Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
Tricks of the Interpretive Trade–From the Lit Teacher (it’s summer…I get poetic in the summer…)
There are many approaches to interpreting and studying the Bible, a discipline known as hermeneutics. As a lover of “close reading” for deeper understanding, something which I also teach (see a method below), the various ways we gain understanding of the Scriptures is a fascinating study.
One of my favorites of a practical nature is to glean more Biblical understanding by comparing the grammar with historical precedent. A modern example in secular studies would be, if a reader comes across sentences that have many dependent–and a couple of independent–clauses (in other words, sentences that are lengthy but not run-ons) one has likely entered the many-faceted and complex linguistic world of nineteenth-century literature, e.g., the one-sentence paragraph often parodied: “It was a dark and stormy night…”.
That said, both in the classroom and in informal study there are basic tricks of the trade of interpretation that apply across the (serious student’s) board.
When I teach poetry, for example–perhaps the trickiest genre of literature to interpret–I usually start with Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.” I tell students if they apply the rules of comprehension following this–and one other–sample poem, they can figure out just about any college-level reading. With a dictionary handy, of course. And maybe a cup of coffee or two. The poem goes like this:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.*
I love the humor of this poem, but I also use it to point out that it is easy to get off the path of a poem’s meaning by ignoring a few techniques of interpretation or becoming enchanted with only one element of the work such as, in Collins’ poem, the image of a mouse scuttling around inside a maze of lines and curves (how DO mice view letters on a page, exactly?) looking for the “MICE EXIT HERE” sign. So the imagination can take one down all sorts of rabbit, er mice, trails.
Back to the techniques:
- Remember that all the parts, aka literary components, relate to the whole.
- Poetry in particular and literature in general “talk about one or more things in the language of another”–for example, the Collins’ poem suggests the theme, by way of a string of entertaining metaphors, that getting to a poem’s meaning takes an imaginative approach.
- Full comprehensive usually takes more than one read, often several (it’s like exploring a treasure chest with many compartments).
- It takes reflection. Read: this task is not for the busy multi-tasker nor for anybody who expects full discernment to happen in seven-seconds or less, a quick glance at some viral meme, or in no more than 140 characters as per the maximum “twitter message”.
- It takes time, but in the end it’s worth all the attention (and maybe that coffee to stay awake), because what emerges touches places in the mind, heart–and spirit–that are too often neglected. And we suffer for that. In other words:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.**
Tricks of the Interpretive Trade for God’s Word
The same techniques apply to the hermeneutical process applied to understanding the Bible as well, which is actually an anthology comprised of a number of genres including history, poetry, epistles (letters), prophecy, and apocalyptic literature and more.
But note: Christians believe that although there are many genres comprised of many literary elements there is one unifying voice: that of the Holy Spirit (more on this, below).
An Interpretive Breakdown
Regarding the need to align portions of Scripture with their whole context, I have treated this topic here in reference, for example, to verse 10 of Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God,” that, when separated from the entire Psalm, is being used these days to prop up the new (really, very old) “contemplative prayer” practices popular in a new genre, as it were, of Church.
I would call that isolated–and re-interpreted–Psalm verse a prime example of what happens when technique #1, above, is ignored. And the resultant tragedy is being seen now in cults and apostate churches where the influence of other religions and philosophies, as well as certain “religious experiences,” are encroaching on classic Christianity.
In another example of the need for making sure that there is thematic as well as linguistic unity, is a post here that emphasizes making sure all the literary elements are verified equally by our One God Who is Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In other words, what God the Father says in one place in the books of the Book is agreed with–and vetted–by both the Holy Spirit and Jesus, God’s Son, elsewhere. St. Augustine put it this way: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”
Another verse, this one employing both literal and abstract meanings, reads “the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 John 5:8, NIV). One might compare a closer reading of the verse to examining a single necklace but set with varied precious gems. Here is a starter study featuring a variety of commentaries on the 1 John verse for illustration.
As for the second technique of interpretation–literature speaks of one thing in the language of another–who can resist the nuances, for example, of this expression of–major theme–God’s love for us:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]
2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked…(from Psalm 91, NIV)
In those verses that, like the Collins’ work, are comprised of a string of metaphors supporting a central theme, the reader is comforted, encouraged, emboldened, shielded, and refreshed as the images suggest. Here is a free, downloadable devotional on how these suggestions became realities that help drive meaning home, by the way.
As for applying techniques 3, 4, and 5, well, coffee…
But just as exploring that multi-compartmental treasure chest reveals new delights in each nook and cranny, so, too, discovering all of the elements that comprise a given verse or passage nestled in its proper context sheds light on greater understanding.
In other words,
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105 KJV).
And for a little more interpretive assistance, how about:
(Proverbs) are for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
3 for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
4 for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
5 let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
6 for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise (2: 1-6, NIV).
WARNING: But comprehending the length, depth, and breadth of the Word of God is no surface ride, here, either, like the students who may have hoped to water-ski atop the surface of Collins’ poem in a fast-and-dirty attempt to try to figure out what in the watery depths breathes and lives and (might just) rock their world…
Of course it can be argued what Collins really means is that when, by correct and careful analysis, we feel the pleasure of a poem that has come to the surface of whole comprehension (supported by its parts), like skimming the water on skis of a bright and hopeful summer afternoon, we can’t help but acknowledge the poet. Or ought to. Anyway. Because he or she did some fine work, there.
Of course the major theme atop those word waves of Collins’ is that most young analytical enthusiasts explore too deep–and all over the place–for meaning, when sometimes it’s right there.
But Who Has the Time and Training?!***
Which circles me back to the major theme of Biblical comprehension: it is more accessible than one might think and requires, essentially, but one thing to glean the wisdom therein. Proverbs 9:10 pus it his way: “The fear (the knowledge of God, reverence, piety) of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
As edifying and enlightening as it is to plumb the depths of the Word of God called literature, one need not spend hours and hours with lexicons, commentaries, and all the other tools of literary analysis, particularly in the critical moments of crisis. For the Holy Spirit enables the believer to cut through to meaning asap, as needed, on request.
One of the best examples of this I can think of is when St. Peter understood that he might be able to walk on water just like Jesus, but soon began to sink. All it took for Peter to comprehend all those beautifully scribed, expertly parsed words of poetry, history, instruction, and prophecy explaining the vast expanse of God’s great love and provision for us, was a simple request: “Lord save me!”
And Jesus did.
There is salvation in the heights and the depths, the expanses and the “narrows,” the simple and the profound of God’s Word for each of us as well, all to be had in that simple prayer of faith, too, for example, “Lord, please help me understand.”
And He will.
And, oh, if you are more of a hands-on kind of learner, God has that covered, too. Remember Thomas? Who wanted to touch the nail-scarred hands and the wound in Jesus’ side? Here’s a refresher.
What can Jesus help you to comprehend today?
May I suggest exploring this, for starters: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, NIV).
* Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright � 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins.