Pitfalls in Bible Study #4 – Reading Ourselves into the Text

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There are some texts where there can be little doubt we are meant to find ourselves. It might be a particular story that falls so perfectly in line with our present experiences that there can be little doubt God wants us to find ourselves in the story. Or maybe it is a particular psalm that reflects the raw emotion you are facing. I think God means for us to find ourselves in those texts. But taken to an extreme we can misinterpret many texts by digging too hard in order to find ourselves there.

This is particularly true of the book of Revelation. There are two extremes some people go to when they study Revelation. Both lead to major problems in interpretation. The first is “Everything was back then.” This view basically says that 99% of the events in the book are in the past, so beside the last chapter or two there is nothing in there for us today.The second has more to do with this post, “Everything is yet to take place.” This view says that 99% of the events of the book have not yet happened and so it is perfectly fine to read into the text modern events wherever you please. When people do this they start finding tanks, helicopters, nuclear war, and who might the “antichrist” be of those alive today (even though that word is never even used in Revelation!).

The point is, there are texts that we so desperately want to find ourselves in that were not meant to be read that way. We want so badly to find ourselves there that we start reading ourselves into every detail and miss the original intention of the author completely! This is not just true of the apocalyptic books but many other places in scripture as well. It is just easier to spot in the apocalyptic books because of their use of symbol and metaphorical images.

Take the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. That is one of those stories that you read and quickly identify with one of the characters over the others. Once you do that, the filters through which you read the rest of the story changes the meaning you find in the parable. You read this parable in a different light if you are the parent of a child who is not a Christian versus reading this parable as someone who has fallen away from God because you immediately relate with one character over another. That is not a bad thing in and of itself. But in doing so it is very easy to miss the immediate context of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees and some of the broader principles of love and forgiveness that may be missed because we find ourselves too close to one character or another.

I do think God wants us to find ourselves in that story but I also think he wants us to understand the meaning of the story in light of the broader context found in Luke 15:1-3, that Jesus was teaching the Pharisees a lesson about God. And so, we might find ourselves relating most closely with the Father due to an unfaithful child, but maybe there is a bigger point God wants us to hear of finding ourselves as either one of the children and how they relate to their Father.

How to avoid this pitfall:
It is important that we first try to understand the text for what it was intended to mean. This is nothing new, just basic exegesis. The best way to find out what scripture has to say to us is to find out what it had to say to them. Once we understand that we can start unpacking the text, in light of its original meaning, context, and culture, into our culture today.

0 Responses

  1. I had difficulty reading this post, because I kept seeing myself in your examples.

    Seriously this series is good work, Matt. Intentionally changing how we read is a difficult task, but one that has the potential to really ratchet up our understanding and practice of the faith.

    On this particular point, I think this is probably a function of our tendencies to rush the text and see the world as revolving around ourselves. We want to skip into application without really soaking into the text itself – we treat the text as an entity isolated from its own context, and too quickly bring it into our own. It’s like taking home a stray puppy without checking to see if anybody else is missing it. We assume “it’s ours” because it’s cute, we like it, and looking for the original owner would take time and diligence.

  2. Good post. We are a self -centered society. So self -centered we can not even see what ourself is actually doing. “Preaching” to those people is difficult because nothing applies to them unless it touches their feelings. Hopefully we catch those teetering on the edge and help them change course.

  3. I nearly choked on my coffee the first time I realized that I wasn’t meant to be any of the characters in Luke 15 – when I realized that the full power of the parable was meant to be heard by me as a member of the religious elite.

    That was one of the moments that forced me to challenge my initial reading of any text. Thank you for this reminder.

    PS – I think Eugene Peterson’s “Reversed Thunder” does a great job of modeling responsible application of apocalyptic.

  4. The most common “insertion of ones self into the text” is by assuming to be the antecedent of the second person pronouns. Such as the Upper Room meeting of Jesus with the Apostles (John 13-16), It is NOT legitimate to apply Jesus’ promise of a comforter and all the HS will do for the Apostles to modern readers. The other obvious misuse is in the area of eschatology. All second person pronouns belong only to original hearers/readers.

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