How does a viable and vital next Christianity need to be grounded in the originating revelation witnessed to in the New Testament texts? In our contemporary culture we honor or we need to honor both the scientific and the contemplative approaches to truth. How does this affect Biblical interpretation? Following is a four-point summary of the biblical interpretation methods I am promoting.
(1) Scientific History: What do we know about when and where a text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?
(2) Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?
(3) Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.
(4) “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?
Here is an illustration of Bible-based theologizing for a next Christianity. Following is a text from Luke 9:28-36 (J. B. Phillips translation) and my commentary on this story of the transfiguration of Jesus:
About eight days after these sayings [about the son of man coming in his glory], Jesus took Peter and James and John and went off with them to the hillside to pray. And then, while he was praying, the whole appearance of his face changed and his clothes became white and dazzling. And two men were talking with Jesus. They were Moses and Elijah—revealed in heavenly splendor, and their talk was about the way he must take and the end he must fulfill in Jerusalem. But Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, and it was as they struggled into wakefulness that they saw the glory of Jesus and the two men standing with him. Just as they were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is wonderful for us to be here! Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying. While he was speaking a cloud overshadowed them and awe swept over them as it enveloped them. A voice came out of the cloud saying,
“This is my Son, my chosen! Listen to him!”
And while the voice was speaking, they found there was no one there at all but Jesus. The disciples were reduced to silence, and in those days never breathed a word to anyone of what they had seen.
Here is my take on interpreting this story: First of all, it is helpful for us to know some historical facts, like the highly probable fact that this story was written years after the crucifixion. The whole story is fiction—not a word of it is actual history except for the names of the people. “They never breathed a word to anyone of what they had seen” is an admission of the story teller who first told this story that he or she is making up this story. Seeing Jesus in his glory (as the Christ) did not happen until the “resurrection experience” happened. Indeed, seeing this glory of Jesus by the disciples, or by us, is the resurrection.
So, this story is about the meaning of resurrection, told and read by resurrected persons after the horror of the crucifixion became for them a doorway into the deeps of life. The teller of this story knows that “there was no one there at all but Jesus.” That dynamic applies to us today: until we participate in the resurrection experience, there is no one there at all but Jesus.
The bulk of this story is told in a type of dream imagery. The dazzle of Jesus garments is something seen only by transformed people who see the dazzle of Jesus along with the dazzle of Moses (author of the law) and the dazzle of Elijah ( grandfather of the prophets). We can translate the meaning of this dazzle for our mindsets as an experience of awe—a dread and fascination moment that is mysterious, that requires courage, and in the end redirects our lives.
I reject the sort of literalism that implies that a tape recorder would have picked up that voice from a cloud. I view this cloud as a symbol used to indicate the “heavenly source” of the message. And “heaven” is also a symbol for what we today might call, “the realm of Mystery that can penetrates any ordinary moment.”
And what does this dream-world “voice” say? It says, “Pay attention to Jesus, for this human being is revealing the nature of the Mysterious EVERY-THING-NESS/NO-THING-NESS that Moses and Elijah were also dazzled by, and that awake people today might meet in every moment of their lives.”
“The disciples were reduced to silence.” In other words, these still-learning disciples had no words for what they, in this story, were experiencing. They were, in this story, experiencing a preview of the resurrection, that rebirth on the other side of having all their illusions crucified in an event that so shattered the foundations of their lives that they never got over it. Only when this shaking of the foundations is complete, does the dazzle noted in the story appear. Only when all our illusions are exposed for what they are— when we have died to all our egoistic projections upon Reality, does the dazzle of Reality appear to us.
Peter cries out, “Let us build some altars [some religious formations] at this place.” In this story, Peter did not know what he was saying, but he did know that he was experiencing Final Things, appropriate for marking this place with some sort of humanly invented religious something.
In this story, all the above happens to these three disciples as “they were struggling into wakefulness.” We can identify with this phrase, for this story is what it is like for any of us to struggle into wakefulness, concerning our true being and our encircling Reality.
I have shown how we can translate a bit of New Testament text from first century poetry into contemporary language that might enable 21st Century humans to notice the “Awe-level” or “Primal-truth-level” that this story contains for our lives today. The final step (step four) is examining what it might mean to “Hear the Word of God” in this passage of Christian scripture.
So, what might we have heard at this deep level? In reflecting more carefully on this passage, we may have realized that we may have been walking with Jesus to hillsides and villages, so to speak, but it will take his death to wake us up to being the body of Christ who sees Jesus as the Christ, as the Truth, the Life, and the Way to live our lives. This story may also be telling us something about the human experience of “the resurrection from the dead”—the transformation from our deadly, despair-destined deludedness to our essential being in the body of the resurrected Jesus. If we do indeed feel some shallow deluded approach to living our lives, we are hearing the Word of God. If we do indeed see more clearly what authentic living might be for us, we are hearing the Word of God.
For more on death and resurrection as the core of the New Testament witness, I recommend the following portion of my commentary on the Gospel of Mark: