Picture on a wall of an art museum a painting that looked like this:
A gloomy picture of a seaside. The primary colours of this painting consist of various dark blues, different shades of grey and black. The sky is overcast with clouds that look heavy with cold rain. On the shore sits a lonely lighthouse whose light is broken. However, high up in the sky through a small hole in the clouds there is a little spot of orange.
What was the painter trying to convey in this painting?
- Perhaps this painting represents his or her perception of their own life.
- Or perhaps they wish to convey this message: life is nothing but gloom and despair, with the only hope being too far off in the distance to make any impact on one’s life. The “hope” is represented by the little patch of orange. These two interpretations may be logically connected. Perhaps the message noted above is the view that the painter has towards their life and life in general. The message that they want everyone to adopt is simple: “Life really sucks!”
- Conversely, perhaps the painter had the opposite message; namely, “life” can be depressing and we may feel alone and broken, but hope is present. The orange patch in the painting is far from everything else in the foreground. It may indicate that hope may seem to be far away. Even though hope sometimes seems to be little and far away, one thing can be said. Hope is still hope regardless of how small it seems to be. And it being far away, but still in existence, means that hope still exists. The second interpretation of this painting is void of positivity, while the third interpretation says that life always has hope, even if it is little and achieving it may be difficult.
- A fourth interpretation of this painting may be this: “hope is present in this dark world. However, because it is very far off, we should take a lesson from the lighthouse with its broken light: “get broken and don’t bother shining attempting to strive for the hope that obviously exists because it is unreachable.”
- In contrast however, a fifth interpretation of this painting may be to acknowledge the existence of the broken lighthouse and to take a lesson from it; namely, don’t follow its example and give up. Instead, see the hole in the clouds that the orange light is breaking through and determine that, although it may be hard to climb there, it is not impossible.
So what can we learn thus far? I am one person and I’ve given five possible interpretations of a painting that I quite literally concocted in my mind. If we give the quota of five interpretations of this fictitious painting to 10 spectators, we may have 50 interpretations of this painting.
The recurring theme is “interpretation” but more specifically “interpretation in art”. Art must be interpreted. Of course if the artist is alive and present to talk to, it is that much easier. We can simply ask them for the message they are trying to convey in their painting, or song, or novel, etc. They may answer with an interpretation. They may, instead, say that there is no message or interpretation. A fictional author who writes a horror novel may be simply trying to write a story. They may not have a message for the reader to “take-away” from their work of fiction.
If the artist is deceased, the reader of the book or the viewer of the painting needs to examine the art in question to discover the interpretation (if there is any) the artist had in mind. However, they need to do this, not by merely looking at the colour palette and the pictures in the painting, or the literary prose of the novel. Context is key. What was going on in the life of the artist, or author or musician that may have possessed them to paint the picture, write the book, or compose the song? Let’s pretend that I was an art student who was commissioned to do an analysis of a famous artist who was known for depressing and dark paintings, like the one described above. In my research I found that the artist had a very upsetting life. I may conclude that there is a connection between their dark and dreary paintings and their life. Their paintings are dark and depressing because that is how they see the world, or at least their personal life. Even with an intimate knowledge of the artist’s biography, it is a daunting task for me to try to interpret the thoughts of another human being – it is impossible. Unless the interpretation of a piece of art is specified by the artist, in the end, all my conclusions will be interpretations that can be left open for opposing interpretation. All mediums of art are to be looked at with a certain element of subjectivity.
However there are facets of reality that are simply not subjective. The claims of truth of the Christian faith, for example. I’ve noticed a recurring theme developing among several adult Christians – the appeal to interpretation. Scripture is being treated by many people as no different from art. Many Christians say the same thing about Scripture that they may say about a painting on a wall, “this is what this means to me!” This must stop!
It is important to note that coming to a conclusion about a passage of Scripture in an honest attempt to see that God’s words of encouragement and exhortation are good and then applying them to their life is a great thing to do! And it is also true that Scripture needs to be “interpreted.” Why? The apostles Peter and Paul and the disciples John or Luke are not alive to talk to. We must keep in mind that the authors of the 66 books of the Christian Bible have a message and that message is not their opinion nor their attempt to understand their world. They are passing along a message to their readers (and by extension, us.) They are but mere mailmen (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2). When we read Paul’s words, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” (Romans 1:18) (my emphasis), we must approach them like this. We must use the meaning of written words (like the ones noted above in bold) that an author uses to convey their message. “But I don’t speak Hebrew or Greek,” you may object. In response, there are people in this world who do and many of them have offered resources to help us learn what these messages are. Use these resources. Learn their messages and ask God in prayer for help to accept them, no matter how much they go against your worldview.
To conclude, we have to accept that people will have an interpretation of what God says in His Bible. However, the reality is that people’s interpretation will either be correct or incorrect. Of course, be sure to seek help from other people to come to understand hard facts like the one noted above. But let’s aim to arrive at the truth and not simply be content with their answer.