Phillip and I had a great time at the Oregon Ducks vs. Tennessee Vols game this past weekend. Not only did we witness our beloved ducks finally ignite in the 2nd half, scoring 35 electrifying points in a 48-13 victory; but we also enjoyed the football atmosphere in Knoxville and Neyland Stadium. Before the game, as we were walking around UT’s campus, we stumbled upon the UT “pre-game show” put on by the college of arts and sciences. Apparently, before every home game, a professor from the university lectures and fields questions on an interesting or relevant topic. Coincidentally (providentially?), and to my delight, the topic for the UT/Oregon game was biblical interpretation: “For the Bible Tells Me So: the Politics of Biblical Interpretation.” Phillip was interested, so we pre-gamed “lecture-style.”
Prof. Christine Shepherd, an associate professor of religious studies at UT, shared historical information and her academic perspective on the connections between politics (i.e. political stances like “anti-war” or “pro-life”) and reading the bible. At issue is how “we” (that is, any human reader of any text) make decisions about what the bible “says.” After all, the bible itself doesn’t say anything. To make this point, Prof. Shepherds recalled a moment when one of her professors opened the bible and uttered the command, “Speak.” After a period of silence, the class got it. “What the bible ‘says'” is shorthand for: how we have interpreted what we’ve read from the text we call the bible. Basically, the bible requires human beings to “say” anything. Thus, all political (professor Shepherd’s terminology; I prefer “ethical”) positions gleaned from the bible are the product of a series of decisions which, for many of us, go unnoticed or unattended to. Her efforts were to show the deep ambiguity of the bible, that it doesn’t “say” anything without our contributions and assumptions.
I found the presentation helpful for communicating important complexity about biblical interpretation in an accessible way. The truth, it seems to me, is that reading is a very complicated thing, one we don’t always realize is so complicated. We assume, with phrases like “the bible says” that reading and interpreting are “straightforward” and “transparent” activities–“common sense” to use a popular phrase. But when we span the reach of history, we discover that there is anything but a “common sense” interpretation of scripture; at least with respect to how the bible translates into political and ethical actions. Prof. Shepherd’s lecture showed us how complicated such reading can be. And the stakes, as many of us know from our experience of political-religious rhetoric and policies, can be very high: Women’s ordination, gay rights/marriage, slavery, abortion, military strategy, etc (to name but a few).
So, after all this, what does the bible say? Well, I opened the bible, commanded it to speak, and to my surprise it said: “ducks win by 35″… Vols fans should have listened to the bible.