Takeaway: The Bible was written to people very distant from us.
Last year I undertook a project of reading about how to understand, interpret and think about scripture. I read a number of books. (Here is a summary post.) However, this little book, just under 70 pages, suggests many of the same ideas that the hundreds of pages that I read last year did.
If you want to think about how to understand scripture, how to read it on your own and how think about translation and culture issues, this is a good introduction. It is not perfect, I don’t agree with every word, but it has a lot of good advice and clearly presents many of the issues.
David Ker is a bible teacher in a seminary in Mozambique and a bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He has the background. This book is an edited form of a group of blog posts. So there is a number of topics, but they are dealt with in relatively short sections. This is a book you can easily read in 60 to 90 minutes.
As a teacher he talks about his role in teaching exegesis (understanding scripture). “I walk a fine line between getting the students to interpret the Scriptures properly on one hand and to not apply it incorrectly on the other.” That is essentially the problem. His title essay focuses on the fact that none of the bible was written to modern readers. It was all written to a specific time, place and people. And while we have the Holy Spirit to help us, we should start with the idea that the bible was not written to us as the starting point.
One of the things I see quite often when talking to other Christians about the bible is a lack of basic translation theory. Americans on the whole speak one language and live in one culture. So we do not have the advantages of thinking about the bible as a translated document in the way that multi-lingual, multi-cultural Christians in other parts of the world do.
This quote summarizes the problem:
This happens to me all the time in Mozambique. Someone is talking to me in Portuguese or Nyungwe or even English. I understand every word he is saying. But I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. There’s some missing bit of information that I don’t have access to. Almost every time it is some cultural context that isn’t available to me as an outsider. Reading the Bible is like that. You can understand every word and still not get it. Trouble is we never read a passage and say, “I don’t get it.” Our minds are very tricky in this regard. They insist on comprehension. So we always think we understand what it says.
The final part of the book uses the metaphor of lens to help understand how we should approach scripture. He suggests that we need at least five. The wide angle, the telescope, the microscope, the mirror and the kaleidoscope. While that might sound like a lot. On the whole this is a very freeing book, suggesting that reading scripture should be something that we should not feel guilt about, that we should not worry about the original languages as much as the original culture and that the easy tools, a couple of good modern translations are sufficient for most Christians.
I read a lot of difficult books about Christianity and scripture. It is good to read one that is written simply, with humor that is still well thought out and not simplistic. If you have a kindle, pick this up, it is only $1.99 right now. Or it is lendable, so you can borrow it on the borrowing site like Lendle.me. I picked it up free a couple weeks ago as an Amazon promotion, so it is possible it might be free again.
Purchase Links: Kindle Edition