Tom Gilson

My Personal Opinion On This Passage Is…

I got an email a while ago asking for help promoting a crowd-sourced study Bible called everyword. Maybe my mention of it here will count as promoting it, but that’s not my intention; rather I want to challenge the concept while exploring the worldview that seems partly to be motivating it.

(Here’s a PDF of the Kickstarter page in case the link goes dead someday.)


The project description includes,

By crowdsourcing Biblical commentary, everyword seeks to bring people of diverse faiths and perspective together in a common goal and allow them to support one another in the most basic of Christian habits—scripture study. The power of the project, we believe, is just this: Nothing breaks down barriers, fills in trenches, or curbs animosity so well as working side by side towards a common goal.

If it were just that I would have one response, but with what follows, I have another. Here’s some of the rest of the project description.

There are a multitude of study Bibles online offering impressive resources for anyone interested in exploring Greek and Hebrew etymologies and culture. I prefer using the Blue Letter Bible myself. But sometimes they feel a bit dry. They forget that the Bible and Bible verses have inspired art, music, poetry, philosophy, et cetera, from diverse religions and perspectives. There is a whole world of biblical reception that, for the most part, remains ignored. That’s why we are creating on online, crowd-sourced, interfaith study Bible. We are interested in hearing anyone’s response to the scriptures—Jew, Gentile, Mormon, Atheist, Catholic, Muslim, anyone. We want to connect verses to sermons from Methodist ministers, U2 lyrics, the writings of early church fathers’, graffiti, and more. Anything that ties back to the Bible is welcome, which is why it is so important to generate a large and diverse following (think Wikipedia: the more followers there are, the more accurate and complete the information is). In that spirit, we invite you to invite others. Anyone you think may be interested….

Our project is motivated by the power of a common goal. Our goal is to trace the influence of the Bible wherever we find it—any art, any denomination—and to tie it back into the verses of scripture that inspired it. The ultimate end of this project is a more enriched reading experience and a better understanding of just how influential the Bible has been to various cultures.

Project One: Cultural Influences

I see two different projects here. The first is Scripture study, informed by people of diverse faiths and perspectives. The second is a crowd-sourced compendium of artistic and literary allusions to the Bible, providing “a better understanding of just how influential the Bible has been to various cultures.”

I’m all in favor of the second purpose. I’d be in favor of the same kind of thing being done with Milton, Goethe, Dickens, Cervantes, and (especially) Shakespeare, not to mention the greats from other countries and cultures. The more we know about where our ideas come from, the richer our knowledge.

Project Two: Unity Through Sharing Opinions

The Scripture study purpose, however, seems to be based on the premise that the more we understand what everyone thinks about the Bible, the better our Scripture study will be, and the more unity we’ll experience.

I wondered whether I interpreted these two purposes correctly, so I emailed Josh Sabey, project leader, who very graciously gave me permission to use part of his answer here.

I very much appreciate your thoughtful response. What you say is very true. The goals of the project is diverse, and the interfaith outcome is, I believe, more of a side effect. What unites the seemingly diverse project is a common broadening of perspective. Let me explain. Many study Bibles are limited by faith (doctrine) and what I will call genre (or a certain kind of perspective focusing on a specific discipline). Everyword seeks to be interfaith and interdisciplinary. These two aspects of the project match the two disparate goals you mentioned. What is common is that we hope to broaden both perspectives. This undoubtedly means that users may run across unwanted perspectives, but they will be able to filter their results so that they can use everyword however they see fit. The interfaith harmony is a result of broadened perspectives.

Discordant Purposes

I have two responses. First, and less important, the two purposes are so different as not to belong in the same project. One is a matter of gathering everyone’s discoveries about the Bible in literature and the arts, the other is about gathering everyone’s impressions of what the Bible means, as if that were better than proceeding from knowledge concerning (for example) Greek and Hebrew etymologies and culture.

Second, there’s a common Bible study error that’s being supported here in spades. It’s the mistake of beginning with what this verse means to me, rather than what this passage meant in its original historical and linguistic context. This project seems to be built on the belief that this is a good thing, when in fact it’s a cause of misguided beliefs and behaviors.

Bible Study by Personal Opinion

I’d like to explain that further if I may. I’ve often observed that when persons speak of “what this verse means to me,” what they often come out with is some previously acquired personal opinion that the verse reminds them of. It isn’t what the passage says, it’s a riff of their own on it. Thus it’s not the word of God, it’s their word, or their pastor’s or teacher’s word.

Now, if they’ve been good students in the past, or if their pastor or teacher has been, then it’s very possible that what this verse means to me is tolerably close to what the verse actually means in proper context. So what this verse means to me doesn’t necessarily mean heresy is about to be spoken. Still it’s a bad habit. We need to subject ourselves to the discipline of discovering what a certain passage of Scripture really means.

For that, we need to hear from people who have actual knowledge to offer, not mere opinion. That’s why commentaries often inform us of Greek and Hebrew etymologies and culture. There’s discipline involved in that study. Commentaries should support that discipline, not obscure it. The Bible is a book of information leading to inspiration, not vice-versa.

Will This Really Break Down Barriers?

I’ll only make passing mention of the naïveté I think is expressed in this project. The kickstarter website says,

Nothing breaks down barriers, fills in trenches, or curbs animosity so well as working side by side towards a common goal.

This is impossibly over-optimistic. Witness the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible: what goal do Christians and hardcore skeptics have in common when we study the Bible?

Bible Study by Personal Opinion: Not Just everyword

So is everyword a good idea? As far as I can tell, it’s two conflicting and competing ideas. One of its purposes could conceivably contribute to knowledge, the other is certain to support misinformation.

Unfortunately this isn’t only about everyword. As I’ve already said, there’s a common Bible study error being supported here: study by personal opinion. Whether everyword gets funded and grows or not, that mistake is a weed already growing wild in Christian culture. Christianity is a knowledge-based religion, so Christian opinion should be rooted in knowledge, not uninformed opinion.

2 thoughts on “My Personal Opinion On This Passage Is…

  1. The problem with discouraging personal opinions seems rooted in inherent misconceptions about what the nature of knowledge and authority really is. As Paul put it, we all “see through a glass darkly”––in the end we’re all bound by the limitations of the human experience. Why not embrace it then? Never before has mankind been gifted with such interconnection that the global internet community possesses. I feel that this is what Martin Luther was getting at with sola scriptura, that is to say the authority should not rest with any singular individual, or community, but is actually embedded in the singular human experience of reading the word of God and feeling the spirit. Why not utilize the global community instead of shunning it for unrighteous dominion and a false sense of centralized authority? Just saying…

  2. I think your concerns about the potential problems of the project are valid (multiple purposes, undisciplined opinion mongering, and discord rather than unity as a result). But keep in mind that the project is just in process of being born and may develop in such a way as to avoid or correct some of these problems.

    I want to take issue with two things: (1) The idea that opinion and knowledge are completely separable phenomena, and (2) The idea that sharing opinions (or more properly, personal thoughts, feelings, experiences) will obscure rather than illuminate the meaning of the Biblical text.

    Idea 1: When I introduce students to the personal essay, I sometimes say, “All writing is personal; no writing is purely personal.”–by which I mean that human beings are responsible in one way or another for every piece of writing you read, even if they have gone to some lengths to disguise the piece’s human origin by neutralizing the distinctiveness of the voice and style. On the other hand, even the most intimately personal of essays–if it aims to have readers–is written with words, idioms, and ideas the writer did not create ex nihilo. Even such an essay takes is place in the great interpersonal web of meaning provided by language and culture. The implication for Bible study is that even the best informed pronouncements about historical and linguistic context are the opinions of a human being with finite understanding. I notice that regularly when I read commentaries, including ones that sound as if they are delivering the final word on “the meaning” of a Biblical passage. Evidence, especially for ancient texts, often amounts to plausible parallels and convergences, and scholars doing due diligence can come up with wildly inconsistent explanations, each supported by “evidence.” (For instance, one common interpretation of early Christianity is that it departed radically from mainstream Jewish understanding; another–argued persuasively by Margaret Barker–is that early Christianity was deeply connected with the most ancient forms of Judaism.) I think the solution is to encourage well-informed conversations but allow for divergent interpretations.

    Idea 2: My academic specialty is Shakespeare. I am a stickler for having students understand the basic meaning of the text–what the words would have meant in Shakespeare’s time (as far as we can reconstruct that meaning). I want students to support whatever opinions they have with evidence from the text. On the other hand, I recognize that the “meaning” of Shakespeare also includes his influence and the various interpretations and renditions (some involving misunderstandings) to which he has been subjected over time. Even more importantly, I believe that the “meaning” of Shakespeare is ultimately personal: that is, if Shakespeare has any value, that value will ultimately have to do with the way his works enrich or illuminate or fruitfully trouble my life–my thinking, my feelings, my decisions, my relationships. Even when those results are far afield from what Shakespeare may have intended, it can be argued that they are part of the “meaning” of his works in the largest sense–and certainly part of their value. I think it’s possible to connect all these approaches to Shakespeare–ones focusing on historical and linguistic context, on the history of reception and influence, and on personal meaning–in fruitful ways. In fact, I think the best experience with and understanding of Shakespeare comes with connecting all of these. I would say the same for study of the Bible.

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Tom Gilson, Senior Editor, The Stream.

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