Lost in Translation
By Jim Tune
I wrote my message quickly and fired it off. Just seconds after clicking Send, it dawned on me with mortifying clarity that I had sent the text message to the wrong recipient. My message fortunately was not overly sensitive, rude, or confidential. Still, it left room for both misunderstanding and embarrassment.
I was relieved when the unintended recipient responded graciously and with minimal offense. It could have been much worse. As I reflected on my blunder, I realized my experience had a direct application to biblical hermeneutics (hermeneutics is just a fancy word for “interpretation”).
The recipient of my wayward text did not jump to conclusions. She had the good sense to quickly and thoughtfully ponder a few questions: Who was my message intended for? What was the backstory or context for my message? My friend refused to jump to a hasty conclusion or read her own assumptions into the meaning of my text.
To my great relief, she had the presence of mind to consider what I, as the author of the message, was trying to communicate to the intended recipient. That is basically the goal behind the hermeneutic task.
When we approach the Scriptures, we do well to remember that the Bible had human authors and it was written for a human audience. The writers were surrounded by human history, culture, and context that informed what they were writing. Was the Scripture text answering a question circulating in the culture or was it history? What kind of history—ancient or recent? What genres and subgenres were influencing the message? What was the context?
It’s only natural to read ancient texts through our own experience, culture, lens, race, and socioeconomic background. But at some point we should step away and ask, Are we allowing Scripture to speak with its own voice?
If you wrote an important message, you probably would hope and expect the reader to attempt to understand the heart, purpose, and point of your message, based in part on the place, time, and situation that occasioned its writing. Anything less could result in reading the Bible like it’s a phone book or a line-by-line users’ manual, rather than what it is: a diverse and complex intermingling of history, story, and wise reflections on life with God.
The Bible was written by different people, for different reasons, under different circumstances over a span of more than a thousand years. A truly reverential reading of the Scriptures involves more than lifting verses from the Bible as proof texts to support one’s own personal views.
Fortunately, the unintended recipient of my text respected me enough to seek to understand my true voice. We should do no less when we read the Bible.