I love food, and I love talking about food. When I think about the Bible, I often find myself doing so in terms of food (or dogs). After a deep conversation about translating and interpreting Exodus 6, I realized that my approach to this issue in Exodus 6 was really the same approach I took about Muenster cheese.
I was recently asked at a restaurant what Muenster cheese tastes like simultaneously by both a 73-year-old man and a 14-year-old young man. I replied that it's similar to Gouda and Havarti. The old man nodded, knowing what these other cheeses taste like. He ordered his hamburger with Muenster cheese. The young man stared back blankly, unaware of what these other cheeses taste like. So I asked the young man which other types of cheeses he had tasted, and he replied that he only knew what cheddar and American cheeses taste like. When I pressed him about which kind of cheddar, he didn't know there were kinds of cheddar. I found I could not easily answer his question except to say that he would probably find Muenster had a "stronger" taste than either cheddar or American and that it would be good to taste it. He stuck with American cheese.
To try to explain a taste to someone requires referring to other tastes and textures that are similar or even very different. I don't know of any other way to effectively do that. Taste descriptor words like "dry" or "semi-sweet" just don't work well enough in my experience. If you give someone a description like that, they'll invariably reply with "So, like ____ tastes."
To answer these men's question about Muenster cheese I must translate a taste that is unknown to them into similar tastes that are known to them. For the old man, this translation process was easy and straightforward, because he has had enough experience with enough different kinds of cheeses to understand my references. Because of his experience, he can also interpret my references to know that Muenster is a "safe" cheese that would not overpower his hamburger like Limburger cheese would. The young man lacked the experiential know-how to do the same thing. So, he found himself stuck with what must have seemed to him the only safe option--American cheese.
Later, as I reflected on this experience it occurred to me that even if the young man had opted for the Muenster cheese, he still would not fully know what Muenster cheese tastes like. How could he not know what Muenster cheese tastes like if he just tasted it? He would not fully know what Muenster cheese tastes like, because every taste is relative to other tastes. Not only would this taste of Muenster be colored by the hamburger underneath it and the Coke he drank before it, but more long-term, he lacks enough experience with other cheeses to perceive what is distinctive about Muenster that is not also present in Gouda. This means that he would still be unable, for example, to answer the old man's question about what Muenster cheese specifically tastes like. Without more cheese tasting experience, the young man is still boxed in and constrained with his answers to honest but limited replies like "good" or "bad." With more cheese tasting experience, this young man would be able to remember his initial encounter with Muenster and have it inform, color, and shape his new tasting experiences with other cheeses.
I relate this story about Muenster cheese to convey to you that not only do we engage in translation and interpretation all of the time, we do so with the advantage or disadvantage of our previous related experiences. How is this relevant to the Bible? Expand on the Muenster cheese example and consider how a person comes to an understanding of what it means to be a man. I don't understand what it means to be a man because I've read a generic description of universal manhood. Instead, I understand what it means to be a man from remembering my experiences, whether good or bad, and whether real, fictional, or imagined, of what men in a variety of circumstances are like. Just like I will have a better grasp of what Muenster cheese tastes like after I have tasted it in a variety of dishes and after I have tasted other types of cheese, so also will I better understand what it means to be a man only after I know what real men are like in a variety of circumstances and after knowing about different men. Like with cheese, I can get this understanding of manhood not only from lived personal experience but also from listening to other people tell me about men in terms I can understand.
This is why the stories we consume are so vitally important to our well-being. We learn so much about life from stories, and stories are everywhere. So however I get my understanding of manhood, I carry that understanding with me every time I encounter a man or even hear a story about a man so that my interpretation (and judgment) about that man is derived from that prior understanding. Thus, when I read in Genesis 38 about the man Judah, I read into this story about Judah all of my understanding and expectation of what men should and should not do. In this specific sense, my interpretation of Genesis 38 is unique to me even though in a less specific sense, it is probably the same as that of most Christians.
Why does this matter for us as Christians? This matters a lot, because we often approach this stuff backwards in the church. For many good reasons we place so much emphasis and importance on correctly interpreting the Bible that we cannot help but place relatively less emphasis and importance on how encountering its stories shapes us. Go back to the cheese example. I can give the young man a fully correct and even detailed description of what Muenster cheese is supposed to taste like. In fact, the European Union probably has already done that! Nevertheless, the correctness of that description will not make any difference at all to that young man if it is detached from his own experience tasting cheeses. Further, the more I emphasize the correctness of my Muenster cheese description, the less likely he would be to try it for himself. What the young man really needs is encouragement and support for tasting cheeses, and what I would be giving him in this example is worse than useless. We know this about food and yet we in the church very often do not apply this insight to reading the Bible. It is not the case that correct interpretation does not matter. It is the case that it matters much less than the power of its stories to shape and mold us as we experience them for ourselves.
Just as the young man could very easily intellectually agree with a description of Muenster cheese and yet have never actually experienced tasting it himself, so also can we Christians very easily agree with points of doctrine or theology without ever actually experiencing the biblical texts from which these points are derived. When we do this, we cheat ourselves out of the genuine growth that comes from encountering the Word on our own.
Further, when we fill ourselves with the stories the world gives us about life, then not only are we squeezing out opportunities to fill ourselves with biblical stories, we are also learning to interpret those biblical stories with worldly wisdom. Even though I am a Christian, my interpretation of men like Moses in the Bible comes from my own experiences with men both in my own life as well as all of the fictional men I have met in books, songs, and movies. If I have not filled my head, heart, and imagination with enough good positive experiences of real manhood, I will not readily be able to discern or interpret truth from falsehood when it comes to depictions of men, whether found in the Bible or elsewhere. Just as I wouldn't know how to tell a good Muenster cheese from its poor imitation without enough good Muenster cheese experience, so also would I not be able to discern real good men from their imposters without enough experience, however attained, about good men.
As Christians, this teaches us four things. First, this teaches us that we really need to encounter and experience the Bible a lot more than we probably do, both on our own and as a community. We really need the experience of being shaped by Scripture. Second, we probably need less uncritical experience with the world's stories for us, because we are shaped by those stories as well. The best proven way to help children learn to love eating fruits and vegetables is to significantly reduce their intake of sugars from other sources. Third, we probably need more experience with stories from beyond the Bible that can also teach us about life truths. This is why this course includes critical takes on movies, art, and music. Fourth and finally, we need more of us who have been immersed in doing these first three to teach and explain the importance of these practices to others. When the church lacks experience in those three things, it is like the young man who is boxed in by his significantly limited experience with cheese. How does he grow and mature without going through the process of encountering and experiencing things on his own? Just as his wisdom about cheese would be really helped by being guided and mentored by someone experienced about cheese, so also would our Christian brothers and sisters really grow and mature were they guided and mentored in these practices by those of us who are experienced.