by Barry Newton
Imagine going to an art museum where, upon entering a gallery featuring oil paintings by classic masters, you are confronted with a most unusual display. Each work of art remains shrouded beneath a woven cloth. Small geometric shapes cut into the cloth enable you to gaze upon a mere tiny portion of the painting.
Even though examining that small exposed tidbit of the masterpiece could reveal insights regarding technique, possible stylistic tendencies, temperature of color and so forth, yet the interrelationship of the whole to that part would be completely lost.
This same type of problem in understanding occurs when Bible study merely focuses on a snippet of text thereby ignoring the overall message of a letter or book. Just as a small segment of a painting is interrelated with the entire artwork, so too the sentences and paragraphs contribute to the whole, while at the same time receive a context pointing toward a valid interpretation.
Certainly one tool for approaching an author-centered understanding of a literary text involves cycling back and forth from focusing on a small segment of text to viewing how this contributes to the whole, and then using an understanding of the big picture to further sharpen one’s understanding of the specific details.
It is somewhat ironic to use art to argue for a principle of objective literary interpretation since art is often considered to be bound within a subjective interpretation. After all, when it comes to art we typically encounter the question, “What does it mean to you,” rather than pursue an artist’s intended meaning. Nevertheless, paintings provide a wonderful example of the necessary interrelationship of the part to the whole and vice versa.
The necessity of considering how a specific small portion of scripture relates to its larger context is simply one of many tools for approaching an author-centered meaning, that is, the meaning the author intended to communicate. Failure to use this leveling tool makes distortion of the author’s message that much easier.
Whether listening or teaching, the responsible student will consider how a given snippet advances the whole and how the whole influences what this small segment means.