My wife (who is not originally from the United States) watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life all the way through for the first time over the past few days. Her reaction, once it was all over, was that the movie is about how Mary, George Bailey’s wife, repeatedly comes to his rescue when he is in a crisis.
Is that the, or at least a, point of the story? It is worth asking such questions, and for allowing them to lead us to think about theological matters as well. The most frequent and most problematic approach to the Bible in North America is for various groups to read it and assume that what they understand it to mean is what it really means, and what it would have meant in its original context.
But if one takes seriously our distance in time and space from the cultural and historical context of the Biblical world(s), it seems that the best assumption would be that the obvious meaning is not likely to be what the author intended, unless we have evidence to the contrary.
Of course, even taking a historical-contextual approach doesn’t settle things. The are authors who have been “ahead of their time”, and ones who considered themselves terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries. A historical-contextual approach isn’t absolute – it is just the best way of approaching a text and making sense of it, all other things being equal.
On the other end of the process, if we consider interpreters living in the same context, with the same basic assumptions, we find that nonetheless they may well reach different conclusions. If the “plain sense” of a text were straightforward to obtain, wouldn’t all those who say they accept the Bible’s authority and take it literally agree on what it means? Anyone who thinks meaning is obvious may have advanced degrees in Biblical interpretation – but is most likely unmarried, and is certainly naive.
On the other hand, when it comes to the meaning of the movie, my wife’s interpretation is surely correct, because I’ve learned over the years that my wife is always right.
If only matters of Biblical interpretation were so easily solved!