Remember the old bumper sticker that proclaimed, “God says it. I believe it. That settles it.”? An updated version might read, “Jesus didn’t say it. I don’t believe it. That settles it.”

From Hollywood celebrities to famous pastors, Jesus’ silence is being cited as the final authority on issues ranging from homosexuality to masturbation to street evangelism. This negative hermeneutic is the logical extreme of Red Letter Christianity.

Red Letter Christians emphasize the words of Jesus printed in red in some modern versions of the Bible. The movement made its official entrance onto the evangelical platform nearly ten years ago, setting out “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Red Letter Christians claim, “You can only understand the rest of the Bible when you read it from the perspective provided by Christ.”

But practice can’t be separated from interpretation.

While the highest levels of biblical and literary hermeneutics seem to confound us, a basic and valid interpretive lens for reading the Bible can be as straightforward as approaching a great literary work. (Of course, as most college freshmen will tell you—and this English professor will confirm—skillful reading of literature doesn’t come naturally. It must be learned.)

The inspired Word of God, the Bible is also a literary work written with artistry, a narrative arc, and themes both major and minor. Just as there are valid and invalid approaches to reading Huckleberry Finn, there are right and wrong ways to read the Bible. ...

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