Reading Wars: What Christian Debates Are Really About

Michal Beth Dinkler

The Christian church – as one body, in all its variegated American iterations – is utterly schizophrenic when it comes to gun violence, police brutality, abortion, the Confederate flag, gay marriage, gendered identities, homeland security, immigration, education, poverty, medical care, religious freedom (the list goes on). There is no united, identifiable “Christian” view on any of the most controversial issues of our time.

Michal Beth Dinkler photoWhat we often miss is that in the church, these are not simply “Culture Wars.” They are Reading Wars. So often, the incendiary rhetoric preached from the pulpit, posted online, and perpetuated in Christian media outlets is animated by fundamentally different views of how to read the biblical texts as Christians. Many of these lines drawn in the sand concern how we read the lines of Scripture.

Eternal Word, Endless Debate

I recognize that current cultural controversies are complex, and that we do not yet have the historical distance necessary for fully informed analysis. I also recognize that many Americans – including some Christians – find the Bible completely irrelevant to contemporary debates. Nonetheless, for many Christians, events playing out in the public square represent assaults on their most cherished and deeply held beliefs – convictions derived from particular readings of the Bible as the eternal Word of God. Within the church, as well, Christians lob grenades at one another across political, theological, economic, and ideological divides. Church foundations fracture and denominations split over questions of Scriptural interpretation. (My own denomination, the PCUSA, is one recent example.) A lot is at stake in how we read.

Disagreement itself is not the problem. The New Testament books consistently attest to – even arose out of – early Christian conflicts over a whole host of issues. If the earliest Christians had agreed on everything, we most likely would not have a New Testament. Not only that, but a great many Christian reform movements throughout history arose to pursue justice, mercy, and positive change precisely because Christians disagreed with one another. The problem is not difference.

Rather, the problem is that the intra-Christian Reading Wars go largely unacknowledged as such. Nuanced theoretical debates over hermeneutics continue in pockets of academia and corners of church life, but such discussions going on behind the lines need to work their way to the front, where the actual fighting is going on. The laypeople in the trenches are often shooting from the hip, fighting for their convictions, unaware that these convictions can shape the way we read Scripture, rather than the other way around. We think of our own readings as unbiased, but our readings themselves are influenced by the battles we fight and the manner in which we fight them. For the health of the global church – and of individual local churches – we need more serious and self-reflective dialogue about how we read and understand the Bible.

Here, I’m not referring to the kinds of questions addressed in “How to Read the Bible” handbooks, which teach important skills for faithful biblical interpretation: skills like identifying biblical genres, understanding biblical authors’ and audiences’ historical contexts, and avoiding the tendency to conform the text to our expectations. Many Christian communities do discuss these kinds of methodological issues. Still, though there are exceptions, too few “How to Read” books also consider the views of those whose reading strategies and hermeneutical agendas differ from their own.

My point is this: We also need to be thinking critically, carefully, and consistently together about how and why we approach Scripture in the ways that we do, including talking with Christians who offer competing interpretations. We cannot really read the Bible for all its worth unless we commit to rigorous genuine dialogue not only about “How to Read the Bible,” but also about the question, “How do We Read the Bible?”:

  • Why do we read this passage in this way? Why do others read it differently?
  • Is this how we want to read the Bible? If so, why? If not, what needs to change, and why?

In other words, we need to identify and interrogate our assumptions about the Bible, many of which are not conscious but habitual.

How we read seems natural to us, but the ability to understand and follow a text’s generic, linguistic, and conventional cues is always a matter of socialization and habituation. Reading is taught and learned, explicitly or through modeling, within certain social structures. Accordingly, reading becomes second nature to us – and normative hermeneutical strategies remain both unspoken and unquestioned.

Recently, one of my students insisted that he doesn’t interpret the Bible; he reads it. But this is a misunderstanding of what reading is and does. Textual meaning is often far from self-evident, and reading as a form of meaning-making is far from simple.

As readers, we interact with texts in complicated and convoluted ways, drawing on a wide range of presuppositions, contextual concerns, and unexamined assumptions. Reading is interpretation.

We also interpret others’ reading strategies. One of the major – again, largely unacknowledged – strategies by which Christians stake their interpretive claims is denigrating the reading posture of others. We need to think carefully and intentionally about our own reading, but we also need to scrutinize the rhetoric we use when we talk about how others read. Have you heard that evangelicals read the Bible uncritically, regarding it as inerrant and applicable in all times and places? Have you heard that ecumenical communities have a “low” view of Scripture, or that they perform “eisegesis” (literally, “reading into”) instead of “exegesis” (literally, “reading out”)? What about the claim that scholars complicate the Bible unnecessarily, or that a reader needs only the guidance of God’s Spirit to understand the text? Have you heard that postcolonial or feminist readings are merely “ideological,” just “a form of identity politics”? That postmodernists abandon Truth? Or that fundamentalists idolize the text, worshipping the Bible instead of God? I have heard all of these depictions of others’ reading strategies at various points in Christian circles.

Each of these declarations about others’ reading postures otherizes a given branch of the church. But rarely would those who self-identify with those groups embrace such descriptions of themselves. The best way to engage an argument is first to state the other person’s position in terms she or he would accept, and then to proceed in dialogue from those shared premises. Facile caricatures of others’ reading practices too often lead us to dismiss other Christians, whose different reading postures – even those we vehemently reject – can challenge us to grapple with difficult but crucial questions about how we read Scripture as Christians.

If God’s people are to thrive and grow as we face an uncertain future, we all ought to take a step back and examine our personal and communal reading habits. Toward that end, let me suggest some terminology that might be helpful: The following three postures toward the Bible are commonly found in Christian communities (though remember that readers often move fluidly between them without realizing it):

Posture 1: Reading “Under”

These readers elevate the biblical text above themselves, approaching the canon as holy, authoritative, and inerrant or infallible. Reading “under” entails receiving the biblical text as God’s revelation of ultimate truth, and seeking to submit to those instructions in all ways and always. Denominations that do not ordain women could be described as reading “under” First Timothy 2:12 (which advocates the silence of women in church). We might call this a hermeneutic of submission.

Posture 2: Reading “Over”

Reading “over” means reading from a position above the text, critically judging whether a given passage is ethical and true to the reader’s personal experience. Reading “over” means viewing the Bible as an historical document written from and for a different world than our own. Reading “over” a passage like Psalm 137:9 (which extols dashing one’s enemies’ infants against rocks) would mean: first, noting that the rhetoric is aimed at a specific historical group (Babylon), and second, rejecting as unethical the effects of acting on this passage today. This posture has been described as a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Posture 3: Reading “With”

A reading “with” posture toward reading Scripture means coming alongside the biblical text to interact with it as one would with another person. It means respecting the Bible as an historically shaped document through which God continues to communicate with God’s people. Reading “with” requires recognizing the reader’s responsibility for her or his interpretative choices, but also being open to the possibility that God enacts transformation through the text. We might call this a hermeneutic of humble hospitality.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive – for example, reading “with” can include submitting to the text, and reading “over” does not preclude belief that the Bible is God’s Word. Remember, too, that Christians read with the church, both historical and contemporary. We are all active participants whose voices need to be heard and taken seriously within an ongoing conversation. The vital task is to identify the posture we typically assume vis-à-vis the Bible, in order to evaluate the merits and weaknesses of the interpretive strategies we have learned. We might consider questions like these:

Why do we approach the text this way?

  • What theological assumptions, beliefs, and values underlie our reading practices?
  • What are we assuming about the conditions in which this text arose?
  • How involved were the human authors? The divine author?

Our capacity to ask how we receive, reject, or respect the biblical text demonstrates that we have agency as readers. Our readings are partial and fallible, and we are responsible for their implications. We can and should make adjustments. Thus, we might ask:

  • Does this reading make us more like Jesus, deepen our love for God and neighbor, further the cause of justice in the world, and make the world a more loving place?
  • Where might this understanding of Scripture be wrong, and by what criteria would we make such a judgment?
  • How does this illuminate who God is, how God works, and what God expects of us?

Compassionate Curiosity

Christian Reading Wars are not going away any time soon. In the past, trained clergy or scholars, authorities within institutionalized hierarchies, defined insiders and outsiders, good and evil, sacred and profane. Now, however, as many traditional ecclesial structures crumble and non-denominationalism rises, and as more Christians fail to identify with formal religion, community borders increasingly are policed by individual Christians – with or without theological training. As the digital revolution democratizes access to online platforms of proclamation, anyone can claim interpretive authority and proclaim her or his view on any digital street corner. Seldom now are major battles waged on conventional battlefields; the church’s Reading Wars are fought by guerrilla warfare.

Christians have long loved certainty. We are adept at the search for answers. We are not so strong when it comes to “living the questions” (to use Rainer Maria Rilke’s phrase). As the Reading Wars rage on in an ever-changing church, we need to live the questions together with patience and generosity. Let us become compassionately curious about our own postures toward the Bible, and about how we talk about other Christians’ ways of reading Scripture. Only then will the church’s Reading Wars turn from battle into dialogue. Only then can peace characterize the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Michal Beth Dinkler joined the YDS faculty last year as assistant professor of New Testament, after completing her doctorate at Harvard University. She is the author of Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke (de Gruyter, 2013) and multiple journal articles. She is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).