Reading the Bible

Two contrasting approaches to Bible reading

Linwood Chamberlain, D.Min., is co-pastor of the First Lutheran Church in Lorain, Ohio.

The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it,' says one Christian. History may have been wrong. What I think the Bible says is ..." states another. The first is introjecting. The second is projecting.

They both feel they have a special knowledge of the Bible. They both may aggressively, even arrogantly accuse the other of intellectual or spiritual negligence. But it is impossible for them to let the truth of Scripture into their lives until they challenge their dysfunctional approach to Bible reading.

Projection and introjection

How we read the Bible matters. However, how we read the Bible does not of itself promote or prevent our salvation. Salvation is still by grace alone and not by the works of "reading correctly." But the way we read the Bible does shape the way we respond to Jesus' salvation. Our psychological tendencies can open our minds and hearts to knowing the will of our Lord, or they can cause us to hide and resist His desire to change and direct our lives. A psychologically healthy relationship to the Bible is necessary for a transforming relationship with Jesus.

Healthy relationships between people can be visualized as we see communication as arrows pointing in two directions. As our friends share with us their opinions, an arrow points from them toward us. We react to their opinion and share with them our own understanding and a second, returning arrow points from us to them. They further respond to us by expanding the areas of interest that we have identified, and a third arrow points back in our direction. We say how we feel about this new exchange, and once again an arrow points to them. And so on.

When we recognize only our own thoughts and do not take time to under stand the thoughts of another, we create a relationship in which the arrows go only from us. If everything comes from us, we do not know others because we are only encountering our own ideas.

Similarly, If we are so impressed with others that we neglect to develop our own thoughts, then we have a relationship where all the arrows come from outside ourselves. When everything comes from others, we still do not know them because we do not know how they will react to our ideas. We only know them partially. We do not know if they would accept or reject us if we are hon est and let them see our questions. We do not know if struggling with us would drive them away or lead them to love us more. We have only a sanitized, partial image of them and do not know them fully.

Gestalt psychology calls a relationship with all the arrows going from us projection. A relationship with all the arrows coming from others is called introjection.

Describing situations of projection is fairly easy. If we put a slide into a projector and show the image on a screen, we do not look at the screen but at the projection on the screen. Likewise, if we are proud of our preaching skills and we see every comment of "good sermon today" as resounding support for all our ideas but do not see the glazed eyeballs and rushed handshakes for what they are, we are not really seeing the people in front of us. We are merely seeing what we want to see in their comments. This again is a form of projection.

Projection and reading the Bible

Let's now apply this to reading the Bible. When we live from a posture of projection, we read the Bible as if only our ideas about it matter. We read to interpret the Bible; we do not read to be interpreted by the Bible. We do not struggle to separate the Bible from our hopes, dreams, or fears. We assume that the Bible mirrors our beliefs and then we go about proving that it does. Our projections blur awareness of the Bible by making it a proof text for our own way of thinking or behaving. Thus we tend to create the Bible in our image.

When we project, we do Bible study by saying, "What the Bible means to me is..." We tend to ignore what others say the Bible means to them. When we project, we see Scripture as flexible to our favor. Parts of the Bible that are not consistent with our thoughts or that cannot be shaped to support our thinking are sometimes relegated to insignificance by ruling them as culturally biased in terms of the historical setting in which they were written by human beings. In this way we misuse what could be a constructive way of getting at the meaning of the Bible.

Reflections on the world that are jaded by projection, even though ex pressed in terms of scriptural truth, are "I" centered and eliminate any impact another outside opinion could have. Projection distorts our perception of truth and invalidates our proclamations about the issues of the day. We might also ignore other biblical evidence that is contrary to our own limited projections. When we project, we are loathe to ask the question "What if I'm wrong? What if others' views about the Bible are right?" When we project, we end up trying to prove we are right, and thus we cannot really know the Bible, at least not all that it has to say.

Introjection and reading the Bible

Describing situations of introjection is more complex. Introjection is accepting, at face value and without question, something that another person says or believes. Suppose a person comes to me and says "Others have talked to me, and we believe that your hair is too long." If I rush out to get a haircut, forgetting that this person always criticizes people whenever he disagrees with them, then I am introjecting. If the weather forecaster says "It's going to be a beautiful sunny day today with zero percent chance of precipitation" but the sky outside my window is dark and cloudy, lightning is streaking overhead, thunder is echoing off the surrounding buildings, and the cars on the highway are using their wind shield wipers, and I still leave my house without an umbrella because the weather forecaster said there would be no rain, then I have introjected his perceptions'. Teenagers introject nonsense phrases ("That's fresh!" or "Cool!") and businessmen introject blue, pin-striped suits. Mothers know what introjections are when they ask,"If everybody else jumped off the bridge, would you jump too?"

We can certainly apply the principles of introjection to reading the Bible. To do so, we must look at the complex interplay between words and the person receiving the words. As an illustration we can use the sentence, "The man in charge walked onto the field, picked up an object, and shouted 'Play ball!'"

The words in this sentence could imply to some that the man in charge has made a discovery; that the ball on the field is a "play ball." This is an appropriate and true rendition of what the words mean. Americans, however, would probably never notice that interpretation as a possibility. They are so influenced by their time and place that their first perception of the sentence would be to interpret "Play ball" as the command to those on the field, "You are at this moment to begin play."

Teenagers today might assign different images to the word ball. Some might picture a basketball, others a football or soccer ball. If, however, the sentence was being read by somebody influenced by the well-established idiom of America in the late 1950s, the sentence could have no other meaning than "Start the baseball game."

Thus it is true that words have meanings in themselves, but the speaker and the receiver of words also apply meanings to the words. To say "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it" could well be to swallow a limited, cur rent, tradition-bound interpretation of what God's unlimited Word has to of fer. This could be described as a kind of social or cultural introjection. When ever we stop short of examining root meanings, variations of understandings, and possible corruption of interpretations, we force all the arrows in the relationship to come from human sources outside of us. To swallow words at their face value or with only the obvious constructions that the traditions of our denomination places on them, without questioning or verifying them for ourselves (Acts 17:11). This is introjection. When we swallow anything whole, without digesting or applying it, we gain no value from it. We do not "know" it.

Avoiding introjection in Bible reading

To keep our relationship to the Bible from becoming a series of introjections, thereby reducing our selves to nonentities in the relationship, we must chew and digest what we are receiving and not merely swallow it. Although this seems contradictory to the process of being an earthen vessel for Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7), even Paul chewed on Scripture. He approached Scripture and showed a broader truth beyond the literal language, as when he quotes 2 Samuel 7:14 in 2 Corinthians 6:18 to include "and daughters," which is not in the original text.

Did Paul really "steal" from other churches as he says in 2 Corinthians 11:8, or did he merely accept help from them in order not to have to seek help from the Corinthians? Are the super-apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:5 really that good, or are they being mocked by Paul? Are the super-apostles the same men as the false prophets in verse 13? Are we supposed to steal from our church to make friends with the sons of darkness as the dishonest steward did in Luke 16? Should we nag Jesus the way the woman did who wanted the scraps tossed to the dogs in Matthew 15? Did Judas commit suicide by hanging himself or throwing himself off a large cliff?

When we introject, we do not allow the Bible to touch us, because we keep our own questions suppressed or hidden. We grant the Bible the authority to answer questions, as long as they are not the questions that bother us. In this way we become receptacles for whatever is poured out, even if what is poured out does not speak to the issues our minds are exploring at the time. We only know the Bible partially because we do not allow the Bible to speak to something new and real that concerns us.

When we introject, we are afraid to think or say "That doesn't fit my experience." We hide our reactions for fear our relationship to the Bible could not stand up to the reality of our doubts and disagreements. Somewhere within our selves we wonder if the Bible or our faith in it is actually able to measure with the questions or challenges which have come to the Bible or to our faith. We keep secret our inner feelings (perhaps even from ourselves) for fear that if we really admitted how we feel and our first understanding of the Bible was thus changed, we would abandon the whole Bible or the Bible would prove us to be unworthy of our faith.

We, therefore, compartmentalize the Bible into a "religious" realm and keep our daily lives away from it. We never know the Bible in the inner life of our existence. Scripture becomes an external set of controls that we must follow but which we never fully under stand or appreciate. When we introject, we do not allow ourselves to ask the questions, "What if my doubts and differences are correct? What if other views about the Bible are wrong? What if my questions change the understanding of the text?" These were the very questions the religious establishment of Jesus' day failed to ask and which they prevented others from asking. In doing this they rejected and opposed the most stupendously important truth that ever came onto the human scene. Their inability to open their own minds to truth, listening only to one another, caught them in a maelstrom of introjection and dead-end traditionalism.

A two-way relationship with the Bible

To know the Bible we must learn healthy habits that lead us into a two-way relationship with the Word of God and not a one-sided relationship that yields much empty information but no deep, inner knowledge. To know the Bible, we must choose methods of study that let Scripture question our way of thinking and that also let us question Scripture.

Reading the Bible may very well be the most important activity we will ever undertake in our lives. Hence it is too important to do without carefully in formed thought, prayer, and divine guidance.


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Linwood Chamberlain, D.Min., is co-pastor of the First Lutheran Church in Lorain, Ohio.

August 2000

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