Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lying when we don't mean to

I am reading Let the Reader Understand, an introduction to biblical interpretation, by Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton.  Though a little on the heavy side for an introduction it seems to be well organized and I am happy to be adding it to our library.
As I read chapter one I was struck by how they make a point to say that bad interpretation is bad:
We have argued that texts are communicative acts, and communicative acts are acts of the will.  Thus, there is a motive behind the production of a text, and motivation can never be morally neutral.  Further, a communicative venture involves not just the utterer or author, but also the hearer or interpreter.  Just as the author's act cannot be morally neutral, neither can interpretation be ethically neutral.  This should be obvious at certain levels.  Deliberately misconstruing a text to misrepresent its author is a morally reprehensible act; it is a kind of lying, a "bearing false testimony."
The ethicality of interpretation is supremely important when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  The Scriptures repeatedly ward that wrong thinking is ethically and morally evil, and ineluctably leads to more evil and less understanding.  Thus misinterpreting Scripture is sin.  Since the Bible frequently addresses questions of behavioral morality, misunderstanding can lead to incorrect behavior, and thus more sin.  Further, since the Bible's subject matter directly addresses our behavior, our interpretation is bound to be heavily influenced by our attempts to justify ourselves.  Finally, biblical interpretation touches directly on questions of truth, and truth and ethics are inseparable.  A false interpretation of a true statement is a lie, and lies are evil.  A false interpretation of a true statement that is a mater of life and death is therefore a great evil.  The Bible even declares that a lie told by the Serpent was the sin that perpetrated the fall of man (Gen. 3), and Jesus castigates the devil as "the father of lies" (John 8:44).  Bad interpretation is bad.
It therefore seems strange that so much of biblical studies and even books of biblical interpretation operate on the assumption that interpretation can be an ethically neutral and value-free scientific enterprise.  There is no escaping the fact that the Bible addresses moral truth, this automatically means that no reader who understands its message can remain neutral in his or her understanding.
Though before reading this I would not have disagreed with their conclusion, their arguments drove home the point better than it was before.