Good intentions are seldom sufficient in and of themselves. Often a person can mean well, but still end up doing a lot of mischief. Consider the attempt by an Anglican vicar in the UK to make Bible stories more “accessible” to modern readers. His new book, Must Know Stories, which appears tomorrow, takes ten popular bible stories and updates them for the contemporary reader.
One press account gives us an inkling of what this will be like: “In the nativity story, Jesus is born in an overcrowded house instead of a stable, amid family conflict as Joseph’s aunt deals with the fact that he and Mary are not even married.” Harrison says that it’s “better to tell the story controversially than not at all.” Thus, as the press report continues, “Goliath is a celebrity binge drinker, Eve is a sex-obsessed man-eater and Noah’s wife wants to kill him . . . welcome to the updated Bible.”
Said Harrison, “There are some stories which, in every culture, people need to know. These wonderful ancient stories are not known by a huge proportion of our society, and they need to be told.” So far so good. Nothing wrong with taking biblical stories and seeking to get them out to newer and wider audiences.
And nothing wrong with a bit of contextualisation and modernising of certain things, such as language, and maybe even to an extent, more contemporary settings for these old stories. But of course we already have both modern language translations and paraphrases of Scripture, as well as various culturally-sensitive renderings of the Bible.
But what is really worrying is when Harrison makes this remark: “”I wanted to write a book that tells the most important Bible stories in a way that relishes them rather than tries to make any particular religious point. After all, who knows what the point is?”
Uh oh. This is where we get into deep trouble. Just what is the good vicar implying here? He seems to be suggesting that these are simply stories, maybe even myths, just like any other story, and they have no real meaning or purpose, or at least we cannot know that meaning. So let’s just enjoy them, like we might enjoy the Odyssey, or Peter Rabbit. Whatever meaning I might derive from them is as good as anyone else’s meaning or understanding
Now if that sounds vaguely familiar, it should be. It is all the rage on Western university campuses these days. It is known as deconstructionism, part of the bigger postmodernist project. The idea is that we can never really know what an author (or artist, or song writer, or the creator of any other cultural artifact) intended by his or her work. Authorial intention cannot be known, and all we can do is bring our own meaning into the text (or play, or song, or work of art, and so on).
Harrison seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for this deconstructionist demolition job. As Kevin Vanhoozer put it, deconstructionism is “not so much a method of interpretation as a strategy for undoing interpretations”. This is something all students of Scripture should avoid like the plague.
Thus Harrison is actually helping no one here, certainly not the person who really wants to know what the Bible says and teaches. For these stories are not just feel-good myths or fun things to read to children at bedtime, but in fact are part of God’s inspired word, and appear there for a purpose.
Most of these stories are about actual historical events, which the biblical writers intended to use to convey actual theological truths. The stories are written for a purpose in mind, and it is not up to us to just read into them anything we like.
Indeed, any first year theology student will learn that the basic rule of good hermeneutics is exegesis over eisegesis. That is, as we approach the biblical text, we must be careful to exegete the passage, to seek to dig out of the text the author’s intended meaning. But we should never engage in eisegesis, that is, read into the text something that is not there.
And since most of these stories deal with real historical situations, such historical context is vital in understanding the author’s intended meaning. Thus classes in biblical interpretation will teach students how to learn about the historical, cultural and linguistic background of a given biblical story or teaching.
Since this book does not go on sale until tomorrow, I of course have not read it yet. But given what the press reports have said about this book, I don’t think I will be rushing out anytime soon to grab a copy. And I certainly will not be recommending it to any spiritual seeker or new Christian to help them better understand the Bible and its message.
Ripping a Bible story out of its historical and cultural context, and implying that no one can know what it really means, is not the way to help those who want to become acquainted with God’s word and get the full benefit out of it. It will simply lead one into epistemological relativism, and to a deconstructed – and therefore useless – Bible.