YOKE – Velvet Jesus, Movement Two

The second chapter of Velvet Elvis is called “Yoke.” A “yoke,” according to Bell, was a first century rabbi’s interpretation of Scripture along with the practical implications of such an interpretation for living. If you followed a certain rabbi, then you were said to be under that rabbi’s “yoke.” Bell says, “Now the rabbis had technical terms for this endless process of forbidding and permitting and making interpretations. They called it ‘binding and loosing’. To ‘bind’ something was to forbid it. To ‘loose’ something was to allow it.”

Bell’s purpose for this chapter is to show the erroneous thinking (by many of us in the highly individualistic and naïve world of western popular evangelicalism) that the Bible does not need to be interpreted. We’ve been told that all we need is the Word of God, and that “the opinions of man” don’t mean anything. We’ve been encouraged, as western individualists, to study the Bible alone, believing that the Bible is clearly understood.

What Bell is taking on here is the pop-religion of evangelicalism. What he says in this chapter is nothing that a first-year seminary student wouldn’t hear. However, it is not something that evangelicals usually hear from their pastors or Bible-study teachers (as if they fear that if they are honest about the difficulty of hermeneutics that people will lose their belief in Christ). Therefore, this chapter ruffles a lot of feathers. But the simple fact is this: The Bible must always be interpreted. And, honestly, many well-intentioned Christians have interpreted the Bible in ways that have been detrimental to the cause of Christ. And, even more honestly, you and I cannot be absolutely sure we have interpreted the Bible correctly.

I applaud Bell’s candor here. And if it’s a shock to some Christians that the Bible is not always plainly understood, they need to learn what the evangelical idea of the “clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture” means. As respected evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem writes, “The existence of many disagreements about the meaning of Scripture throughout history reminds us that the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not imply or suggest that all believers will agree on all the teachings of Scripture. Nevertheless, it does tell us something very important—that the problem always lies not with Scripture but with ourselves … we affirm that all the teachings of Scripture are clear and able to be understood, but we also recognize that people often (through their own shortcomings) misunderstand what is clearly written in Scripture.” (Systematic Theology, p. 109).

Grudem affirms what a postmodern like Bell is saying: There is a problem with our ability to interpret the Bible. The problem is not with the Bible, Bell says, “because God has spoken, and everything else is commentary” (p. 52). “When we’re serious about dealing with the Bible as the communal book that it is, then we have to be honest about our interpretations. Everybody’s interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective” (p. 53). Grudem said that it is “through our own shortcomings” that we misunderstand Scripture. Bell is saying that the major “shortcomings” that we all have are our own agendas and perspectives. Anyone who says that they can read the Bible without biases and “just read it for what it says” is not owning up to the fact that nobody is capable of doing so. “The idea that everybody else approaches the Bible with baggage and agendas and lenses and I don’t is the ultimate in arrogance” (p. 54).

So what does Bell suggest we do about this problem? Primarily, he says that interpretation must be done in the context of community. We need to interact with Scripture as we interact with each other. “Most of the ‘yous’ in the Bible are plural. Groups of people received these words. So if one person went off the deep end with an interpretation or opinion, the others were right there to keep that person in check” (p. 52). Amen to that. This manifests itself in a number of ways, I think: From a small group of people working through the Scriptures together in someone’s living room to scholars interacting with other scholars in books and journals, to everything in between. For instance, Bell writes this book, and a scholar like Ben Witherington calls into question Bell’s interpretation. (Ben Witherington, one of the top evangelical scholars in the field of first-century history, took issue with Bell’s understanding of “rabbi” and “binding and loosing.” Witherington's view is different from the sources that Bell cites: the Anchor Bible Dictionary, BDAG Greek-English Lexicon, and jerusalemperspective.com. See Witherington’s review of Bell’s book here.) Therefore, Bell's point is valid – in our desire to interpret faithfully, we need each other.

Bells’ other suggestion to the problem of biblical interpretation I find paradoxical. Acknowledging that the Bible is still “alive,” he is seeking a way to move these ancient stories out of the cobwebs of the past and into our current experience. He understands, correctly, that each biblical story didn’t just “happen,” it also “happens” in our current experience. But how do we get to that current “happening” in our lives?

On one hand, Bell suggests “what gives us strength and meaning and direction is something in addition to the historical events: it is the meaning of these events. Some call this the more-than-literal truth of the Bible. We live in the metaphors” (p. 61). The endnote here says, “Marcus Borg does a great job of explaining this idea in The Heart of Christianity."

On the other hand, Bell says “to take statements made in a letter from one person living in a real place at a moment in history to another person living in a real place out of their context and apply them to today without first understanding their original context sucks the life right out of them. They aren’t isolated statements that float, unattached, out in space…So when we treat the Bible as if it floats in space, unattached to when and where it actually happened, we are basically saying that God gave us the wrong kind of book. It is a book of ancient narratives. We cannot make it something it is not” (p. 62, 63). The endnote here says, “The best thing I have ever read about the Bible is a transcript of a lecture given by the British scholar N. T. Wright called “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”

Here’s the paradox. Bell wants to have it both ways – the way of Borg and the way of Wright. The problem is that these two ways, while having some overlap, in the end are too disparate to ultimately reconcile. Just read the excellent book that Borg and Wright co-wrote, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. The title says it all: these are two different “visions” of how to interpret the life of Jesus. One metaphorical (Borg), one historical (Wright). Sure, Borg and Wright are congenial to each other in the debate, but it should be clear to us that we must choose between a purely metaphorical interpretation and an interpretation that springs from the historical stories that we’ve been given.

Bell is advocating for both; he wants to have his cake and eat it too. But this begs us to ask, how do we do it? What passages should we take as metaphor first (so that we can more readily apply it to our lives) and what passages should we take as the historic stories that reveal God’s redemptive purposes for us today?

Bell seems to favor the latter (historical) over the former (metaphorical) in the overall tone of the chapter, but he confuses the matter by mentioning Borg’s hermeneutic and talking so much about metaphor. This seems a little jumbled in its thinking.

Posts in this series: TRUE – Velvet Jesus
TASSELS - Velvet Jesus
NEW – Velvet Jesus

Is Rob Bell a Godless Man, Condemned by God? Review of John MacArthur's The Truth War

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joeldaniel said...

I'm not sure I agree that metaphorical and historical exegetical approaches have to be mutually exclusive. Doesn't hermeneutics 101 generally teach that you must understand the historical context of scripture first, but then upon doing so that it may be applied as eternal truth as well? Metaphorical interpretations obviously scare people (I think particularly scholars) because they can be way out in left field real fast, but, as Witherington and Bell show, even "factual" history is apparently somewhat open to interpretation. It seems to me the simple hermeneutical principle of "the Bible (or a passage of the Bible) can't say what it never said" (I think that's Grudem, too), encourages to engage the historical understanding, but allows space to understand metaphorically, for today, in keeping with a "living and active word".

Bob Robinson said...

Joel Daniel,

You are accurately describing the Grammatico-Historical method of hermeneutics. We seek to understand both the grammatical and the historical contexts of a text in order to come closer to how God intends the text to operate in our lives today.

But, for those not familiar with Marcus Borg, that is not the hermenutic he suggests. He feels that the historicity of the texts is not important. He says that all we need to do is understand from our perspective the metaphors that arise from these wonderful tales.

For instance, he says this concerning the stories about Jesus Christ's birth:

He writes, "Though not literally true, they can be really true; though not factually true, they can be actually true. The stories of Jesus' birth are myths in this sense. Along with most mainline scholars, I do not think these stories report what happened. The virginal conception, the star, the wise men, the birth in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn, and so forth are not facts of history. But I think these stories are powerfully true...The stories of Jesus' death and resurrection contain a mixture of historical memory and mythical narration." (The God We Never Knew, pp 101-02)

Borg's metaphorical approach, while embracing the heart of hermenutics (the search for meaning for our time and experience) finds meaning not in the historicity of the events recorded but in our ability to create metaphors from the stories. In other words, God is not revealing his redemptive plan in actual historical events, he is revealing timeless truths in the metaphors we derive from the stories. That's two different kinds of approaches to the Bible. NT Wright is absolutely correct in pointing out the inherent flaws of a hermeneutic that doesn't take the historicity of the texts as a primary consideration in our interpretation. Bell thinks he can do biblical interpretation Borg's way and NT Wright's way. I'm saying that this is really not possible, for they are two different paths. I prefer NT Wright's approach to Marcus Borg's approach!