I was walking through the halls of a senior living facility in Belgium on my way to visit the elderly father of a church member.
Over the speaker system came the chant, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watch.” Then the musical group, Chicago, transitioned into the song “Someday” from their Chicago Transit Authority album.
One of the verses goes:
“Would you look around you now
And tell me what you see.
Faces full of hate and fear,
Faces full of me.
Do you feel the rumblings
As your head comes crumbling down?
Do you know what I mean?
Run, you better, run you know,
The End is getting near.
Feel the wind of something hard
Come whistling past your ear.”
As I listened, I wondered how many of the elderly Dutch-speaking residents knew the context of this song.
Some of them would have understood the words they heard and been able to make sense of the sentences, but I doubted they could glean the meaning of it all.
The chant was a recording of the protests during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August 1968.
On April 4 of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His death sparked riots in more than 100 U.S. cities, Chicago being one of them.
Robert Kennedy, a candidate in the Democratic primary that year, had been assassinated on June 5.
As the Democratic Convention takes place, the country is still tense over these two assassinations and is bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam.
The current president, Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat who had vigorously pursued the war, had announced that he will not run for re-election. Within the convention hall that week, the Democratic Party was deeply divided over its stance on the war.
The song is about this turbulent moment in American life.
I doubt that even the elderly residents who understood English would have made this connection, thus the meaning of the introductory chant and the lyrics that follow would have been lost on them.
Understanding the literal meaning of the words would not have opened a door into the deeper message of the song for them.
Reading the Bible is a bit like this.
We may understand the literal meaning of the words and get the gist of each sentence, but without some knowledge of the author, the intended original audience, and the social, political, economic and literary context, much of the meaning is lost on us.
To read the Bible in a literally wooden way without contemplating these broader questions diminishes the rich and transformative message of the Scriptures.
I know Leviticus 19:19 forbids the wearing of clothing woven of two kinds of material, yet I find polycotton blend shirts save me time ironing.
An uninquisitive literal reading of Leviticus would condemn me for this convenience. Is there something else going on in this text that would permit me to save some time at the ironing board?
What is the attraction of a simplistic literal reading of Scripture? It is easy, and we are lazy.
It takes a lot of effort to read large passages of Scripture, indeed whole books, and then set a particular passage in its broader literary context.
Proof texting is attractive to those who want the Word of God to work like a Twitter feed.
The next step beyond the literary context of a passage is the canonical context. The canonical context is the place of a book within the broader landscape of the Bible.
We take what Jesus said about the law in Matthew’s Gospel, what Paul wrote about the law in Romans, and what James wrote about the law in his letter and then filter all that through what Moses said in Deuteronomy.
Within this broader field of reference, we discover a more maturely nuanced understanding.
A reader does not need to go to seminary to have more than enough work for a lifetime of Bible reading. The Bible itself will keep us by simply immersing ourselves in all its diversity and grandeur.
If one is going to teach a class or preach sermons, some good research books in the biblical material can certainly enhance our work.
Can we get extra credit for this? Moses seems to imply this might be possible. Paul seems to assert “no way,” and Jesus tells some great stories that teach us not to be anxious about extra credit in any case.
Reading the Bible is serious work. An uninquisitive, uninformed wooden literalism sidesteps that hard work. The Bible is not for the lazy.
Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State.