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. As readers, whether our text is God-breathed or merely mortal, we must take into account genre, purpose, audience, structure, and point of view. We find meaning by understanding each passage within context of the whole.
Consider the problem of the reliability of the narrator. In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth describes a reliable narrator as one who “speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.” Literary history is filled with examples of unreliable narrators: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Holden Caulfield, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, Huck Finn. Unreliable narrators can even be found in works of nonfiction: Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Lena Dunham.
A certain level of readerly maturity, skill, and critical distance is required to discern between a reliable narrator and an unreliable one. For example, when Huck Finn tells us that his conscience is troubled for treating Miss Watson “so mean” by assisting her runaway slave, recognizing the unreliability of Huck as a narrator is imperative to grasping the meaning of the text as a whole. On the other hand, when the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities tells us, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the skilled reader knows the narrative voice reflects the view of the implied author.
An essential question for readers of the Bible is whether or not to consider its narrators (as well as its Author) reliable—or, in other words, authoritative. To use Booth’s terms, do the biblical narrators speak in accordance with the implied author (God)? Those of us who adhere to belief in the authority of Scripture and its God-breathed inspiration accept that the various narrators of its sundry books are reliable. They are not Huck Finn. And they are certainly not Humbert Humbert.
All this would seem to go without saying. But it doesn’t. Within modern era evangelicalism, some chafe at the traditional understanding of Christians as “People of the Book.” Undue emphasis on the authority, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture, they charge, is Biblicism, not Christianity and creates Bibliolaters, not Christ followers.
In 2000, an editorial at the Baptist Standard characterized a discussion at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention as having “distilled decades of denominational debate” over whether Jesus or the Bible is “paramount.” Falling ultimately down on the side of the “Jesus-first” camp, the editorial argued,
Some Scriptures, especially portions of the Old Testament, clearly stand in paradox to Jesus' life and teachings, also recorded in Scripture. Other passages, such as Paul's writings, seem to be at odds with each other, and Jesus' words and actions clarify and separate the timeless and universal from the culturally specific.
Such a statement exhibits the problem with the false “Jesus-first/Bible-first” dichotomy. Eliding the states of being “at odds” and “paradox” (which means apparent or seeming contradiction, which is not the same as an actual contradiction) the editorial suggests that the Bible contains dueling passages that can be refereed only by tossing the coin until Jesus lands heads-up. Rather than being read within the entire context of Scripture, seeming contradictions between the words of Christ and other passages of Scripture are simply discounted.
Such a move is rather like choosing Elizabeth Bennet over Mr. Darcy and, in so doing, throwing out Pride and Prejudice altogether. Even more tragically, the eloquence of paradox that characterizes the Christian faith—from the Incarnation to the Virgin Birth, from the Beatitudes to the very crux of the Cross—is erased.
Furthermore, isolating the red letters apart from their narrative context breeds contempt for that context, particularly the hard parts of Scripture. This leaves believers with no adequate answer to the kinds of charges made increasingly by anti-theists. Thus when Richard Dawkins asserts in The God Delusion that the “God of the Old Testament” is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” too many Christians are ill-equipped to respond.
Yet, Dawkins’ hermeneutic—which consists of interpreting passages completely severed from the interpretative framework of the text as a whole—is not all that different from the hermeneutics wrought by the “Jesus-first/Bible-first” dichotomy. Under this spell, Christians are left much like the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century who are said to have drawn the carriage curtains closed when rolling past the mountains because they could not reconcile such wild irregularity with a worldview based on order and symmetry.
Just as the words of both Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy come to us through the entire text of Pride and Prejudice, so, too, do all of the words of Jesus come through the narrators of the Bible. If the black letters of the narrators are reliable, so too are the red letters of Christ. If the narrators are unreliable, however, then the words of Christ they convey are untrustworthy as well. The only way to the red letters is through the black letters.
Because Jesus is the Word—which includes the inspired written word and the incarnate spoken word—it’s as impossible to be a Biblicist without being a Christ follower as it is to follow Christ without the Word… all of it.
Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University and the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of MeandFierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. She is a regular writer for Her.meneutics.