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Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Psalm 119)

October 16, 2008 1 comment

I’ve tried to sketch out a few ideas out about how modernism and postmodernism influenced the reading of the Bible. After I wrote up a few thoughts on some of the ways I might think about the text, I thought began to think of simply highlighting how the text tells us to interpret itself. As with anything I write, I am not trying to provide an exhaustive study but rather a sketch. So I might simply take one passage that explores the idea of meditation in some depth: Psalm 119.

As I reflected on the Psalm and listed out the various forms of meditation mentioned, I discerned that the list might be considered in three seperate categories: hearing, speaking and seeing.

1. Hearing – In verse 33 the Psalmist prays, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.” This request is part of a larger pattern that reappears throughout Scripture. The Spirit of God teaches us the Word of God. At the very beginning of the Bible, God is speaking.

Hans Urs Balthasar taught me that hearing is the position of humility. I exert less control over hearing than seeing. While I can easily change me gaze or attention from one spot to another, when I am addressed, I cannot so easily change the focus of my listening. To change the focus of my hearing would require me to physically interfere with my ears through headphones or earplugs. Thus to refrain from listening suggests active resistance.

Whereas to hear, to listen is to submit. So like the Psalmist, I approach the Word with a listening ear, and ask the Lord to teach me. The Psalm is filled with entreties to God to teach, comfort, come, revive, and so on. The Psalmist models the position of prayerful listening. As I humble myself before the Word of the Lord, I ask the Lord of the Word to speak, “for your servant is listening.”

This reflects an attitude of trust, which is reiterated thorughout the Psalm. I listen and trust in the Word. The Psalmist prays,

Forever, O Lord,
Your word is settled in heaven.
90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
You established the earth, and it abides.
91 They continue this day according to Your ordinances,
For all are Your servants.
92 Unless Your law had been my delight,
I would then have perished in my affliction.
93 I will never forget Your precepts,
For by them You have given me life.
94 I am Yours, save me;
For I have sought Your precepts.
95 The wicked wait for me to destroy me,
But I will consider Your testimonies.
96 I have seen the consummation of all perfection,
But Your commandment is exceedingly broad.
NKJV – 119:89-96

The Psalmist acknowledges that the Word is faithful, good, trustworthy, delightful, and stands over all people. He writes “all are Your servants.” Whether we aknowledge the Lord or not, we are His servants and stand under His Word.

Proverbs 2 also highlights this posture of listening:

Prov 2:1-9
My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
2 So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding;
3 Yes, if you cry out for discernment,
And lift up your voice for understanding,
4 If you seek her as silver,
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
5 Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
And find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;
7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;
8 He guards the paths of justice,
And preserves the way of His saints.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice,
Equity and every good path.
NKJV

I believe this posture of listening continues in at least two other ways. One is listening to the actual reading of the Word aloud. Thus part of the tradition of God’s people is the public reading of the Word. This is a fundamental part of worship. Secondly, we need to listen to God’s people proclaiming the Word.

While Psalm 119 does not seem to specifically highlight this, we see the pattern again and again of God’s people listening to God’s ministers (his angelic flames) announcing the Good News of God’s Word. From Moses to the Prophets to the Apostles and Teachers, we see the consistent pattern of God’s Word being spoken, proclaimed, taught through the servants of the Lord.

In Ephesians, Paul writes the God has given each person on the body of Christ a measure of grace. And we are to offer back that measure in service to one another. One way we do this is by speaking what is “good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

So listening to the Word involves personal, prayeful listening, public listening to the reading and proclaiming of the Word, and listening to the saints around me speak and edify through the Word.

2. Speaking – The Psalmist not only writes about listening but about speaking the Word.

1 My lips shall utter praise,
For You teach me Your statutes.
172 My tongue shall speak of Your word,
For all Your commandments are righteousness.
NKJV – Ps 119:171-172

Throughout the course of the psalm, speaking seems to be part of remembering, which involves speaking, wlaking, running, obeying, studying, rehearsing, re-enacting, reflecting, and enfleshing. Deuteronomy 6 exhorts the people

6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
NKJV

Speaking the Word seems to be a fundamental extension of listening to the Word. So speaking becomes a vital part of interpretation. Speaking is much more than just reading and preaching. It involves singing and rejoicing over the Word. Then working outward from this image of rejoicing in the Word, speaking seems to involve imaging the Word in my body (obedience) and in the world that I create.

So interpretion is enfleshed on many levels. In submission and obedience, I seeking to build the world of my family around and upon the Word of God.

3. Seeing – I won’t say much about this now (because I’m ready to stop writing), but it seems that the culmination of listening of speaking is seeing. The text moves to hearing to seeing. The Psalmist speaks of seeing and even the whole drama of Scripture starts with God speaking and ends with God’s people seeing.

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.

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