Thursday, 8 January 2015

Can we please stop talking about the 'natural reading' of the text?

Here's a short one.

Are you a good evangelical Christian? Are you concerned with properly interpreting the Bible? If so, you've probably been told, at some point or another, to stick to the 'natural reading' (or the 'plain reading') of the text.

There is good advice hiding in that instruction. It is in desperate need, though, of being set free from its all too awful phrasing. 'Natural' is a notoriously ambiguous word that carries a number of senses and confusing these senses is hindering our reading of the Bible.

The good advice is really just this: you should believe that the text means whatever the available evidence suggests it means. 

That is what talk about the 'natural reading' ought to point you towards. E.g. it would be 'unnatural', that is, forced, contrived, an awkward fit, to interpret the gospels as mythology if the available evidence suggests they should be interpreted as history.

The ambiguity and hence the danger comes in this: 'natural' also suggests easiness. For instance, we call someone a natural at tennis when they pick it up without much effort. Applied to the Bible, the 'natural reading', in this sense, would be the reading that comes easiest to us. The reading that seems the most 'obvious'. The reading that seems most apparent while reading the text in modern English as a modern person with modern assumptions.

Be wary of 'natural' in this sense - the sense of easiness. It will take you far away from the good advice. For sometimes the available evidence, once you gather it in, will suggest a meaning very different from what struck you as obvious, unaided by knowledge of the original language and social context etc. How could this not be a possibility? What the best evidence suggests and what comes easiest are conceptually distinct. They trade off different senses or applications of 'natural'. Why would one always track the other?

Cling too tightly, then, to the importance of the 'natural reading' in the wrong sense - the sense of the easiest reading - and you will find yourself throwing out accusations of 'exegetical gymnastics' and 'twisting the text' at the wrong targets. You will launch those accusations whenever someone tries to to take you further away from what initially strikes you as the text's 'obvious meaning'. But your enemy is not the person who makes complicated appeals to context in favour of alternative readings. Your enemy is the persons who makes such complicated appeals against the evidence. Your enemy is the person not following the good advice.

The good advice, again, is: you should believe that the text means whatever the available evidence suggests it means. 

So let's drop all this 'natural' talk and just talk about the evidence, shall we?