Seeing Red (Letters): Can a Jesus-Centered Interpretation Be So Easily Dismissed?
Yesterday, a writer I really like wrote a piece at Christianity Today that I really didn't like. The article criticized the "Red Letter Christians" movement by appealing to how one understands narration in other forms of literature. For the uninitiated, Red Letter Christians promote a Jesus-centered interpretation of Scripture; the CT article contended that this interpretation doesn't do justice to God as the author of all Scripture, speaking reliably through his narrators.
In other words, you can't have the red letters without the black ones. Amidst other methodological problems in the piece, the author kept comparing the Bible to individual literary works - most notably, Pride and Prejudice. But this is a fundamental mistake. The Bible isn't Pride and Prejudice. The Bible is a library in which Pride and Prejudice sits a few shelves over from Plato's Republic and Stephen King's It. It is a diverse collection of works spanning thousands of years, written in the unique cultural voices and contexts of many different authors. Even the most stringent views of biblical inspiration and authority recognize the organic and variegated nature of the biblical collection.
It is not a single book dictated mechanically by God to a series of stenographers (or narrators) to convey a uniform (and uniformly reliable) message.
In fact, any attempt to unite this diverse collection of texts (which has been the church's sacred trust for a couple millennia) must discern principles by which to accomplish that unity. It is no easy task and has led to a number of interpretive or hermeneutical perspectives. A Jesus-centered interpretation, of which Red Letter Christians are just one expression, chooses to organize the entire compendium of Scripture around the words and works of Jesus. It does not, in its orthodox form, take anything away from the inspiration of the black letters. But it does assign greater weight to the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, in clarifying other areas of the diverse collection. It does this in ways that may at times change or even upend the way we understand those black letter texts - who they are about, what they are trying to say, whether they are really tales of rescue or tales of love or tales of horror, etc. It continually asks us whether the text has been rendered fulfilled, completed, redefined, or invalid in light of the Jesus event. (And it does this, first and foremost, because this kind of interpretive tack is taken by Jesus and the New Testament writers themselves.)
Mainly, it sees the purpose of the whole Bible as bringing us to the Messiah, Jesus, not dictating (or narrating) a voluminous running list of facts, rules, and stories of which Jesus is merely a small part and which simplistically comprise a completed whole. The inspiration of the black letters pertains precisely to their purpose: they testify of Jesus. And please note: Jesus's Pharisaic interlocutors are proof that this does not work in the reverse. We cannot interpret Jesus through the black letters. We cannot just put those letters in his mouth divorced from how he himself interpreted them (especially given the fact that he contradicted them outright on occasion). The morality and Christianness of our interpretation depends on whether we look to Jesus and let him show us how all of the black letters are pointing us to him.
It is one thing to disagree with this hermeneutic and opt for another - well and good. It is quite a different thing to pretend the interpretive issues that a Jesus-centered approach seeks to answer don't exist - and that all one must do to dismiss it is to appeal to the divine Author and assert the uniform reliability of the whole kit and kaboodle. Are the biblical writers reliable? I say yes, but not uniformly or superficially - for they all exist to bring us, in unique ways, to the moment of the Word made flesh which, the apostle John says, is the only time we have ever seen God revealed.
Having spent a lot of time in a Reformed school of thought that prioritizes logical and ideological solutions to apparent interpretive contradictions and paradoxes, let me say that I much prefer a hermeneutic that is not content with logic and ideology but opts for the embodied truth of Incarnation.
For me and my house, it is only in a Jesus-centered interpretation that this inspired, authoritative library of texts witnesses to the logic of God in a Person, the light and life of humankind, full of grace and truth.