How People Mess Up Interpretation

How People Mess Up Interpretation

No, this is not a post about the crazy ways people interpret the Bible. It’s about the way in which people make precision difficult in communication. Am I thinking about biblical interpretation? Of course I am. If you have to guess what I’m thinking about and I don’t give you a clue, “biblical interpretation” is a good bet.

When I teach Greek or Hebrew, and as I’ve mentioned, this is to people by ones and twos, not in seminary classes, I try to emphasize basic linguistics. How does language work in day to day usage. I can illustrate what I mean by people messing up interpretation using a one line rule I give my Greek or Hebrew students: People are lazy. This rule applies, for example, to the reason why sounds tend to drop out of common phrases. “Good day” becomes “g’day,” an expression that may be more commonly used in Australia. (I say this so that I can get in a bit of a pet peeve. Check this sort of stereotypical thing out if you can. In this case, I find “g’day” in an article titled Outrageous Aussie Stereotypes Debunked. Not promising!)

But my “people are lazy” rule has many problems (or exceptions, if you wish), which also illustrates one of the problems of language. People are diverse. What I think is easy to pronounce someone else may find next to impossible. I remember vividly trying to learn to pronounce a few Hungarian words while driving with my translator. She would pronounce the word and I would imitate. It always went downhill from there. In Hungarian actual vowel length, i.e. the length of time a vowel sound is sustained in speech, is phonemic (i.e., it impacts the meaning). In English, this is not the case. I was taught long and short vowels, but they were not sustained for different periods of time, but were actually different sounds. (That’s a very loose way to explain it! See? I mess up interpretation too by being lazy.) For me, properly judging the length to sustain a vowel sound was next to impossible. For her, it was second nature.

So another rule: Things you have become accustomed to doing will seem easy. To you.

People just don’t follow one set of rules. We may have learned in English class that a paragraph consists of a thesis sentence, followed by three explanatory sentences, and ended with a conclusion. How many paragraphs in this post look anything like that? I tend to paragraph by sound, and often set off a sentence that would either be a conclusion or the introduction of a new element by itself, simulating the pauses for emphasis I might use in public speaking.

Like this one.

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors (J. Paul Grove at Walla Walla College for those who might know), required me to turn in three sermon outlines a week as part of a course in Hebrew prophets. I thought this was a horrible requirement, as I had no intention of becoming a preacher. I was going to be a biblical scholar. Bless Professor Grove! It turned out to be one of the better exercises of my educational process because it made me think of a connection between the data I was accumulating and the real world. It didn’t result in even one sermon outline that I would ever use in preaching, even though I have preached frequently. That’s because I vigorously eschew three point outlines and diligently work to violent rules of homiletics.

Which means that I’m human. I don’t always follow the rules.

I turn this now to structure, which I discussed a bit yesterday. Studying structure is good in interpreting scripture. Just don’t be too structured about it. I’ve been asked if I accept various outlines of Hebrews, such as Vanhoye’s. I guess it depends on what you mean by “accept.” I find a great deal to commend his work, but I don’t find that any structure is followed closely. I believe that in studying Hebrews you have to carefully track what the author has done, the ways in which he connects and interweaves his topics. He’s flexible; the interpreter must be flexible.

Just like getting stuck on one label when trying to communicate, getting stuck on a structural label can be harmful to your mental health. People rarely follow the rules completely. Most commentaries that I’ve read do provide caveats about their structural conclusions. You should provide more.

Flexibility is a key to sound interpretations, because people are flexible.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org)

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