Monday, February 13, 2012

Building Religions 15: Interpreting Scripture

If you've decided that a fictional scripture is going to be an important part of your world, the next set of questions to ask yourself has to do with the way that it's interpreted in that world. Is there a single reading of the text to which everyone agrees? Are there obscure passages that have given rise to conflicting interpretations, and if so, what are their effects on the way that the religion's followers act? Do the leaders of the religion teach multiple interpretations to different subgroups of followers, one for the masses and a different one for the initiates?

You're certainly not required to complicate scripture in your setting, but it shouldn't be any surprise by now that I'm a fan of making religions messy, so I'd like to spend the next few posts providing an overview of some historical approaches to scriptural interpretation.

The literal approach is, at least on the surface, fairly straightforward: whatever is described by the text is read as having actually happened in exactly the way that it's depicted. Events are treated as historical; statements are treated as direct and accurate quotations. You'd think that this would be the easiest way to deal with religious texts, but even groups that hold to literal interpretations don't simply stop there. After all, when there's so much at stake with respect to the meaning of a passage, it's vital to get it right.

That can mean exploring philology to determine the precise meaning of each word at the time it was written, and rhetoric to interpret figures of speech or metaphors. It can mean studying historical context to understand the situation that the text was addressing, and what it would have meant for its first audience. It can mean verifying the authorship of the text or the chain of transmission that runs from the author of a statement to the person who first wrote it down.

Beyond questions about the text itself, the literal approach can lead to searches for material verification. Archaeologists (if they exist in your setting) might use scripture as their map to find the locations described there, or they could study objects from the same era in order to learn more about the physical context. In our own world, there are also the creation scientists who try to reconcile scriptural accounts of the making of the universe with modern principles of physics--another kind of material proof.

You can see, then, that even if a group agrees that their sacred texts are meant to be read literally, there's still a great deal of room for disagreement. If you decide to include conflicts based on interpretation, you should ask yourself what's at stake for each side in the argument. Are they trying to preserve a reading that assures their own political power? Are they taking one position in order to distance themselves from a sect with whom they disagree about other religious matters? Are they trying to prove to an increasingly disenchanted population that their beliefs are still true? What have they got to lose if they're wrong, and how far are they willing to go to keep their interpretation intact?

(To be continued)


  1. Oooh, I like where you're going with this mini-series-in-a-series, Geoff. I look forward to the rest. :)

    1. Thanks! There was never enough time when doing introductory classes to explain that just sitting down with some central sacred texts wouldn't give you an accurate picture of how people actually practiced their religions. This, I suppose, is my attempt to make up for it.