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.