During my late teens, I began experiencing slight vision changes. Objects were blurry and distorted. Simple tasks like reading, writing, and facial recognition became a bit challenging, but I compensated by squinting and holding my books and papers closer to my nose. Since the vision changes were gradual they didn’t register as a concern until I could no longer read speed limits and road signs. That’s when I figured it was time to see an Optometrist, who diagnosed the blurriness as myopia and prescribed eyeglasses.
Turns out those fluttery green things on the trees outside my window were leaves. I could even read license plates on the cars in front me for the first time (ever) and I recognized people before they appeared directly in front of me! My world got a lot clearer that day. Because of my stubbornness, it took two years before I admitted I might need glasses and in that time frame I missed a lot of important things, like leaves and friendly smiles. Those details were always there; they were just in my blind spot.
We also encounter a few blind spots when we read the Bible. If we as Bible readers are to do the hard work of responsible interpretation, we must do so knowing there will always be three major obstacles:
1. Language- Most of us take a foreign language in high school; I took French, it’s a beautiful language and not too difficult to learn until you start conjugating verbs. Much goes without being said in any language, so we do well to remember that when we read the Bible in our native language, mostly just the words have been changed, what is behind those words that does not translate such as cultural values, assumptions and habits has not changed. Failing to recognize this causes huge mistakes in reading and applying Scripture. Language is a major barrier that even scholars and translators struggle with.
Every Bible reader is a translator on some level as well and if we are to be good translators, we must take the time to study so we do not carelessly quote Scripture or take it out of context. Fortunately, translators have already done the difficult work of translating the Bible into your native tongue, but they often have to make choices as to what the original authors were trying to communicate. Their choices can sometimes miss the mark, not to mention their selections affect how you understand what you read so we are all in a sense at their mercy. For this reason, it is a good idea to have more than one Bible translation on hand.
2. Culture- reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. Grammar, syntax, ethnicity and social class not only reflect but determine how people in a culture think and speak. Our culture shapes our worldview, which in turn determines how we form our beliefs and make our decisions. Our worldview is powerful enough that it even tells us what to notice or not to notice. We read, study and interpret more than two thousand years after the close of the biblical canon. Biblical culture is radically different from our own, yet we impose our modern cultural standards and ideas on the Bible.
3. Social Mores- pronounced mawr-eyz, it is the term for social behaviors that are accepted without question and represent the moral views of a group. Often we assume that what goes without being said in our language and culture also goes without being said in other languages and cultures, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Mores differ from place to place, are not necessarily permanent and can change over time within the same culture.
There is so much more that could be said about these barriers, but that is not the scope of this article. Guess you’ll have to get my book (when it’s published)!
These obstacles are not the only ones, but they are the most significant and if ignored, prevent us from reading the Bible correctly and that can lead to a misapplication of Scripture. Christians who do not acknowledge these barriers do themselves and the ones they influence a great disservice.
Alice Matthews, Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught About Men and Women in the Church
Randolph E. Richards and Brandon J. O’Brian, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible