Some years ago I went to a 4D movie at the World of Coca-Cola with my grand boys. I had never attended a 4D movie and had no idea what to expect. They issued 3D glasses to us as we entered the theatre. As the movie started, there was a scene with a river flowing over a waterfall and on the screen there was a splash. The 3D glasses made it seem that we were at the foot of that waterfall. Then there was this spray of water that covered the audiance. It was unexpected and exhilarating at the same time.
The next scene started with the sound of a bee. The sound was so loud that it seemed like it was buzzing in your ear. Then there was a stick in the back and I thought for a moment that I had been stung. It occurred to me in that moment that the 4D experience was about moving beyond being a spectator and entering the movie as a participant. All of the lines of proximity had been blurred by the experience.
That is what is meant by experiencing the Bible in 4D. When it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible, there are four dimensions that need to be considered. Each dimension is important and useful in helping us to not only read the words on the pages of the Bible, but enter into the story that unfolds before us. Reading the Bible in 4D invites us into the experience of the text.
1st Dimension-Historical/Cultural Context
The first dimension is the historical/cultural context of the text. The Bible is written by real people, in a real place, at a specific time in history. If you’re not willing to dig deep enough for an understanding of the historical and cultural context, you’ll end up missing the intent and understanding of a specific text. Without honoring this first dimension of the biblical text, you can make any passage say anything you want. This is often referred to as proof texting.
2nd Dimension-Language and Literary Style
The second dimension has to do with the literary style of the text. Discovering the literary style of a text helps in understanding the context and knowing how to interpret. Is the passage poetry, prayer, parable, lament, narrative, or gospel? Once the literary style is determined, the reader must know how to read and interpret the different literary styles. This dimension is necessary because you can easily misread and misunderstand a passage if the literary style is ignored.
The claim that the Bible is to be read literally is misguided and misleading. No one reads the entire Bible literally. The Bible is read selectively. Readers often think they are expressing their devotion for the Bible by insisting that it must be interpreted literally. This view attempts to set the text in concrete by insisting on one way to read and interpret a text.
The Bible is to be read literarily, not literally. The attempt to read and understand the Bible requires that we take the Bible seriously. There is a great difference in trying to read the bible literally as opposed to taking the text seriously. To take the Bible seriously, we must learn to pay attention to the language and the literary style of the text.
3rd Dimension-The Enduring Intent
The third dimension is the enduring intent or meaning of the text. How has this text been interpreted across the ages? Is there an obvious intent/meaning to the text?
This is not suggesting that there’s only one interpretation. There are typically many different interpretations that any one particular text may have. It is fair to ask, what exactly is this specific text saying and what is it still trying to say or do? Is it a word about justice, forgiveness, wisdom, and how is it to be interpreted today?
There are many ways to read and interpret the Bible but that does not mean all interpretations are the same. Some readings of a passage can be irresponsible, silly, even dangerous. The Bible has been used in destructive ways across the years. Slavery is an example of how important interpreting the Bible responsibly really is. There are interpretations of the Bible used to exclude or mistreat people on the basis of gender, economics, or race. These are only a sample of the many ways the Bible can be misused.
4th Dimension-Experiencing the Text
The fourth dimension is the understanding of the Bible as an invitation to engage and then enter into the story. This becomes an invitation to move beyond being a spectator and becoming a participant in the story.
The Bible does not exist for passive disengagement. The reader is invited into the text and expected to engage in the act of interpreting. This moves reading and interpreting the Bible beyond an intellectual pursuit into the realm of experience.
Every reading of the Bible is an interpretation. Even passages that seem straightforward and obvious demand the reader to engage and interpret. Take the command to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Yet the reader is required to decide which day is the sabbath to be observed–Saturday or Sunday? What does it mean to keep a day holy? The Bible refuses to allow us to be spectators. Instead, we are invited to engage the text and enter into the story.
A Living Word
In the movie, Night at the Museum, there is a sacred tablet that empowers all the exhibits and historical figures to come to life. The new nightwatchman, Larry, finds himself not only making the rounds in the museum but becoming a part of this living exhibit.
Too often we pick up the Bible to hear the stories and end up viewing the text as a sacred relic. We see this as an ancient text that is important for the foundation of our faith but there is no relevant word for our life or the world. To read the Bible in this way would be like going to a museum every week on Sundays and looking at the same exhibits.
If we approach the Bible that way we’re going to miss the greatest adventures of life. The Bible is this unfolding epic that is the story of struggle and faith, suffering and triumph, death and resurrection. So many people never make the connection between the life out there and life in the text.
This disconnect happens because we do not see the Bible as a living and active word. We view the scripture as a system. We try to set the text in concrete so that it means only one thing. We attempt to reduce scripture to a specific system or structure, one way of interpreting the Bible. This approach leads people to read the Bible literally.
All structures and systems are partial and temporary. Only God is eternal. All of our efforts to make our system or structure as the only way to read and interpret the Bible is a misplaced faith. We end up deifying systems and structures instead of the source-God.
This is a living word. The Bible is a word brought to life by the living God who meets us where we are as we engage the text. The words have the power to ignite our imagination and faith. These are not mere words on a page, they are an invitation to each of us to take our place in this unfolding story of faith and grace.