Wednesday, January 9, 2008

"The Ouija Board Bible"

When I was a kid there was a popular game called Ouija Board. The board was printed with letters, numbers, and symbols to which a movable indicator points supposedly in answer to questions put by participants at a séance. The fingers were placed on a pointer that moved about the board to spell out messages the board was sending to the participants. To my dismay I discovered that the only messages I ever received were the ones I sent to myself. That is, I tended to find on the Ouija Board exactly what I was looking for.

It occurs to me that something similar is now going on in the name of biblical interpretation. There is a popular, widely-held notion that if I just let my fingers wander through the Bible, much like a séance I can summon up God’s presence to give me just the word I need, or perhaps more to the point, just the word I was looking for. I sometimes hear people say: “The Lord gave me a verse,” and then they’ll quote a verse of the Bible, completely without context, as though the Divine Voice bypassed the inspired author and spoke through the pages and across the centuries directly to them, unfettered by the difficult and laborious business of biblical interpretation. How convenient.

But when evangelical Christians talk about the inspiration of the Scripture, we mean that God’s Spirit spoke through (which is what “inspiration” means) particular biblical writers who lived long ago and far away in another time and place and culture, and who spoke another language, who held a very different worldview from mine, and who did the best they could to interpret for their audience what they heard God saying to them. That is to say, when I read the Bible today, I am overhearing a conversation not originally intended for me but for someone else. And yet when I eavesdrop, as it were, on that conversation long ago and far away, it occurs to me: “You know, I think I hear a word of God in there for me too!” This latter phenomenon is what we call illumination rather than inspiration. Only the biblical writers were inspired. But when we “overhear” those inspired biblical writers speak God’s word to someone else who lived long ago and far away God’s Spirit continues to speak, across the centuries and cultures and languages, through those inspired writers, an authentic word of God for us too. But notice: that will only happen when I give appropriate attention to the original, inspired author’s message and meaning. The Bible doesn’t mean whatever I want it to mean, or whatever I happen to find there; it means, first and foremost, what the inspired writer meant when he wrote under the inspiration and moving of the Holy Spirit.

And so, if I’m really interested in hearing a word from God, and not just my own little voice echoed in the pages of the Bible, I must first ask, “What did it mean?” before I can move on to ask, “What does it mean?” (to quote Harvard Dean, Krister Stendahl) and that question takes me into the difficult, demanding, and disciplined world of contextual, historical, biblical interpretation. Anything else, and I may as well be playing Ouija Board.


Idell said...

Thanks for this post. I think the phrase "God gave me this verse" should be banned among Christians, especially preachers. I realize that out-of-context readings can be silly or even dangerous. But having a command of the "the difficult, demanding, and disciplined world of contextual, historical, biblical interpretation" would preclude most Sunday school teachers I know from doing their jobs. If the biblical message is for everyone, how do you keep it from being the property of a few elite intellectuals who have the resources to untertake the task you describe?

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Good observations as usual! Thanks for your comments.

I don't believe that one has to have a "command" of the world of biblical interpretation to be willing to plunge into it. There are good resources that are accessible and approachable even for the non-specialist. Now that we have WebMD, most anyone can decifer medicalese for themselves, if they are willing to invest a little time and energy. Same with the Bible.

For many, I fear, it isn't so much an issue of ability as willingness. Let's face it: the "ouija board method of biblical interpretation" is just easier. Why bother with the author's perspective and meaning, which takes work on my part to acquire, when I'm right here and already know what I want the Bible to say? It's just easier to deify my own little voice and say, "I got a word from the Lord!"

Idell said...

Thanks for the reply. What are some examples of WebMD equivalents for
biblical interpretation? Are they available online, or at least likely to be in a public library?

R. Wayne Stacy said...

For Christians whose traditions employ the Church Year there are numerous resources linked to the Lectionary, many online. My favorite is

I also think anyone who teaches in Sunday School or small group Bible study should own AND USE a quality one-volume resource like Harper's Bible Commentary and Harper's Bible Dictionary. In these two single volumes a layperson can mine a wealth of historical, geographical, cultural, linguistic, theological, and literary information needed to interpret the Bible in ITS context before we try to interpret it in our own.

As to a broad, general overview of basic Christian theology, I think every person who calls themselves Christian should read C. S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity." In churches where I have served as pastor I have distributed copies to every participant in the new members class and encouraged them to read it.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Stacy,

Your views on common day "ouija board" biblical interpretation opens my eyes a little bit. Now that I read what you are saying, it allows me to see what does go on in churches, especially small Bible studies that I presently attend. It seems to be something that has always been on my mind as being strange when I hear people say things like "this spoke right to me" and don't factor in the background to which the author was writing. I really appreciate your words. And on the topic of books for people within your church community, what other books would you recommend other than "Mere Christianity"? Thanks...

a former student of yours.....

Unknown said...

I have teen experience with a Ouija board (which we ignorantly pronounced "WEE' gee"). Some of us boys invaded a slumber party and stayed until the wee hours playing with the Ouija board (someone told us the word means "yes-yes") and some very horrifying things were revealed and upset many of the girls (parents going to die, legs to be amputated in car accident, etc). After a few of those, I and a couple others went over in the corner of the basement and watched TV.

We have a fellow in our Singles class that, because of the Great Commission, everyone should be on a street corner telling people about Jesus and the gospel. We tried to explain that "the body has many parts" but he would not hear it. In my previous church we called such people "gospel hobbyists" who picked one aspect of the gospel and made it their entire lives. I have seen and heard scripture taken out of context to justify some radical lifestyles and practices. This subject may need to be addressed from each pulpit.

God bless.