Scriptures, like poetry, requires reading into symbolism

By Curtis K. Shelburne: Local columnist

Down here in Texas we tell Aggie jokes. Up around Minnesota, the Norwegians tell “Olie & Lena” jokes instead. In a recent “News from Lake Wobegon” segment, storyteller Garrison Keillor managed to incorporate a few of those. One caught the attention of the grandfather under my hat.

As the story goes, Olie, a grandfather himself, had been baby-sitting one of the youngest grandkids when Lena returned home. She’d hardly walked in the door when she smelled a tell-tale and decidedly foul odor emanating from the child’s diaper.

Well, there was certainly no need to debate the two main methods of diaper-checking: the visual method (favored by all men and most women) or the finger dipstick method (favored by only the most formidable and frightening of women). Lena’s nose was all she needed.

“What in the world have you been waiting for?” she demanded. “Why haven’t you changed this poor child’s diaper?”

“Well, I would have,” opined Olie, “but it plainly says on the diaper package, ‘Up to 25 Pounds,’ and we’re nowhere near that.” Oh, boy.

We laugh, but how we read things matters—whether we’re talking about diaper instructions, recipes, poetry, or even Scripture.

If you read the poetic lines, “My love is like a red, red rose” and draw the conclusion that the poet’s lady must be ruddy in complexion and of prickly disposition, that may well be the case. But it is not at all what the poet intended. Poems should be read as poetry and in a much more imaginative way than you’d read instructions for assembling your new table saw. To read poetry as “technical writing” is to come up with some strange conclusions.

Reading Scripture is no different. We read the Psalms differently than we read Romans—if we care about receiving the word God intended. If we want to take Revelation seriously, we read it as the kind of symbolic (apocalyptic) literature it is, instead of reading it like a news item in our morning paper.

In my own tradition (and I’m sure also in many others), we’ve often failed to understand the difference between the Old Testament and the New, the old covenant and the new. Wanting to hear God’s word and follow it is a very good thing. But we’ve often read the New Testament as if God meant it to be for us the same sort of law code recorded in the Old. He did not. Looking for law, we often twisted the New Testament into something it was never intended to be. And fussing over law we all too often failed to glorify the Savior. We missed something far more important than a beautiful lover one might compare in poetry to a “red, red rose.” We missed Jesus and his beauty and the power of his cross and resurrection that sets us free from the treadmill of law-based salvation.

Olie’s mistaken reading isn’t the only one with smelly consequences. When we should be smelling the aroma of grace and Christ-based righteousness, the do-it-yourself law-based sort really smells terrible.

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at