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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 (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.

What do your E-mail Sign-offs say?

November 27, 2006 Leave a comment

NYT runs an interesting article today about the challenge of Netiquette in regards to e-mail sign-offs. It may be a bigger deal than you think:

What’s in an e-mail sign-off? A lot, apparently. Those final few words above your name are where relationships and hierarchies are established, and where what is written in the body of the message can be clarified or undermined.

Without the typical non-verbal contextualizers like tone of voice and facial/body gestures, e-mails for us to look for other signs that help contextualize and interpret the message.

“So many people are not clear communicators,” said Judith Kallos, creator of NetManners.com, a site dedicated to online etiquette, and author of “Because Netiquette Matters.” To be clear about what an e-mail message is trying to say, and about what is implied as well as what is stated, “the reader is left looking at everything from the greeting to the closing for clues,” she said.

Makes me think of I.A. Richards ideas on word meaning and word placement. According to NYT, ending an e-mail with “Best” is a clear indicator your cooling down the relationship (bordering on brush off) while “Warmest regards” is a positive move toward relationship.

Maybe we could simply stick with the cold and hot words:

Icely yours,
Frozen,
Windy but hopeful for sun,

vs.

Blazing,
Volcanicly yours,
Hunk a hunk a hunk o burning love,

I guess I better go take a look at the way I am signing off on my emails.

Your smoldering inferno,

Doug

Defending Joe Lieberman

September 29, 2006 Leave a comment

There’s only one political race that I’ve been following this year and that is the Lieberman-Lamont showcase showdown. And the only reason is that I think Lieberman is a decent guy that was completely hung out to dry on the basis on one issue. So I was delighted to read this little article on Lieberman today in The Stanford Daily.

I don’t normally mention politics here simply because our culture has moved far beyond any form of reasoned discourse or proper rhetoric. I think many of us Americans are not on the fringe waiting and wanting to virtually crucify the “other guy.”

There are real problems in our world and real disagreements as to how to solve those problems. If we could ever learn to listen and really dialogue (Martin Buber), we might actually find places of wisdom that teach us to avoid killing each other (virtually or literally).

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