Home > Bible, Word of God > Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Modernism)

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Modernism)

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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  1. October 16, 2008 at 6:08 am

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