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Thoughts on Interpreting the Text – (Dougernism)

October 14, 2008 2 comments

Tired of hearing the angry voices competing for attention by increasing volume, I have often felt like the post-modern who says, “You’re both all right.” Silence seems golden when the only sound you hear is the sparring of two syllables in flight. But what is even more golden than silence is the articulate voice that creates the future in the midst of a world that seems to be crumbling.

Now more than ever I believe we need people to pay attention, to listen, and to respond with an articulation of wisdom from the Word. So how do we approach the Bible, the Word of God? What tools, what lenses, what frameworks can assist us in our endeavor?

This is not an exhaustive list but a few thoughts collected from writers and thinkers far wiser than myself. Karl Barth (via the great synthesizer Donald Bloesch) taught me that I don’t stand over the Word but it stands in judgment over me. So the first tool in my bag of interpretive tricks, is the grace, the gift, the challenge of humility. I come to the text realizing my own flaws, my own limited vision, my own sinful heart and deceptions. I humble myself under the mighty hand of God that He may lift me up in due time.

One of the dangers of critiquing modernism is the sense that I am finally here to save the day. Actually many a man far greater than myself lived and died in the school of the moderns, and I am grateful for the gifts of that generation. So in addition to humility, gratitude might also be helpful. We might learn to be grateful for our critics, our forebears, and especially for the heretics. I can learn from the successes and failures of others if I might learn to appreciate them and listen.

Listening is yet another key tool. Listening to the text. Listening to the writer influenced by the Greek philosophical world, the Roman legal system, the early medieval tribal world, and the late medieval scholasticism. Listening to the heart of the Reformers, the precision of the Enlightenment thinkers and the passion of the emergents. If we can develop the skill of listening to others across space and time, we might be forced to reflect upon and consider and grow from a different perspective.

All these initial tools might be captured in the words, “faith, hope and love.” The Word is not my word but God’s Word. So when I open the text, I must believe that God is speaking to me through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead of critical distrust, I bring critical trust. As a good Protestant, I believe the Word stands over and above all human words. Yet, like the Reformers before me, I believe that this God Word echoes through the communities of faith across space and time. So listening intently to these communities is valuable.

Different times sound forth particular articulations that sometimes seem unrecognizable from our current milieu. This requires the discipline of sustained listening through the ears of love. In addition to speaking from vastly different cultural contexts, different Christians across time and space have read the Word through particular parts of the Word. Gerald Bray suggests that the early centuries of the church read through the lens and questions of John’s gospel. It should be obvious that we read the text today through the lens of the book of Romans.

This is why question of justification, faith vs works, law vs grace and so on are so readily in our discourse and our faith walk. Another book that has exerted a powerful gateway into the rest of the Bible is the book of Psalms. This collection of songs offers an interpretive lens for everything from the creation story to the end of time, and we would all do well to sing (listen twice) to the treasures of this hermeneutic aesthetic.

Growing up with an attitude of derision toward the law, I found parts of the Old Testament virtually unreadable. More recently, I’ve begun to discover the treasure that the law brings in opening up the stories, the songs, the provers, the gospels and even the epistles.

By moving back and forth between varying perspectives, am I not simply reflecting the post-modern conditioning of my culture? Unquestionably. On the bad side, this can lead to a position of having no tools to correct readings that damage the text, and having no ability to draw distinctions between Biblical revelation and the latest new age prophecies.

But seeing the Bible through varying perspectives does not mean that I give into a sea of subjective waves. Rather, I can draw from the tools of the ancient church realize that multiple perspectives can operate at the same time without canceling each other out. I can appreciate the narrative tools and rhetorical devices without denying the historical veracity of the stories. Both perspectives can teach me. This can begin helping me develop the Biblical skills I need to distinguish between subjective fluff and subjectively inspired revelation via an objective God who stands outside of my thoughts.

While I don’t like to really even use the terms objective and subjective, but for now let me suffice with the idea that the church has and still does offer the tools to distinguish between helpful and hurtful approaches to the text.

I might also suggest that objectively I can obey and embodying the words of the 10 commandments. Without faith in the historical Jesus and literal obedience to His commandments, I am still on the outside and all discussion of interpretation is simply theory. Stepping on the inside, I discover that I can listen and obey in simple childlike faith. And that many of the most simple will interpret the Word through their lives far more effective than me by listening, trusting and obeying the gentle (and not so gentle) promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Post-Modernism)

October 14, 2008 2 comments

The post-modern critics learned one thing well from there modern mentors: to be critics. It seems the modern critical distrust is still present in the post modern except now I apply the skeptical eye of distrust to everyone, including myself. So in this sense, post-modernism might be better termed: late modernism or modernism unleashed. It seems the modern corpus has become a corpse, and we call this dead body post-modernism.

Post-modernism finally stuck the knife in the heart of modernism by taking distrust to the extreme and losing all potentiality of meaning or reality for that matter. In this sense, post-moderns finally freed form from content only to discover that content disappeared, leaving an empty shell of form like a discarded cocoon.

Post-modernism did actually recognize the imperialist tendencies of the modern voice, and so it welcomed other voices to the table. And it served distrust and unbelief to all voices, taking us from one dominating voice to many voices with a dominant insistence that there are no voices.

Post-modernism is more like a magic trick where the assistant in box A reappears in Box B (with a different headscarf). Post modernism rejects one prevailing idea, one prevailing narrative, and seems to affirm all narratives. Now the prevailing “narrative” is that there are “no meta narratives,” resulting of course in one meta narrative. If that didn’t make sense, it’s okay because it doesn’t mean anything anyway.

While I may seem to be hard on post-modernism, I appreciate some of the gifts it has given us. It has suggested there is value in many perspectives, in many voices. It raised the question of meaning. I think it opens the door for a serious consideration of particularity vs universality. And it loves stories. Lots of them. Narrative rhetoric has been a great treasure for the church, helping us to recover the stories beneath layers of moralisms and judgments upon the texts.

Post-modernism is not a project, not a system, not a paradigm, and not a model. It is a series of noises that fill the modern void as we learn to articulate the coming era.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Modernism)

October 14, 2008 1 comment

A friend of mine recently asked me the following question:

If so, I’d like to discuss modern vs. postmodern readings of scripture. And more to the point, I’d like for you to unpack your approach–can I say interpretive paradigm–for reading scripture. Here, I’d like to understand more clearly a) your handling of exegetical (original meaning) and existential (current meaning) horizons to a given text and b) what resources you might direct me toward that you feel best articulate and or model your preferred approach.

I like questions like this because it gives me a chance to put my ignorance to work. Instead of limiting it to one conversation, I thought I’d spread my ignorance around on a few other brave souls and glory in the half-articulations of thought.

Attempting to discuss any interpretive paradigm is fraught with risks much like boldly proclaiming the decision “not to vote” in a culture of passionate partisans. Since I like to fall flat on my face, I’ll take the risk and hopefully avoid wrecking anyone’s faith along the way. Now I might be clear that articulating an interpretive paradigm and using an interpretive paradigm are two different things. I will attempt to write about my understanding and approach to reading the text, but odds are I may clean up a much messier mind that responds to the text in ways that I have yet to grasp.

As I look over the modern landscape, I can help but noticing a rows and rows of identical houses, identical shopping centers, and lots of ipod-clad people shouting about their “individuality!” Modernism boldly steps into the void of metaphysical meanderings and declares a “clear plan” to solve the world’s problems through scientific discipline, clear thinking, and a battery of lawyers.

I’m grateful for this modern arrogance as I sit in the coffee shop, typing on my laptop and enjoying music piped in from somewhere over the rainbow. Way to go moderns! I love my luxuries!

Off the top of my head (and certainly not from the depths of research), I’ll a venture a few thoughts on modern approaches to the text. Moderns forced us to think seriously about the historical claims of the text. Of course, their own lack of deep historical resources resulted a many wrong-headed claims about the fool hardiness of the text that are finally beginning to subside. Modernism inflicted a critical distrust upon the text (and upon everything else). While criticism can be helpful, distrust can lead to the inability to believe anything (sounds a bit like post-modernism to me).

Moderns were on a plan to save the world from ignorance (and faith and hope and love). Taking their cue from the warring medieval lords, moderns exchanged guns for ideas and set about on a conquest (or dare I say crusade) to relieve the infidels of their blinding ignorance. Thus in addition to a critical distrust of any metaphysical idea, moderns also brought an imperialistic fervency that rejected disagreement with fierce ideological torment. Unlike their cruel medieval counterparts, moderns did not torture a few heretics in the courts of inquisition, rather they tried an entire class of people in the halls of academia, determining that ignorant people were heretical and a danger to the future of the world.

The poor common man who actually still believed the text and considered the supernatural an integral part of his natural life was consigned to the galleys of mental slaves with virtually no hope for his redemption.

Over time, the modern “enlightenment project” tended to flatten the text (insert Bible) from a robust, multi-layered and multi-voiced story to a series of principles extracted from a dangerous mix of contradictions and limitations. Thankfully, these few principles could be extracted and put in a course on “Morals for a better world” and in hundreds of congressional regulations.

Don’t let my comments betray me. I do believe the modernist project brought some good. It continued and refined the project that the medievals began of getting the text into the hands of the people, helping increase literacy in every culture where it appeared. Of course, once the people finally got the text, the moderns reminded them to quit reading it because they couldn’t really trust it.

Modernism has enriched us with a critical eye that helps us in some ways think more clearly about historical problems and historical contexts. This along with the improving of translations, the ready availability of texts in many languages, the practical/applied approach to Scripture all have a place and have enriched us, and for that I am grateful.

Okay, I’ll stop here and take up some more mis-informed thoughts on post-modernism before I finally lay out my own ideas on reading and responding to the text.

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