* Thank you to the Louisville Institute for generously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant.
The Adverbial Void
How do you hear and read Scripture? When a phrase that Jesus says is read, do you hear it as warning? Condemnation? A loving truth? The same words can be said 17 different ways.
At the Independent Living Facility where I’m a chaplain, we watched a Bible narrative - word for word the Gospels dramatized. I was ready for a Jesus like ones I’d seen before, rarely smiling, didn’t seem to enjoy live too much, seemed really holy in the sense that He wasn’t actually also human. But this Jesus actor spoke consistently with a kindness in the tone and a smile. This Jesus, I thought, gave what I hadn’t seen before and what was it?
Adjectives and adverbs - when an interpretative approach to a phrase was needed, this Jesus always opted for kind and loving. These would give me a sense of what I was dealing with, instead of relying on my sense or someone else’s to fill it all out. I need adjective and adverbs because without them I put in my own they are often the sternest, most rigid. Adverbs and adjectives give us direction and understanding. They bring words to life and share the authors fullest intent for how we are to read the words. This is the complaint with emailing. Many messages are misunderstood because we do not understand the context. If my boss emails and says, “What is your census today?” and I’m already feeling unsure about our numbers, I may interrupt that email as judgment. Whereas, if the email is accompanied by some words that help affirm my relationship with my boss, I hear it differently. If your are reading an account of a parent at the park with two young children, and the words of the parent are, “Get in the car now!” you may read that as terse; representing anger or annoyance and that the family will be in eggshells before nap time rolls around. But what if there is an adjective? The parent said laughingly, “Get in the car now!” And even more helpful what if we had an adjective and an adverb? The parent said laughingly, “Get in the car now!” while the kids giggled into the back seat.
That is the gift of adverbs and adjectives - they can provide the emotional context. We hear texts differently. We all don’t process and integrate Biblical stories the same. Mark Allan Powell points out in What are they Hearing? Bridging the Gap between Pulpit and Pew clergy identify more with Jesus in the stories, laity more with the crowd.
Why how we hear words matters: It’s about incarnation. From neuroscience we get all this great insight into how God wired our brains. The amygdala is going to keep us safe and if we live with some anxiety, constantly scanning for threat and adapting to keep ourselves safe, if we aren’t in a place of calm and groundedness, that amygdala is going to tell us to play small and safe.
So, if we’ve experienced an amygdala hijack in worship, when fear takes over that will influence our reading of Scripture. And I believe what it does is causes us to interpret the text is the most restrictive way so as not to get it wrong; not to make a mistake; to be above reproach. To be clear, the condemnation might only be coming from our own internal critic; our own internal voice.
By holding a simple verse of Scripture, “looked at him and loved him.” as a lens to use when adjectives and adverbs aren’t present, I will get to where my tradition has espoused: you read the Bible through Christ; through the cross.
Let’s play with Luke 18:18-30, I hear condemnation and judgment from Jesus to the rich young ruler: “You know the commandments” (how is Jesus saying this? With a wagging finger, with exasperation? with judgment? Lord, give me an adjective!) If it is with any of these I hear and feel judgment and distance from Jesus I know the commandments and don’t keep them as I should. And additional self judgment shows up to fill out the point that I, like the rich young ruler value the wrong things. Self-judgment will throw in: you should do more to live as a good Christian:
You should work tirelessly denying your needs
You should be more patient with your children
You care too much about the wrong things
Thankfully, the Bible is not completely void of descriptors and stage directions. Consider the rich young ruler, this lesson is in all the synoptic Gospel’s and Mark is the only one to add in verse 21, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” What if I added that to every text where there are no adjectives? What if I read the Bible through this lens of love? REALLY read it this way? In a way that puts flesh and blood - Incarnation - into what I learned in seminary that we read Scripture through the cross. That sounded and felt like an academic exercise; a formula. When in the end, this really is about Jesus speaking love.
But when I read it through the lens of Luther’s 8th Commandment: to put the best spin on it, I don’t hear condemnation but Jesus speaking the truth that is honest and freeing for the rich young ruler. The ruler leaves not because Jesus has made him feel bad about himself but because Jesus had been honest in a loving way with him and there is a hard truth then with which to struggle. Love, honesty and accountability can all hang together.
Or consider in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus looks at Peter right after the rooster has crowed three times and right before Peter runs out. How did Jesus look at him? What was the emotion Jesus showed? Was it the tortured face of Jesus that caused Peter to run?
I would render a guess that with the adverbial void found in Scripture, some of us interpret the texts in the most condemning restrictive way possible. Especially those of us in the pews who may not have theological training that encouraged questioning and wondering about the biblical text. And for those of us who did wonder and were told we were not Christian enough. But what do we do for those who are highly sensitive and slightly anxious? Those who hear it all as condemnation (you aren’t enough)?
Perhaps this fascination is the root of my current wondering about adjective and adverbs in the bible. There just aren’t that many. Perhaps moving from an oral tradition to writing the accounts, specifically, of Jesus meant that the readers who had been hearers just a few short years before, would know in their hearts what emotion was being conveyed. They would know what was implicitly understood. What other possible ways of understanding might exist? And by seeing other possibilities, how does the Holy Spirit invite us to see God’s creative life-giving work in the world through Jesus?