Valençay cheese. One of the greats in France. Creamy, fruity, nutty, aged, pyramid-shaped cheese. It is rumored that Napoleon was so upset about his lack of victory in Egypt, that he came home to France, saw the cheese, and lopped the top off in his disgust. So it would be a bit backwards of us to think this cheese was the inspiration for the design and build of the Great Pyramid of Giza, right?
When we see an image of the pyramids, we know that those pyramids were not built for us today. Whether or not we are aware of all the details, we realize that they were built a very long time ago (2600 BC), for people of the time. We may not know exactly what inspired them, who exactly they were built for, or even who built them. There are so many things hidden from us at first glance. This does not (or should not) cause us to act like the pyramids were built for us or for people like us.
Instead, we need to approach the Pyramids with a sense of time and place in mind. Doing our best to understand them as they were built. We think about the monumental task of building these simple yet complex structures more than 4000 years ago. The thousands of people it would have taken over years and years to move and hoist these gigantic rocks. We think about the hidden caverns that were planned and incorporated for a variety of purposes. We think about the individuals buried inside and the impact they had on society to be honored in such a way. We understand that from the surface these massive structures may seem simple, but once we start to understand context, a whole new world opens up to us in our understanding.
Whenever we encounter anything communicative (a speech, a conversation, a writing, a piece of art, even advertisements or symbols), we are faced with the reality that there are multiple planes of engagement we encounter. A piece of art for example, holds more for us than what is on the surface. We can and should go deeper than that surface if we want to truly understand what we’re viewing. This digging-in invites us to move from viewing to interacting.
As humans we interact with everything we encounter to one degree or another. Good interaction necessitates question asking. With a piece of art, we can ask what materials were used. Why did the artist choose the mediums and colors? Who was the artist, or who do we imagine they were? What was going on in their world to lead them to creating this thing? Who were they creating it for? Each of these things make the piece of art have more meaning when we begin to understand the context it was created in. As you begin to find those answers, deeper meaning begins to reveal itself to you.
So why do we treat texts (i.e. the Bible) so differently? One big reason is that we simply weren’t taught another way. Most of us (myself included) were not taught to approach Biblical texts with anything other than my own feelings and a hope that the Spirit would reveal something to me. We can start from a better place though, and we actually do have the tools to do better.
We must pause to realize this sacred text was written a long time ago, for the people of the time, by people of the time. We don’t have access to the original authors or original audiences. We cannot ask Paul why he wrote what he wrote. We cannot pick the brain of anyone who passed down the narratives of the Old Testament. But we can learn more about the stories they lived through and told amongst themselves.
We can try to understand why they lived the way they did and made the choices they did in the context they lived in. We can learn about pieces that made up the worldview they came from and believed. The hope they had and based their lives on. Only from there can we begin to approach the text in an interactive way that is honoring to the text we call sacred.
Once we begin looking at life, communication, media, and texts through a lens of interpreting well, we find ourselves unable to escape it. It’s in everything we do, and every interaction we have. It’s the reason behind many of our actions and beliefs. It’s in how we approach relationships. It’s in what we take away from education and in how we teach others. It’s in how we both criticize and agree with different points of view. It’s how we know the pyramids were not conceived of, and built because of French cheese.
Ultimately we are able to do this task well. Few people have been taught how to engage with the Bible well. My hope is that this will change. Until then, I’m going to do my best to engage with the world around me in a more interactive way.
📷 Credit: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / CC BY-SA 4.0,