Four Ways Our Social Location Affects How We Read the Bible
And some recommendations for what to do about it
When Randy Richards and I published Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes ten years ago, we were not the first (not by a long shot) to argue that our social location influences how we make sense of the Bible. For a generation before us, at least, Black and Latin American theologians had been faithfully and forcefully pointing out how political commitments, ideologies, and social conventions deeply influenced white evangelical interpretations of Scripture. Far from objective and literal, they argued, these plain and self-evident conclusions about what the Bible means were deeply contextual and cultural.
Randy and I took a different approach. Rather than talking about how political and social ideologies affect interpretation, we explored how certain unconscious conclusions about what’s going on in a biblical text are almost inevitable because of the way the Western mind’s mental furniture is arranged. Our cultural assumptions, of which we are often blissfully unaware, lead us to certain conclusions about the meaning of texts well before our ideologies have time to kick in. The most powerful force in culture, we argued, was not its conscious ideologies but “what goes without being said.”
This different approach wasn’t strategic. Not on my part, at least. For me it was entirely the result of ignorance. I had not yet read Black or Liberationist theologians, nor feminists nor womanists nor much else. I’ve benefited from them all a great deal, ten years hence. But even knowing what I know now, I do think our approach remains helpful. I find it constructive to try to explain how our social location affects how we read without appealing to ideological explanations. And I keep trying new explanations on for size.
So here’s an updated proposal of four (overlapping, interconnected) ways our social location affects how we make sense of the Bible.
Engaged readers ask questions of the text while they read it. Often those questions are subconscious and they might be quite basic: Who are the characters? What are they doing? Is what they’re doing good or bad? What does it mean? Sometimes someone in the text asks a question: “Who is my neighbor?” Someone else in the text may rephrase or amend the question: “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor?” Questions shape what we’re looking for—and what we’ll find—in a passage of scripture. The answers we find to those questions are often what we say the passage “means.”
Our social location affects what additional questions we bring with us to the Bible when we read. An important question for folks in my childhood context (small town, white, fundamentalist South) was, “How old is the earth?” (Was our answer what Genesis “meant”?) More recently, Esau McCauley has asked the question, What does the New Testament have to say about policing? This question derives explicitly from the lived experiences of African American communities for whom interactions with police are a common dimension of daily life. For the first 40 years of my life, it was a question that never occurred to me. Which is to say that our social location prompts us to ask certain questions—and never consider asking other questions.
All interpretation is an exercise in drawing analogies. No modern reader’s situation is identical to that of any biblical character. Rather, our situation is like (analogous to) the biblical situation in some way.
Broadly speaking there are two ways to draw an analogy between our situation and the biblical one: concrete similarity and abstraction. Our social location determines which of these is more likely or even possible.
Miguel de la Torre argues persuasively in Reading the Bible from the Margins that modern migrants, refugees, and exiles can relate to the life of Jesus by means of concrete analogy. When the holy family fled to Egypt (Matthew 2), they became asylum seekers. Contemporary asylum seeking is still analogous (not identical) because they aren’t literally the same: modern migrants flee from and to different nation states, are oppressed by different powers, and have access to different social and material resources. Nevertheless the analogy is concrete because the reader’s social location shares something concrete in common with the social location described or assumed in the biblical situation.
When there is no concrete similarity between the reader’s social location and that depicted or assumed in the Bible, readers can still draw analogies. But the analogy tends to rely on abstraction. For example, I am not literally an orphan, a slave, an exile, or a widow. But I can imagine myself to be like (analogous to) those social locations by abstraction—I am all of those things spiritually. The analogy is abstract because I don’t share anything concrete in common with the social location of orphans, slaves, exiles or widows.
Our brains do us a great service by filtering out stimuli it considers unimportant and only focusing on stimuli it considers salient. When you sleep in your own creaky house, your brain tunes out the sounds of the pipes popping or the floor joists settling or the cat walking across the hardwood floor. You sleep through those sounds because your brain decides they aren’t salient, and makes sure they don’t wake you up. But on your first night in a new place, you hear all the sounds because your brain doesn’t yet know which ones are salient—which ones are normal settling sounds and which ones might be an intruder skulking around to kill you in your sleep.
Salience bias is a cognitive bias—something the sense-making parts of our brains do without consulting us first—that predisposes us to focus on salient details and tune out those details that are unremarkable. And, you guessed it, our social location influences what details our brains will detect as salient and which they will ignore when we read the Bible.
In his book What Do They Hear? New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell reports the results of an experiment. He asked 12 US seminary students to read the story of “the prodigal son” from Luke 15:11-31 and repeat it to a partner as accurately as possible. The results surprised him: None of the twelve students mentioned the famine in 15:14 (“there was a severe famine in that whole country”). Powell found it fascinating that none of the students, who are trained to read carefully, remembered the famine. So he decided to repeat the experiment with a larger sample size. He gathered a group of 100 American seminarians and gave them the same instructions: read the story from Luke 15:11-31 and repeat it to a partner as accurately as possible. This time, only 6 mentioned the famine.
Some time later, Powell was in Moscow, Russia, and it occurred to him to try the experiment again there. So he gathered 50 Russian participants and gave them the same instructions. Once again, he was surprised by the results. Forty-two of the 50 participants (that’s 84%) remembered the famine in their retelling of the story.
For American readers, the detail of the famine isn’t salient, and so it fails to register even at the level of noticing it and, consequently, rarely factors into our interpretation. For Russian readers (at the time), the detail of the famine was relevant, and so it factored into their interpretation of what the passage means.
Stories are designed to elicit emotional reaction. Recall that King David became angry at the actions of a certain obviously fictional rich man who stole a poor neighbor’s only sheep, when the prophet Nathan told a story about him (2 Samuel 12). This happens because we listeners or readers resonate, associate with, have empathy for certain characters in stories. Our resonance with certain characters means we may experience a meaning of the story physiologically—we feel angry, sad, ashamed, disgusted—before we ever think rationally about what the story means.
Our social location influences which character in a story we resonate or empathize with. Mark Allan Powell conducted another experiment in which he asked clergy and laity (gathered in separate rooms) to interpret the story from Matthew 15 in which “some Pharisees” accuse Jesus’s disciples of breaking tradition because they don’t watch their hands before they eat. The clergy in Powell’s experiment overwhelmingly resonated with Jesus and concluded that what the passage meant is that sometimes pastors have to challenge their congregants to let go of meaningless traditions in order to follow Jesus. The laity, by contrast, overwhelmingly empathized with the disciples or the Pharisees. They concluded, in the words of one participant, that what the story meant is, “Pastors and other church leaders are always criticizing everyday Christians for one thing or another. I hear Jesus saying, ‘Leave them alone. They’re doing the best they can.’”
Gender may influence whether a reader resonates with David or Bathsheba; class may influence whether a reader resonates with Lazarus or the rich man. In any case, our social location often influences which characters we resonate with and our resonance often determines what we think the passage means.
We can’t transcend our social locations. The thing about being a human person is that we’re limited by time and space. We always live in some particular place at some particular time around some particular people. And those conditions shape us, limit us, whether we like it or not.
Our goal is not to attain a neutral vantage point where we finally see everything with pure objectivity. Instead, our goals, as I understand them, are to become more and more acutely aware of our own social location and the work it does in shaping our vision and to expand and diversify our conversation partners, so that over time we become more comfortable with more vantage points. This is not a quick process. We’re playing the long game.
In the short term, in light of the proposals above, you might try one or more of these exercises the next time you read your Bible:
What question(s) am I hoping this passage will answer? What question does this passage seem to answer?
What details in this passage seem particularly uninteresting or insignificant to me? What difference would it make if those details were in fact very important?
Does my social location share any concrete similarity with the characters in this passage? If so, what are they? If not, what might I learn from someone who does share something concrete with the characters?
What happens if I read this story from another character’s point of view? What new details or possibilities emerge?
All of these are challenging tasks. But I promise you it’s worth it.
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