Ron Martoia, in his new book, The Bible as Improv, points out (accurately) that all bible reading is interpretation. To understand is to interpret. Otherwise, we bog down in details about what is timeless and what is cultural. In other words, what can we ignore and what are we obligated to do.
Here's an example: In 1 Timothy 2:8-15 Paul says both that women are to be silent in worship (women are not permitted to teach and/or assume authority over a man) and that women are not to have elaborate hairstyles and wear "gold or pearls or expensive clothes." In conservative churches, we uphold the former teaching as essential and required but not the latter teaching. I personally know of no church that bars their women from doing their hair however they'd like and wearing gold or pearl jewelry. I also personally know several churches that prevent their women from teaching men.
How do we hold these things together? How do we look at one passage, and in that passage find things that are universal and timeless on one hand, but on the other hand, find things that are cultural and time-bound? This way of reading seems very arbitrary and open to abuse of interpretation by the one reading.
Martoia proposes a different way--that of seeing the bible as a classic. He argues that, while the bible may be or is much more than a classic, it is at least a classic in that it forms and shapes our worldview according to the spiritual categories represented in it. We ought to read it as we read other classics of literature (Shakespeare, Homer, etc.) by reading entire books in one sitting, or by reading larger sequential chunks. Reading the bible verse-by-verse, in a piecemeal way, is not how it was intended to be read.
Martoia, building off the work of N.T. Wright, proposes that we see the bible as a script. This script is made of up of five acts of which we are missing the fifth (because the work of the church is the fifth act). The first four acts are 1) creation; 2) the fall; 3) the life and ministry of Israel; and 4) the life and ministry of Jesus. The fifth act, from which we take our cue, is missing. But we have clues about how it will end (Romans 8; 1 Corinthians 15) and how we are to "fill in the gaps" (the New Testament). It is up to us, as "actors," to understand the first four acts so we can live out the fifth act and complete the script.
Since we don't have the script in front of us, we cooperate with the Spirit to improv our way forward, much like jazz musicians improv during their play. We improv based on the themes and tones we pick up from the other four acts. As we read the bible in large chunks (and read books sequentially and straight through), we begin to understand the themes and tones and how they play out through the script-ure. We read the bible for this larger story, God's story, and discover the importance of the smaller details in this larger context.
Martoia offers some ways churches and groups might approach bible reading as an improvisation of the first four acts of a five-act script:
- Read a large portion of scripture (say, 9 chapters) and discuss both the themes that arise from this section and how those themes connect to previous themes from earlier readings. Which act of the script are you in and how does this act connect with earlier and later acts?
- Articulate answers to questions about plot, story-lines, characters, and the actions of key characters.
- Teachers should act as master story connectors who understand the sweep of the biblical story, facilitate conversation around that story, and help people connect their stories to God's story and imagine the future of their stories.