Monday, April 14, 2014

World of the Reader - World of the Text

In biblical studies the emphasis is often placed on one of these poles. This a a caricature, but it gets the point across. On the one hand, interpretation is about how we understand the text in the context of our current readings. Yet, on the other hand, interpretation is about determining the world of the text, including the mind of its author(s) and the context of its original hearing. Both views actually contribute to our understanding of the text - but I am convinced that we do more of the world of the reader and confuse it with world of the text. And I'm not sure that is a bad thing - but because we think we are doing the other we overinflate the authority of our own readings of the sacred texts.

The reason I claim this is because when we look at tough issues, like for instance what the Bible does or does not say about homosexuality, we cannot help but be influenced by our lived experience. I think this holds true for those who affirm and those who do not affirm the homosexuals' orientation. We bring a whole host of expectations to our readings of the texts. In fact we give those texts weight based on our assumptions - at least that is the only explanation as to why so few references are given such importance in the debates surrounding this particular issue.

The problem I have with this is that obscuring our methodological assumptions leads us to hear first our interpretations rather than the texts and contexts themselves. We work backwards from our presuppositions regarding the interpretations with the hope of genuinely hearing the other voices - including the canonical voice of scripture. Hence, the issue I have with the relatively scant passages brought to bear on out interpretation of God's plan/heart for individuals.

A good case for this is when I hear people claim that Jesus always tells people to leave their sin, as if that is the only response and as if anything we have a bias against can be captured in the term sin. But the reality of the text is that Jesus doesn't always tell people to leave what we (and even he seems to) consider sinful activities - consider the woman at the well in John's gospel. Jesus seems to have a lot of tolerance for a woman, known for adultery, would become an evangelist for him amongst the Samaritans. We have to read into the text to make Jesus tell her to leave her current partner. The better reading is that Jesus is not so concerned with the immediacy of the situation, but more with the unfolding of a new life within her. And we would do well to not judge the situation that God is working out through her life - no matter how it differs from our preconceptions.

We need to hear the text and we also need to hear the context in which it is read. Different readers can walk away from that Johannine text with different insights. This is the brilliance of the text. It is no less the work of the Spirit (with the text) than rigorous textual analysis. In fact the texts were meant to be read in communities where people lived real lives, struggled with real questions, and emphasized different aspects of the texts. This is the role of living text, one that lives in our context with us. But we miss something when we ignore the role that our context plays in our interpretation of the texts. And when interpretation is conflated with authority we have a problem.

I'm thinking a lot about how we view the Bible in Christian communities. I have a profound love for scripture, but probably an equally profound distaste for how scripture has been used in our communities.



Ryan said...

On a related note, we should respect the tradition of readers who have come before us on matters of interpretation of scripture—particularly as contemporary cultural forces tempt us to accept new ways of envisioning identity and sexuality.
So you’re right, we should pay attention to the context of scripture rather than in allowing our world to imposes its assumption on our reading. But it seems to follow then that if the world beyond actual scripture is good, that those closer to that time would have more valid opinions on interpretation, no?
I say all this because it seems to me that people are now more willing to read scripture through the “lens of love” even when it’s completely at odds with things formerly taught; when, by all rights, our ideas of ‘love’ are heavily imbued with all too modern presuppositions. We thereby betray our claim to hear the consonant voice of the early church leaders on how we should live the sacred text as a church on these very matters.

One of Freedom said...


The problem with the way we think about traditions is that we want them to be boundaries. They function better as starting points than as boundaries. But you are right we need to pay attention to traditions, especially how they shape us. BTW I have no qualms with endorsing a hermeneutic of love - provided you are conscious of all the other influences here. But I do not share a traditional reading on the issue of homosexuality. Sometimes traditions need to be overturned for God to shine. Our allegiance is always to God first. Anything else is an idol.

Ryan said...

I’m not sure what you mean by traditions as boundaries. Do you mean fixed, walled, protected boundaries? I don’t see things this way either. Yet, I think everyone does make boundaries around what makes sense and what does not. Unfortunately people do not agree with where these lines should be drawn. To one person they’re following God to accept whatever consenting adults feel is true to them. To another this is an idolatry—where we’ve twisted scripture to our own ends.

I, too, have no issues with homosexuality. I mean it’s not weird or gross or any of those typical, old school responses. And yet I can’t find a good argument from scripture to overturn the consistent teaching of the church. I then agree with pope Francis that this should not be a hot button issue, but the position of the church will remain as is it—we should stop making a fuss about it, but we can’t flip it from a sin to acceptance.

When I referred to traditions above I was thinking about enriching our own heritage with that of others from the outside—and yet from within the story of the church. I don’t claim I’m in or a part of these older traditions, I just claim that their voice is probably more reliable than the siren voices today that suggest that if we change this or that that God will better shine through.

I agree that we should read scripture through a hermeneutic of love; however, what is contested is ‘what is love’. In some manner I think everyone believes they are reading through a lens of love. Who wouldn’t? The problem is that none of us are really conscious of all the presuppositions that undergird our positions—especially when we haven’t paid credence to the past.

The problem, as I see it, is that many of our leaders today read short, emotive books that attempt to overturn some old theology. With a smattering of bad arguments (like the analogy of how the church changed on the issue of slavery to that of issues of sexuality) and with a number of anecdotal reports on how the old view caused judgmentalism and exclusion and how the new way is that of love, openness, and acceptance, we’re subtly led astray into more devious forms of idolatry. For just as bad as truth is without love, so too is love without truth.