Lens of Love (Jonathan L. Walton) -- A Review

A LENS OF LOVE: Reading the Bible in Its World and for Our World. By Jonathan L. Walton. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. X + 201 pages.

How one reads the Bible is influenced by several factors, theology being one. However, social location can influence one’s reading as well. None of us truly reads scripture completely objectively, not even the historian or social scientist. We all bring something to the table. It might be faith. It might be skepticism. Yes, it might be our social location. How might a woman living in the Congo read Scripture as opposed to me, a white male living in the United States? The Western, Enlightenment reading of Scripture, often called the historical-critical method, has generally privileged white male readings, such that they are normative. Times are changing, and these presuppositions, previously unquestioned, are begin challenged. What we need are new guides, people who can help us see things in a new light.

A Lens of Love is one answer to our search for guides to reading scripture. Authored by Jonathan L. Walton, Professor of Christian Morals and Minister of the Memorial Church of Harvard University, invites us to look at scripture through what he calls the “lens of love.” He does so in light of his own training as a social scientist and ethicist, as well as being a pastor. He also happens to be an African American male. From this social location, Walton has written an introduction to “reading the Bible in its world for our world.”

The book emerged out of conversations Walton had with Harvard students who wanted to know how to connect the Bible to contemporary life. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted to know how the Bible might inform ethical decision-making. They wanted to know what the Bible had to say about living the Christian faith while “respecting those who may not look, love, or believe” as they did” (p. 5). This isn't a commentary on the entire Bible or a fully developed biblical ethics. It is first an attempt to lay out a way of reading the Bible, introducing the reader to interpretive strategies used in those conversations with students, as well as the "practical and ethical strategies that I employ when preparing a sermon." He does this from the perspective of a social scientist who "is concerned with cultural values and how societies define the right, the good, and the just." What he employs here is what he calls a "sociohistorical approach" to Scripture (p. 6). He does so with great effectiveness.

He starts from the premise that the Bible is an ancient book—in fact, it is a collection of documents produced over hundreds of years. Understanding social and cultural contexts is essential if we are to read the Bible effectively and apply it to questions that emerge in our own day. Not only is this a book utilizing social scientific and historical tools. Although it employs these social scientific tools, Walton writes from the perspective of one who presupposes the radically inclusive love of God—this the invitation to read Scripture through the “lens of love.”  When you read through this lens you will need to set aside some texts as being irreconcilable to that vision. Of course, this is not a new idea. Origen and Augustine both struggled with these kinds of questions, so Walton embraces the tradition anew.

The book is divided into ten chapters, organized into three parts. Part one explores "the promise of moral imagination." Here he addresses intellectual curiosity, the importance of ethics to interpretation, and framing the exploration of scripture through the lens of love. With this foundation, we move on in part two to "the power of Sacred History." In this section, Walton explores the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the Dynastic literature (the Samuels and the Kings) and the Pentateuch. He also explores the question of whether the God of the Hebrew Bible is racist and sexist, looking at both the metaphors present in the text and what he calls perverted interpretations. Regarding perverted interpretations, he means the use of these texts to justify slavery and genocide, or "turn a blind eye toward rape, domestic abuse, and child abuse." There is no reason for us to ignore or excuse such texts.

The third section deals with "the practice of subverting authority" through the exploration of the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles. Taking the note of the holiness codes and purity politics, that he notes “renders the most vulnerable as easy scapegoats,” he suggests Jesus as one who subverts those views, leading to liberation. Again, he recognizes that not all texts offer a liberating ethic, but when read through the lens of love we can see a move toward liberation and resistance. In Jesus and to a degree in Paul we see expressions of persons speaking truth to power.

As noted above, Walton doesn't deal with the entire Bible. His point isn’t to explore the entire biblical story, but rather provide tools that enable us to read the Bible through this lens of love. Thus, he doesn’t deal with texts like Daniel and Revelation. Nonetheless, the principles found here apply to texts like these.

I am a great believer in reading the Bible. I think it has much to offer us. But it must be read carefully and responsibly. It requires a lens by which to read it in this way, and the lens of love is a good one. We need good tools as well, and the tools of the social scientist are effective ones in helping us understand culture. The reality is that ancient culture isn't the same as ours. One cannot justify slavery because Paul didn't call for its abolishment. We need to understand Paul's context if we’re to understand his message. Regarding issues like slavery, perhaps he could have gone further, but that doesn't excuse later readers, who justified slavery on that basis. The same is true regarding women, sexual orientation, and more.

All in all, this is a very readable, well-written guide to responsible Bible reading that offers us a path from then to now. It invites us to take the Bible seriously, assuming it has something to say to our times. The vision he outlines here, as he notes in the final paragraph of the book, “keeps us from cherry-picking texts that condone our selfish desires with decontextualized scriptural justification.” That is a worthwhile vision to embrace, making this a good starting point for reading scripture anew (and lovingly). Thus, this book is highly recommended!


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