost on us. Even worse than mere ignorance of the context is imposing our own agenda and biases.
Peter Leithart has a delightful analogy that helps demonstrate how context and audience are important when interpreting what a person says or writes:
I have found it useful to think about hermeneutics [the art and science of interpretation] by considering how jokes mean what they mean…. Shrek is a great example; nothing in the film is funny if you don’t know fairy tales, nursery rhymes, popular culture, previous films, pop music, and so on. If you don’t have access to these prior “discourses,” you simply miss the intended meaning of the film’s authors.
For example, when the fairy-tale creatures appear in Shrek’s swamp, viewers are treated to scenes that show many well-known characters, such as Tinkerbell, the bears from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and the Fairy Godmothers from “Sleeping Beauty.” Princess Fiona is introduced as “a loaded pistol who likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain,” a reference to the Rupert Holmes song “Escape.”
The film “Babe” was a popular film from 1995 that starred a pig named Babe. A well-known line from the movie is, “That’ll do pig. That’ll do.” Shrek instead says “That’ll do Donkey. That’ll do.” Children at the time may have associated the line with the film “Babe,” but more than 25 years later, the connection is most likely lost.
A similar idea about context is found in the Albert Brooks film Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World (2005) about a comedian sent to the Middle East by the U.S. government to determine what makes Muslims laugh.
Consider the song “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974).
1. You would have to ask some of the following questions to understand the meaning of the lyrics:
· Who wrote it?
· When was it written?
· Why was it written?
· What is the song’s historical context?
· What does it mean?
2. Are there any lyrical clues that tell the interpreter what it might be about (any mention of people, places, and events)?
· “Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her”: What does “her” refer to? “Her” is a reference to the South or “Southland,” a figure of speech called personification, “where a thing, quality, or idea is represented as a person.” Cities and ships are often referred to as “she” and “her.”
· Who is “Mr. Young”? We learn later in the same stanza that “Mr. Young” has a first name — “Neil.” Neil Young is a musician who played with the musical groups “Buffalo Springfield” and “Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young,” whose song “Ohio” is based on the Kent State shootings that took place on May 4, 1970.
· Through some additional study, we learn that Neil Young had written two stereotypical songs about the South—“Southern Man” and “Alabama.”
· From further research we learn that “Sweet Home Alabama” was a response to these two songs and their anti-Southern perspectives.
· “Sweet Home Alabama” includes some geography (Birmingham, Montgomery, and Muscle Shoals — all in Alabama), politics (“Watergate”), and sarcasm (“In Birmingham they love the governor … boo, boo, boo”), and a reference to “the Swampers” who “have been known to pick a song or two.” Does “pick” mean “pick up” or “pick out”? Most likely it’s a reference to music, as in “pick the strings on a guitar,” which means play the guitar.
· What does it mean to “feel blue”? How does one feel blue? Of course, “feel blue” is an idiom that has something to do with emotions. There is a music style called “the blues.”
The interpretation of any type of literature must follow these steps. Consider the Constitution and what Thomas Jefferson said about its meaning:
On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.
What’s true of humor, films, music, and the Constitution is also true of the Bible. It is literature. It must be interpreted on its own terms of an understanding of when and to whom and about what and why it was written. It’s only after these principles are followed that they can be understood and applied.
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