Joshua Graves
Exploring the Collision of Culture & Faith
How Do You Work It?
June 14, 2012

Premise. It’s not so much what you read, it’s how you read it? (see Luke 10:25ff for a great example of this). So much of life (therapists agree) is how you interpret what’s happened to you. Fundamentalism isn’t so much what you believe, it’s how you hold those beliefs.

I recently had an email exchange with a trusted friend/mentor about interpretation. This friend is probably more conservative (in terms of theology, practice, and application) than I am. However, he and I share the precise dilemma and burden when it comes to reading and interpreting scripture for today. Here’s the conversation. Following some email dialog about communal interpretation, etc. I wrote this note.

Consider, the Black Church in America and its communal interpretation of Exodus, slavery, faith, and hope.Or, consider the example of addicts who read Romans 6 as if their life depended on it.Or, consider the psalms and the way many churches clung to them post 9-11.Those are positive examples. Negative ones abound.

I don’t think we get to choose whether or not we do “community” interpretation. It’s what happens.We get to choose how we do it and if we would do it well.For instance, this email chain 🙂

Communal interpretation is difficult but it’s not impossible.One of the great contributions of postmodern theology is the remarkable ability of local people in local situations to work out their theology locally while still listening to voices from the past, tradition, contemporary landscape, scripture, etc.

We can make this a lot easier. Make me the Chief Theologian and I’ll tell everyone what they should think.

Hahaha. Kidding.

Part of this might simply be semantics. We might actually be saying the same thing.

Love and Respect,


My friend writes this brilliant response. By humanism, I think he means “we can make it mean whatever we want it to mean.”

I would agree that community interpretation is a reality.  I am concerned that it can, however, become just another form of humanism.

Josh, when you say that we get to choose whether we do it well, what is the measure of “well”?  How do we know if it is done well?  We have some guidance in scripture on testing the spirit, but since this is scripture and we apply community interpretation to the “test”, then the test becomes what the community says it is.

So, unless I am missing something, both scripture is what the community says it is and the test of the quality of the community interpretation is what the community says it is.

An outcome community interpretation of course is  that communities arrive at different interpretations, as ____ mentioned, and not just subtle differences, but dramatically different interpretations.

While I believe that community interpretation is a reality and plays a role, I obviously have difficulty with it as the defining way of knowing.



Dear X,

That’s an astute observation. Very very important.

The temptation towards “humanism” is one that each generation faces.  That is, if by humanism you mean the obsessive desire for humans to figure things out, and humans receive credit, etc.

For me, the grid to avoiding humanism is simple in theory but difficult in praxis.

When I’m interpreting difficult passages, this is the grid I use. I think #3 is vitally important  for we need to remember that our mission is to be an outpost or sign of the heaven God is bringing to us. Here’s the test.

  1. The Life of Jesus.
  2. The reality of the Trinity.
  3. The coming future of God (the judgment, consummation, and restoration of creation).
  4. The teachings of Christians throughout centuries.
  5. The local community (OC).


So, what do you think. How do work it? NOTE: the sentence highlighted in RED is the key sentence in this entire discussion.

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Maybe we need to make a clearer distinction between interpretation, translation, and utilization.

Interpretation is concerned with discovering what the original writers and readers actually meant and understood. No one does this better than Andrew Perriman ( ) and his narrative-historical approach.

Translation is about taking those meanings, as originally framed in a premodern worldview, and projecting them outward onto categories and concepts we can deal with and relate to. Walter Wink has done this most significantly and thoroughly, taking the premodern categories of “principalities and powers”, and showing how they map on to concrete realities in our world. This means we don’t have to accept the premodern worldview in order to uphold the truths originally expressed within that worldview.

And finally, utilization is about how we make use of the scriptures and truths passed down to us. This should take many different forms, from literary expansions to poetic allusions to prophetic application. MLK did this brilliantly, as have a certain group of musicians you like, as did the New Testament authors in their original context.

I think these are each very different things, and we need all of them. Rather than collapsing these three into one, and thus making us choose between them, I think we should recognize them as separate activities so that we may benefit from and participate in all.

by Micah Redding (Jun 15 2012, 10:06 am)


I agree. Great work! I’ll be sharing this with some other folks.
The standard work on Ethics (Richard Hays’ Moral Vision) does this with “community” and “cross” and “new creation” . . .

by Josh (Jun 15 2012, 11:21 am)
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