The final of Kenneth Bailey’s Sins of Biblical interpretation as presented in the Interpreting the Bible is what he calls the Electrical Shock Theory. If I were naming it, I’d probably call it the Free Association Theory.
Bailey makes clear that it is entirely appropriate to read the Bible for inspirational and devotional purposes. All of us should. But as we read in this manner, there still must be a connection between the author and audience’s context in our minds. There should be a relationship between what we read and what we know the author intends for his readers.
For instance, Bailey mentions that he is sitting in his study in Jerusalem on a hot summer’s day when he reads Psalm 42:7, where it says “…all you waves and billows have gone over me.” Bailey thinks to himself, “Aha! God is calling me to quit studying and to go take a nice cool swim in the ocean.” Taking a cool swim may or may not be a good idea but this is not the way God uses scripture to guide us.
To use another example of how this can play out with a document of significance to American history, Bailey begins a humorous reflection on the Gettysburg Address.
Ah! It is a football game and they’ve reached the score of four.
“…and seven years ago….”
The game is very long. It has been going on for seven years.
“…our fathers brought forth…”
Very interesting. The mothers didn’t give birth the fathers did. I wonder what this is all about?
You can see the absurdity. But when we think of the Gettysburg Address, context immediately bursts on our minds: Lincoln. American Civil War. Battle of Gettysburg. When we read these words in this context they can be deeply inspirational but they become nonsense when we engage in free association.
The foundational principle of interpretation is this: “Try to discover what the original author intends for his readers or the original speaker for his listeners.”
Clearly some who’ve had chance to study more in depth can do this better than others but we can all do it to a substantial degree. We can at least begin by keeping in mind who the communicators are and the context they are communicating in. Our practice of this over time and in community will improve our insight and interpretation.