Christians have throughout history maintained the importance of a proper understanding of the scriptures. Hermeneutics, the study of interpretation and interpretive methods, largely originated in an attempt to rightly interpret and understand the Scriptures. Indeed, much of the field we now call Literary Criticism traces its methodological roots to attempts at historical Biblical interpretation.
In a recent opinion article in the Yale Daily News, entitled “Reading better for real marriage,” the author takes issue with the “poor critical reading skills” exhibited by people who “take texts at face value.” Specifically, the author is attacking those who would use a “uncritical” approach to the Bible to support opposition to gay marriage.
Mercer-Golden is right to point to the importance of seeking to understand the Bible critically, without projecting our own prejudices on the text. And she is also right in pointing to times when poor interpretation of the Bible has been used to support ideas such slavery and “pseudo-science.” However, the author’s shallow understanding of the Scriptures reveal that her appeal to better “critical reading” is little more than an appeal to cultural irrelevancy.
Even before considering her argument, there are numerous assumptions both explicitly and implicitly present in the argument that are simply false. To begin, Mercer-Golden makes the following broad claim about the Bible: “Whether or not you believe that the Bible was written by God, it is important to understand that the Bible was put together (and I would argue written) by a small group of formerly nomadic individuals who were trying to create and preserve a sense of community identity.” Even the most liberal scholarship dates the composition of “The Bible” over a a roughly thousand year period, written by kings and shepherds, priests and prophets, doctors and fishermen. While an emphasis on what it means to be the people of God is certainly found in the Old Testament, to claim that the creation of a national identity is the only thing going in the Old Testament is to flatten the richness and power of the original texts.
The main problem with Mercer-Golden’s article is the claim that an “accurate” reading of the bible will reveal a viewpoint similar to her own. Most biblical scholars would very much disagree with this. What she seems to be implying is that if we engage in a “critical reading” of the the Bible, we will be led to dismiss parts of it as culturally irrelevant.
To argue that our culture has moved on from the teaching of the Bible is one thing, but to say that those who still claim it as authoritative deeply misunderstand it is quite another.