Interpreting Texts, Interpreting our World
I am a voracious, close reader. Few things are more satisfying to me than slowly reading a favorite book. I have often attributed this love of the slow, close read to my upbringing in Churches of Christ, where we were taught to read Scripture with great care. I heard countless sermons that hinged on a single word or phrase—one that only caught the attention of the preacher after they had spent weeks or even months studying the text, perhaps in Greek or Hebrew. We deeply value interpretation in this denomination, because we have understood that the way forward for our communities largely hinges upon our ability to make sense of our beginnings.
And yet, despite the vast wealth of biblical scholarship that our denomination offers, I do wonder if at times the practice of interpretation in our churches is held under a particular spell. Furthermore, I worry that this may be true not just of our interpretation of Scripture, but our interpretation of the world around us. The spell is one that promises a sense of resolution, of correctness, of exceptionalism. A new spirit was forged in the wake of the Enlightenment, which took great confidence in the close read. The object of our study was rendered static, unmoving, unchanging. It was studied as a scientist might study a specimen under a microscope, with the belief that careful study would eventually result in definitive answers.
The 20th century brought a whole host of disruptions to the confidence of biblical scholars and theologians. Through a process of growing more self-reflexive and more attuned to the world around us, we began to ask a new set of questions. We began to wonder why we interpret things the way that we do. We began to ask important hermeneutical questions like, how do we know if we have truly understood a text or an idea? It was a period of deconstruction that rattled many institutions to their core.
As time and our way of making sense of the world progressed, many Churches of Christ began to read Scripture differently. They continued to bring the same level of unwavering rigor and solemnity to the art of interpretation, but they grew to recognize it as just that—an art. I am hopeful that this maturation of our reading of Scripture brings with it a refinement of our interpretation of the world around us, which is the principal concern of this article.
While many of us have been raised to be close readers of texts, we are not always close readers of situations. Many of us lack the skills and insights to offer clear interpretations of the world around us. Perhaps we can take a cue from the field of practical theology, and call this a hermeneutic of situations. I fear that we’ve buried our noses so deep in our texts, that we have forgotten that we have a mission in the world—one that requires deep attentiveness and careful analysis. What is the mission of the church at a time like this? I imagine most of our churches would provide unique answers to that question. They may even have a mission statement posted somewhere on their church websites. I would guess that most of our church mission statements include some kind of intent to act. To “go out” and “do” something, compelled by faith in Christ.
How do we go out and say or do something in the midst of so much dissension and clamor? How do we bring clarity, as opposed to noise, in a world that is raging? What kind of message will break through the noise, offering hope, peace, and a way forward? Only a church that has carefully discerned situations can offer a clear and helpful message.
Churches of Christ have an opportunity. We already value the close, careful read. We already emphasize the importance of equipping ministers and laypeople with resources for interpretation. What is deeply needed at this time, is the equipping of ministers and laypeople for interpreting situations, so that we can be effective ambassadors of love, justice, and peace.
There are a number of virtues and resources that will help churches seeking growth in this area for the sake of their mission in the world. For example, there has been an explosion of literature in the realm of psychology which examines the impact of humility on interpersonal relationships and communication. Many of these studies have found that the development of what is called cultural humility leads to less tumult in interpersonal interactions. Some universities and churches have begun to administer what is called the Intercultural Development Inventory, a process designed to help people identify areas for growth in their cultural awareness and competency.
Another important virtue for this work is simply dedication. This virtue consistently guides the Church of Christ minister who tirelessly and meticulously studies ancient texts. Interpreting situations requires a similar dedication. We must expect that things are not as they seem. We must anticipate a surprise, an epiphany, a deeper truth that lingers just around the corner if we keep pressing for understanding. When we witness disagreement after disagreement, fight after fight, and we begin to lament that our social debates are going nowhere, why don’t we press deeper? Why don’t we probe for underlying causes, for sources of disagreement, or for fresh solutions? I believe the mission of the church in the world requires such careful interpretation. With many helpful virtues already in place, I am hopeful that Churches of Christ will reach for new resources and skills that will aid our ability to engage our communities and the broader world.