I think that the reason many Christians can’t understand each other, particularly with regard to how we read the Bible, may end up boiling down to different personality types. I am an INFP, according to the Myers-Briggs system. I would tend to call it the personality type of a poet, or an English major, or perhaps a romantic. According to the Internet, people like me “do not like to deal with hard facts and logic” and we “don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment.” I think that’s reasonably accurate. But the important thing to understand is that English majors don’t hate truth; what we hate is when people make truth look ugly and stupid (i.e. what an ESTJ probably calls “hard facts and logic”). So I thought I would list some instincts that English majors bring to reading the Bible that make the fundamentalists gnash their teeth at us.
1) Unsubtle communication is bad writing
The measure of how good a writer you are is the degree to which you are able to communicate with subtlety. If I know how a sentence is going to end before I’ve gotten there, then it’s a crappy, uncreative sentence. To be unsubtle and completely straightforward is to be a bad writer. An English major assumes that the way to get people to do things is not to give them pristine clear commands to follow, but to tell a story that moves their hearts and sways them to respond the way that you’re hoping they will. As an English major, I need for God to be an infinitely better poet than I am, which means that I’m going to be averse to any approach to interpreting the Bible that camps out at a sixth grade level of reading comprehension and assumes God to be straightforward and perfectly clear when he seems to do a far better job of inspiring people with a little subtlety.
2) Narrators are supposed to have agendas
Stories in which you can completely trust the narrator and/or the protagonist are uninteresting and unrealistic. In so many Joyce Carol Oates novels that I’ve read, the narrator has issues that slant how the story is told and thus become a part of the story themselves. So as an English major, when I read the gospel of Luke, I’m going to be tuned into the way that Luke has crafted his story of Jesus as a narrator. How is Luke’s agenda different than Matthew’s when he tells the same stories but puts different words into Jesus’ mouth? What can we speculate about the community that Luke is writing for that differs from the community Matthew is writing for? For fundamentalists, it’s a scandalous betrayal of the text to say that the gospel writers had any kind of agenda other than dispassionately dictating whatever the proverbial angel whispered in their ears for them to copy down. For an English major, that’s just dull writing.
3) It’s all about the metaphors
To an English major, what makes a piece of writing rich and poetic are the metaphors it employs. Metaphors are scary things to fundamentalists because they seem like a ploy to undermine the Bible’s authority. To make Genesis 1 literal isn’t just a problem for me because of its contradiction of modern science. It’s a problem because there are so many cool things that the firmament, the waters above, and waters below could stand for metaphorically if they don’t have to be literal scientific facts (take a look at what Augustine does with them in his books 11-13 of his Confessions). When the Bible is “nothing but the facts,” then it’s been robbed of a critically important layer of its beauty. The early church fathers had a very different interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16 than we do today. When they read that “all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching,” they took that to mean that every detail was pregnant with metaphorical content; nothing was mere historical backdrop. For example, Augustine interpreted the six jars of water that Jesus turned into wine in John 2:6 as the six ages of the world.
4) We make analogies
This overlaps somewhat with #3. When you’re an English major, you’re always making analogies between different books that you’ve read. For instance, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is about the three brothers Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, while Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina likewise includes three brothers Konstantin, Nicolai, and Sergius. So every time I read a story about three siblings, I always have these two great Russian novels in the back of my mind. In reading the Bible, I instinctively look for elements that might be analogies. In the New Testament, there are three major controversies that become important analogies for me in Biblical interpretation: Jesus’ Sabbath healing, the circumcision of the Gentiles, and eating ceremonially unclean foods. For fundamentalist Bible readers, these controversies are isolated incidents that have no bearing on how the church should handle analogous problems today. But an English major like me is going to draw an analogy between how these three issues were handled by Jesus and Paul and how the church should handle issues today including today’s controversy of all controversies, which I’m sure I don’t have to name.
English majors have read lots of novels. What makes a novel elegant is how it develops its characters. Good literary characters are never purely good guys or bad guys. They are always complicated. So when I read the Bible and I see a character like Abraham, I see a complicated figure, not the model of perfect faithfulness, no matter what Paul and the author of Hebrews say about him. Abraham pimped out his wife twice to avoid getting killed. He refused to stand up to Sarah when she bullied Hagar and Ishmael. He was ready to murder his son Isaac, because a voice in his head that said it was God told him to do so. Because I’m an English major, I talk back to Abraham and every other character in the Bible, including Mr. Infallibility himself, the apostle Paul. When I read Paul’s letters, I hear his humanity come out. Sometimes I sympathize with him; sometimes I don’t. While I appreciate Paul’s zeal and his deeper vision, I’m not sure I would do everything he told me to do if I were alive then because he can really be an arrogant jerk sometimes. A fundamentalist doesn’t recognize Paul to have a character as such because Paul is simply a mouthpiece of God.
6) Poetry trumps grammar and history
The default fundamentalist way of interpreting the Bible is grammatical-historical. What matters to the fundamentalists is how the words in the Bible were used in the time-period when they were written. That’s the only meaning they are allowed to have. In contrast, an English major notices all the interesting poetic quirks about the words, which are allowed to influence their meanings. So for instance,the fact that the Greek word for church, ekklesia, is the word used in the Septuagint for Hebrew religious gatherings and the word used in pagan society for public political assemblies doesn’t make its meaning reducible to “religious gathering” for me. When I see ekklesia, I see a compound noun combining ek (out) and klesia (calling). So ekklesia to me will always be about God’s calling us out of the world and into a new reality instead of being merely a “religious gathering,” because I see the word with a poet’s eyes.
7) Every text has multiple voices
When you study novels in college, you’re trained that it’s a fallacious enterprise to try to determine the author’s single, unequivocal “intended meaning” for a text. What’s more interesting are all the rebellious dissenting voices within a text. I will never forget getting into a fierce debate in class over the Brothers Karamazov. There’s a character named Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov, whom the narrator describes with pure contempt. It seems like the author Dostoevsky really wants for the reader to hate Smerdyakov, but he’s so nasty to him that the text rebels against its author and quivers with outrage at Smerdyakov’s treatment. I see the Old Testament quiver in a similar way when God strikes Uzzah dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6. Since God is a much more complicated, brilliant author than any of us could be, it’s hard for me to believe that God doesn’t anticipate the sympathy that readers will show for the declared “bad guys” in his text and that this sympathy isn’t part of his calculated purpose in telling the story the way he does. To respond to the Bible without a heart seems like a greater crime against God’s purpose than to protest whenever the Bible shows God doing something that doesn’t jibe with Jesus’ character. How do we know that God isn’t baiting us into protest? Does God really have to be as unsophisticated as his most simple-minded readers? I happen to think that he’s a real trickster just like Jesus is when he refuses to answer any question in a straightforward way.