Friday, January 06, 2017

Scripture and scholarship

Recently, I was debating a Catholic who said Protestants claim "special access" to biblical truth through their historical and linguistic expertise. That echoes the Catholic meme that Protestants replace the papacy with a "priesthood of scholars". A catchy applause line, but is it true?

It's true that Protestants publish many commentaries on the Bible, but so do Catholics scholars, so if there's a "priesthood of scholars," that's common property of Catholicism and Protestantism alike. 

But how accessible is the Bible without commentaries? How accessible is the Bible without background knowledge?

On the one hand, much of the Bible is comprehensible without any background knowledge. Historical narratives are generally accessible. Many Proverbs are transparent. Many statements in the NT letters are self-explanatory.

A philosopher with no background knowledge might have a better grasp of Romans (or parts of Romans) than a Bible scholar since much of the interpretation relies on grasping the flow of argument, which someone with an analytical mind and logical training as an advantage at tracing. 

However, without background knowledge, a reader is prone to misinterpret some things. Likewise, there's much additional meaning he will miss. 

Let's take a comparison. When Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel, it contained a fair amount of exposition because he was introducing a new kind of character to many readers.  

However, that's become a genre. Many movies and TV dramas jump right into vampires because the audience is expected to understand the tropes of the genre. 

But suppose someone who knows nothing about vampire lore watches some of this fare. At one level, he'll be able to understand much of what he sees. It will have a plot, dialogue, and characters that are fairly comprehensible. 

But it will also contain tropes that are puzzling to someone who's unacquainted with vampire lore. Why the aversion to sunlight? Why the aversion to a crucifix or church sanctuary? Why can he be killed with a wooden stake through the heart, but he can't be killed by bullets?  Why must a homeowner invite him into the house? 

Why does he consume blood? Where did the fangs come from?

The viewer won't understand what motivates the character. If he's a science fiction buff, he might wonder if the character is an extraterrestrial, although that won't explain everything.  

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