How to Read a Difficult Text

This past Sunday I preached 1 Peter 3:1-8. It's not an easy text to hear for modern, Western peoples. In fact, if you read it quickly, it sounds like the first line of evidence in the argument for the case that the Bible is really just an outdated, mostly useless book. Most of us read the Bible about like we read our Facebook feed — quickly, shallowly, and on the hunt for cheap click-bait. So, when we come to a text like the one above, we're instinctively hunting for the frowny-face button to show our dislike. Let me suggest a different way.

How NOT to Read a Difficult Text

  1. Sweep Everything Under the "Culture" Rug One of the quickest ways we Christians have found to alleviate ourselves from the need to listen to (much less obey) hard texts is by saying something like, "Oh, that was cultural. They believed/acted/understood that in a certain way back then, but we're in a different (which we often mean as a euphemism for "better") culture now."

    Phew, that was close. For a second there, I thought we'd have to actually exegete the text. But now that you've pointed out the heretofore ignored fact that modern American society is not the same as ancient Roman society, I feel much better. #Sarcasm

    No. In fact, embracing this technique is really the first step in unraveling your trust in the text entirely, because pretty soon you're the one picking and choosing what is a best fit in our culture. That's not biblical faithfulness, it's syncretism. Furthermore, it's strikingly similar to the method of Bible reading that slavery-endorsing "pastors" used in the south hundreds of years ago, and Nazi-endorsing "pastors" used decades ago. Anyone excited about the culture-driven Bible reading plan anymore? Ok, let's move on.

  2. React and Run Away Reactivity is almost never good, and that's especially true with the text of the Bible. When the Bible offends you, don't run away. You probably should do the when anyone offends you. Yet, we're nursing a kind of millennial angst against offense. Hurting someone's feelings is now morally equivalent to punching them in the face repeatedly. It's just that nothing about that is true. God hurts our feelings with truth so that he can show us grace. When you're offended, lean in.

How TO Read a Difficult Text

I'm taking some of Tim Keller's best ideas on this and expanding them with my own thoughts. So, let's see what we should do with a hard text when it comes and offends us.

  1. Consider the possibility that it doesn't mean what you think. Most of the time that we're offended at a text it's because we've read it at the aforementioned Facebook-feed-level of depth. We're just ignorant of what it's saying because we're not ancient Greek-speaking Romans (in the case of the NT audience). That why people like me go to graduate school — to understand the text so that we can explain it more accurately to our readers and listeners. So, when a text is hard to hear, ask yourself if you're hearing it rightly.
  2. Consider your unchecked belief in the superiority of your own cultural moment.  "That text is offensive," we say. "It's anti-woman, or anti-gay, or anti-progressive cultural values." But let's do a little thought experiment. Suppose we all got on a plane and went to Moscow, then Ramadi, and then Hong Kong. Suppose we brought our offensive Bible text with us. In each of those cities (and cultures) they would have problems with the Bible — just not your problems with the Bible. All the texts we think are regressive for women seem to progressive in Ramadi, for example. So why do you and your culture's problems with the Bible get to be the controlling, most important problems with the Bible?

    Dismissing the Bible because you think it's regressive is, at bottom, an act of pretty extreme arrogance. Sitting atop your mountain of presumed progress, you look down your nose at those poor regressive (which is the NewSpeak pejorative du jour) peoples. Humility would, in this case, be listening to the text.

  3. Ask yourself, "Do I really want a God like me?  We all want God to be on our side, at least initially. But then we need to stop and think, do we really? I mean, you're great and all, but if God is pretty much up there agreeing with you and your culture all the time, in what sense is He God over you? At what point does God get to come and fundamentally alter or correct us and our ways of life?

    In fact, relationships involve trusting the other enough to correct us. God is not a Stepford wife. He is not programmed by us for our pleasure. You can't have a relationship with someone like that. God is God, and He loves us enough to unsettle us from time to time.

  4. Finally, find the good news.  I love the Bible. Like, a lot. And yet there are whole chunks of it that I find really hard to read and understand. But part of the fun of reading the text is digging for diamonds. It takes hard work sometimes, but eventually you strike upon the deeper vein of treasure.

    Ask yourself, "where is the good news in this text? Why would the Spirit have inspired this to be here for me to read?" Get a good study Bible, a good commentary, a good church, and get to work.