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Feb 18, 2011 David Lang

Overcoming Blind Spots: Get Perspective with Commentaries

For the past several posts, I've been discussing how we can overcome our blind spots when it comes to reading the Bible. By "blind spots," I mean those things we gloss over or simply fail to see because of our preconceptions about what the text says. I've discussed how reading and comparing multiple translations can help to alert us to aspects of the text we might have missed, and I've compared The Message translation to a convex mirror which can bend our gaze so that we can see around our blind spots. Today, I want to talk about how commentaries help us overcome our blind spots by offering us a new perspective on the text.

The point of this post is really pretty self-evident. Of course a commentary can give you another perspective on a passage, because you're reading someone else's interpretation of that passage. What's more, because most commentaries interact with other interpretations, they actually help you to view your passage from multiple viewpoints. All those different perspectives will help you to see aspects of the text you might have missed because of some blind spot.

This is how commentaries are supposed to be used: to gain second opinions and other perspectives after you've first done the work of examining the text for yourself. Unfortunately, we are sometimes tempted to turn to a trusted commentary not to get a perspective on the text, but to get the perspective on the text. No matter how much we trust a particular commentary, we must be careful not to examine its perspective too quickly or to accept it uncritically. After all, even the most reliable and insightful commentator has his or her own blind spots, and we should be careful not to adopt those blind spots while trying to see past our own.

Over the past six months, I've been teaching my oldest son to drive. In teaching him to change lanes, I've talked him through checking the rearview mirrors and doing a head check, but there have also been times when I've craned my neck and told him the coast was clear. I've done that to help him when there's a lot of traffic and I know he's trying to remember to do several things at once, but I know that I can only do that in the early stages of teaching him to drive. Otherwise, he'll develop the dangerous habit of depending on someone else's perspective rather than learning to check his blind spots for himself.

Becoming too dependent on a commentary may not be as obviously life-threatening, but it will definitely limit your perspective on your passage of study. That's why it's best to consult commentaries toward the end of your study of a passage, after you've begun to develop your own interpretation of the text. That way, you begin to interact with the additional perspectives the commentaries provide, rather than merely adopting them as your own.

If you actually take this approach to using commentaries, it becomes much less important that the commentary be one you trust or which shares your own theological perspectives. I began this series of posts about blind spots by talking about how a commentary with which I largely disagreed helped me to see an aspect of Genesis 3 which I had always glossed over. Because I had already studied the passage for myself, I wasn't threatened by a different interpretation of that passage. I learned from what I found helpful and gave little credence to the parts I found too ideologically driven. Used in this way, even commentaries you strongly disagree with can be immensely helpful. In fact, it is sometimes the commentaries with which you most disagree that can be the most helpful in exposing your own blind spots.

By the way, if you're looking for help selecting a good commentary, Dr. J's recent podcast on Purchasing Commentaries offers a lot of helpful buying advice.


 

Feb 16, 2011 David Lang

Overcoming Blind Spots: The Convex Mirror Bible

For the past couple posts, I've been discussing how we can overcome our blind spots when it comes to reading the Bible. By "blind spots," I mean those things we gloss over or simply fail to see because of our preconceptions about what the text says. In my last post I discussed how reading and comparing multiple translations can help to alert us to aspects of the text we might have missed. Today, I want to talk about one particular translation which can help us overcome our blind spots.

On many cars these days, the driver side rearview mirror will include a small convex mirror. This convex mirror gives a distorted image, but it enables the driver to see things which would otherwise be in his blind spot. The translation I'm referring to is a bit like that convex mirror: it doesn't always give the most accurate look at the text, but it can for that very reason help us to see past our blind spots.

The translation I'm referring to is The Message, and if you're not familiar with it, it is an extremely "free" and idiomatic translation. For example, here's a verse chosen pretty much at random, in The Message and the ESV:

MessageText

The Message takes some liberties with the text here. The Greek says that the disciples "wondered" or "marveled" at the fact that Jesus was talking with a woman, but The Message embellishes this by saying that they were "shocked" and that they "couldn't believe" he was talking with "that kind of a woman." Likewise, the Greek says that none of the disciples questioned Jesus, but says nothing about their faces showing their surprise.

Because The Message goes beyond the original texts like this, some people absolutely detest it. Others love it because it tries to communicate the emotional impact and drama which its original audience would have felt. It's certainly hard to deny that The Message's rendering of this verse grabs your attention more than that of most other translations.

Personally, I think The Message has its place, as long as it's not the only translation you read. Because of its idiosyncrasies, I tend to cringe when I hear it read in corporate worship services. I would prefer that a "more accurate" translation be used. Yet every time I read it or hear it read I find myself asking, "Wow, does it really say that?" I then feel compelled to examine that verse in other translations and in the original to see if The Message's rendering is legitimate or if I think it has gone too far.

This is exactly the kind of reaction The Message is designed to provoke. It is intentionally free and idiomatic in order to shake us out of the lethargy which results from our familiarity with the text. Like a convex mirror, it gives us a picture of the text which is not always completely straight, but it bends our gaze so that we can see around our blind spots.


 

Feb 15, 2011 David Lang

Overcoming Blind Spots: Compare Translations

In last Friday's post, I talked about how we sometimes have blind spots when it comes to reading the Bible. By "blind spots," I mean those things we gloss over or simply fail to see because of our preconceptions about what the text says. Over the next several posts, I want to talk about some ways we can overcome those blind spots.

In life, the only way to overcome a blind spot is to change your perspective. If you're driving a car, you make sure nothing is in your blind spot by quickly turning your head to see what you could not see in your rearview mirror. Some cars have special convex mirrors to show you what a flat mirror cannot. These days, high end vehicles are beginning to offer video cameras to augment mirrors. All of these methods essentially amount to a change in perspective so that you see that to which you were previously blind.

When studying the Bible, how can you adjust your perspective in order to see past the blind spots brought on by your preconceptions? One simple method is to compare multiple translations of the same passage. Once you've read the passage in your preferred translation, open one or more additional translations in parallel panes and see if they render the passage differently. Reading a less familiar translation often helps draw your attention to details you might have glossed over or missed before.

To add a translation in parallel, select it from the Add Pane pop-up

I recommend using at least one "formal" translation (like the ESV or NASB), and one more "dynamic" translation (like the NIV or NLT) to help highlight important differences. At the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, a formal translation is one which strives to remain as close as possible to the wording, grammar, and sentence structure of the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Dynamic translations, on the other hand, tend to focus on translating the meaning of the original into natural-sounding English. Think of formal translations as more or less word-for-word and dynamic translations as more or less thought-for-thought. Translators debate about which approach is best, and all translations fall somewhere along a continuum between these two approaches. Since Accordance enables you to view and compare both kinds of translation, you can benefit from each one's strengths.

For help comparing the differences between two translations, simply check the Compare Texts checkbox. Accordance will then highlight the differences between the first two texts of the same language.

To compare translation differences, just click the Compare Texts checkbox

If you have another pane containing a translation you would like to compare with one of the first two, simply drag that pane to the left so that it is one of the first two panes. The highlighting will update accordingly.

To highlight the differences with another translation, drag that translation to the left

Using multiple translations can help you overcome blind spots by helping you see aspects of the text you might otherwise have missed. In upcoming posts, I'll cover some other methods of overcoming blind spots.


 

Feb 11, 2011 David Lang

Overcoming Blind Spots

When I was in college, I read a feminist scholar's exegesis of Genesis 1-3 for a class I was taking. I've read this scholar a few times since, and have always found her to be a gifted exegete with the kind of literary acumen I've been discussing over the past few weeks. She tends to unpack the text in a way that helps you appreciate its literary artistry and see dimensions you might previously have missed. Unfortunately, she also self-consciously reinterprets these texts from the standpoint of her own ideology. Rather than merely correcting sexist or misogynist distortions of the text, she unapologetically seems to distort the text in the opposite direction.

For example, many traditional interpretations of Genesis 2-3 have vilified Eve (and women in general) while excusing Adam (and men in general). This scholar rightly corrects these distortions, but then goes on to vilify Adam and make Eve out to be something of a heroine. I would argue that the text condemns both Adam and Eve as complicit in the fall.

Because this scholar sometimes sets aside her undeniable exegetical skill to push her ideological agenda, I find reading her to be something of an uneven experience. One moment I am impressed with her insight into the text, and the next I am dismayed by her willingness to read into the text a viewpoint which strikes me as clearly foreign to it.

My point in telling you all this is not to critique this scholar's exegetical methods, but to relate how reading her work back in college taught me a valuable lesson about biblical exegesis: namely, to watch out for blind spots.

As I was working my way through this scholar's commentary on Genesis 1-3, I was surprised when I came to Genesis 3:6, which says that Eve gave the forbidden fruit to her husband "who was with her" and he ate. She made much of this phrase, using it to vilify Adam and to make Eve out to be some kind of Promethean figure. While I found her interpretation to go way beyond what could legitimately be derived from the text, I could not deny that I had always missed the fact that Adam was present with Eve during the serpent's dialogue with her. The idea that Adam was standing quietly by during this whole episode was undeniably damning, yet I had never heard anyone even mention it before. Strangest of all, I already knew the text said "with her," yet somehow, I had always pictured Adam being absent during the actual temptation.

I'm not sure why that is. I think my familiarity with the King James reading ("she ... gave also unto her husband with her") might have had something to do with it. Somehow, that magisterial phrasing made it sound like the text was saying "with her" in some general sense of living with her in the garden rather than in the specific sense of being present with her at the time of the temptation. My understanding may also have been colored by extra-biblical depictions like Hollywood movies I had seen or Milton's Paradise Lost, all of which show Adam as having been some distance away from Eve during her conversation with the serpent. Whatever the reason, I had always glossed over that phrase without fully accounting for it. I had a blind spot where that passage was concerned.

Even in an age of relative biblical illiteracy, the Bible is remarkably familiar to most of us. Its narratives are woven into the fabric of Western culture, its phrases are echoed in our idioms and clichés, the people it describes populate our artwork and movies. We all have preconceived notions and assumptions we bring to the Scriptures, and those can blind us to aspects of the text which don't fit our preconceptions. To overcome these blind spots, we need help to see the text with fresh eyes. In a series of upcoming posts, I'll discuss Bible study methods you can use to overcome your own blind spots.