Let me say something positive first. I am a fan of everyone having the Bible in their own language and in their own hand. I am a proud Protestant. I would not want to live in an era where everyone did not have access to the Bible in their language. I like this aspect of the world and era that I live in.
We read the Bible. Not reading the Bible is not our problem. Sometimes preachers get on people for not reading their Bibles enough. I disagree. I think that people are generally reading the Bible enough. That is not our problem. (I know these are generalities – just go with me for a second)
- The first is that we don’t know enough about the first century.
- The second is that we don’t know enough about the genres that the books of Scripture are written in.
It is difficult for me to express how important this issue is in our contemporary situation.
It would be overstating it to say that we don’t know how to read the Bible.
It would be understating it to say that we just need to read it more. One might even go as far as to say that if we are reading it wrong, then reading that way more will just create more of a problem!
This is what I want to address over the next 4 weeks with this conversation.
I will start with a story that illustrates both the points (about the 1st Century and about the genres).
The story of Jesus and ‘Legion’ (you can go read this is Mark 5 and Luke 8)
Here are three readings of that story: modern-Literal, Political, and Post-Colonial
In the modern-Literal reading, Jesus goes over to this region called the Decapolis which is primarily inhabited by gentiles. He finds this guy chained up because he is being tormented by a large number of demons and had become a danger to himself and to the town folk. Jesus comes over – the only time he was ever in that area on that side of the sea – and he casts out the demons. But the demons make a deal with Jesus and so he casts them into a herd of pigs – which immediately run down the hill into the sea and drown. The townspeople are not happy with Jesus for wrecking their economic livelihood and agricultural income. They ask Jesus to leave. The guy – now freed from his torment – asks to come with Jesus and Jesus tells him to go back into town and testify.
It is not said if he wanted to leave because a) he was mad at the people for chaining him out there or b) the people would be mad at the guy for what happened to the pigs.
This is a straight forward reading and when one does not know much about the first century … it is probably the reading that you would go with. The story is about demons, pigs, and people. And that is about all. The application is that Jesus loves this one guy more than a bunch of livestock and is concerned with the well–being of a single person more than the livelihood of an entire town.
In a political reading, the lens of first century politics gives the story a different look. Jesus goes into a Roman occupied territory (think about the name Decapolis). He encounters a man tormented by a foreign occupier with a Roman name (Legion is a military term) and frees this man who is bound by casting out the alien presence into pigs – which are unclean to the Hebrew mind. It is also notable that a pig had been sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple in the time between the Hebrew (older) Testament and the beginning of our newer (christian) Testament.
The story that we get Hanukkah from is found in the Maccabean revolt. This uprising was ultimately set off by the sacrifice of a pig (called the abomination of desolation) in the Temple.
But in our story, what to do with the pigs drowning is water? I have heard two good explanations.The first revolves around the Egyptian army drowning in the Exodus and so drawing of the imagery of Jesus (as a Moses character) liberating his people out of captivity. The second has to do with Shamanism (both ancient and modern) which puts extracted bad things (tumors, spirits, venom, etc.) into water to neutralize them.
Either way – knowing about the Political landscape of the 1st Century makes it possible to say maybe demons aren’t demons and pigs aren’t pigs in this sense.
Of course the obvious thing is to say “Well, can’t it be both?” that Jesus really did cast out the demons but that the way Luke told the story allows them to be not JUST demons. This way, pigs are pigs but they are not just pigs. Demons, likewise, are real demons who are really cast out … but they are not just demons – there is another implication to them.
Here is my point though! You can not have the possibility of pigs not being pigs or pigs being more than pigs unless you know something about the politics of the 1st century! Otherwise pigs are only pigs and nothing more. In that case, we may be missing more than half the message of Jesus or at the message as it was portrayed by the Gospel writer.
After I had already written this post, I heard another take on this passage. At Big Tent Christianity last week, Anthony Smith (the Postmodern Negro) and Tripp Fuller (of Homebrewed Christianity) had a dialogue about post-colonial Pentecostalism and race.
In this lens the reading of this passage takes on a very different look. The story becomes a model or a type of parable that is recreated over and over again.
The man is in chains (slavery) and the free culture keeps him outside. Jesus finds him and Jesus frees him. This exposes the disgraceful treatment of this man by those who are free. The liberation comes at great price (the pigs) and collateral damage (the economy). The man wants to flee and go with Jesus but Jesus asks him to stay and testify to those that who had bound him – to be an uncomfortable presence for them and to not simply be an “out of sight – out of mind” part of their past .
A post-colonial reading talks of liberation, of exposing the shameful treatment of ‘the other’, and of speaking truth to power. This is a powerful reading that places Jesus squarely in our midst again and allows the Gospel to speak with real power to our real situations.
It is important to note that post-colonial readings are not merely allegories or metaphors – they are read as real events that really impact our real world… but they are not simply literalistic one-dimensional readings like the our first model (modern-literal).
There are many more interpretations that merit to be in the conversation – I simply wanted to introduce these three in order to say that A) what was happening in the first century matters to how we read the newer Testament B) what genre a text is written in matters to how we read it.
The post-colonial reading introduces a third:
C) that the world we live in is both a lens and a light through which we read and view the text. That is called interpretation and that is our focus for next week.