A friend and I were talking about the story of David and Goliath. (Yes, I know it’s weird, but we really were talking about David and Goliath). I was complaining that people almost always mistake the story’s lesser point for the main point. The main point of the individual stories that make up the longer narrative about David is to demonstrate God working to establish Israel’s kingship and bring about the line of Christ. The particular story of David and Goliath is filled to the brim with symbolism that contrasts David with King Saul, demonstrating that while David did not seek the kingship, his character was more “kingly.” That the reader should have the kind of faith that allowed David to kill Goliath is a great life lesson, but it is a lesser point, more like the moral to a kid’s story than the theme of an epic like 1st and 2nd Samuel.
My friend, who had never heard this explanation in his 50 years in the church, replied “but how are we (meaning regular people who are not in seminary) supposed to figure that out?” Then he got up to make dinner. It was a very good question, so I continued to think about it for a while. What my friend was really saying was that if a regular person sitting in church just picked up the Bible and read that story, “having faith like David” seemed to be the obvious point. How was a regular Joe supposed to figure out all the implied symbolism and narrative clues?
As I thought more about it, I realized that this man was assuming that his approach to the text allowed him to see the plain, obvious meaning of the story, while things like symbolism, repetition, and literary structure were subtle things that were not necessary to understand it. He was assuming that what he saw as the plain meaning of the text is, in fact, the plain meaning of the text. He was saying what we all say—that his presuppositions are the right ones.
The problem is that we are all trapped in our presuppositions. Had my friend, or I, or the fundamentalist pastor down the street, been born in a different culture with different presuppositions about how the world works, what we see as the “plain meaning” of anything would be different. This observation was made very real to me recently as I was writing a research paper about Paul’s view of the Old Testament law. Now I am one of those aberrations of nature that loves research, but I struggled with a philosophical quandary about this paper. I am not a big fan of systematic theology because I don’t think the Bible is designed to be experienced in a systematic way. It’s a narrative that tells the story of God’s desire for a relationship with man, not a theological treatise. But at the same time, my western worldview requires that what I believe be logical and consistent, and, in a general way, make sense. The writing of this paper required that I read the text in a way that I don’t think the text was designed to be read, but had the text not made sense, I would have questioned its truth because it did not fulfill my definition of how truth should look.
While I am modern enough (in the philosophical sense) to need the truth that I believe to fulfill my standards of what makes intellectual sense, I am also post-modern enough to realize that this standard is the result of my worldview, which is the result of the time and place in which I was born. As I have learned more about the Bible, I have identified and rejected many of my past preconceptions, but I cannot imagine not holding Scripture to some standard of inherent logic. Is that logic some universal aspect of how humans understand truth, or is it, too, just a transient characteristic of my culture that is so ingrained that I will never be able to get out from under it? Can any of us get out from under our cultural presuppositions to find a universally agreed upon way of reading Scripture, or are we all just hopelessly locked in our own worldviews? It frustrates me that I do not have a good answer for this right now, but I’m hoping that talking with believers from around the world, and from cultures very different from my own, at Lausanne 2010 will reveal it.