That which I saw and that which was were interchangeable.
But then, one day, I learned that at a young age I had been given glasses.
This was an unsettling development.”
I’m making my way through Jamie Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation, and thought I’d share some of the more thought-provoking quotes thus far.
“I had been inducted into a tradition that didn’t think of itself as a tradition – indeed, I had been steeped in a hermeneutical tradition that regularly decried “the traditions of men” and thus championed a “back to the Bible” primitivism that took itself to be a reading rather than an interpretation of Scripture. In sum, I had been unwittingly and covertly initiated into what I describe below as a “hermeneutics of immediacy,” which, of course, does not think of it is a hermeneutic at all…
As you might imagined I felt somewhat duped, as do many who emerge from fundamentalisms that have effectivly hidden aspects of reality. Once those aspects of reality are discovered (or, in this case, once it’s discovered that “reality” is always already mediated), it’s hard not to ask: What were you trying to hide?”
On postmodern catholicity:
“there are two ways of being postfoundationalist: emergent or catholic. The former, I have argued, remains haunted by the ghost of immediacy and thus can never quite be comfortable with the particularities of a hermeneutic tradition in all of its specificity. The latter, in contrast, is a postcritical affirmation of the particularity of the “catholic” orthodoxy of the Nicene tradition, and of even more specific renditions of that (such as Reformed or Anglican or Pentecostal streams as particular interpretive traditions within catholic Christianity).
Both are postfundamentalist stances, but the former – still haunted by the modern dream – tends toward a liberal trajectory as the only other option within the modern paradigm, whereas the latter “catholic” option is postliberal precisely insofar as it refuses to be haunted by the modern myth of immediacy. Thus I have argued that the “catholic” option is actually more persistently postmodern.”
How much does our context determine how we read the Biblical narrative?
As the beneficiaries of present-day systems of economic and military power, is it difficult for us to hear the prophets’ warnings against empire and the call to be a set apart people with a different story?
Take the story of Solomon for example. His reign is presented as the height of the united-kingdom’s power and glory. Never before [and never again] in the Old Testament has Israel been described as more prosperous, victorious, and expansive.
But there is a dark side to this story, one we easily, and perhaps instinctively, overlook.
Yes, we usually condemn Solomon for having hundreds of wives and concubines, and for the mixed religious loyalties this soon entails, but in reality such a harem was just a symptom of a larger problem and not simply a case of sexual excess.
His wives, usually described as foreigners, were most likely a result of political dealings – securing powerful relationships by tying families together, much like medieval European monarchies.
These political dealings served to further his acquisition of national wealth (II Chronicles 9:13-24), the massive expansion of Israel’s military (II Chronicles 9:25-28), and a series of building projects which, in a tragic irony, utilized slave labor to build palaces and fortresses for a people who had once been slaves themselves (I Kings 9:15-23).
Interestingly, in almost every sermon I’ve heard about Solomon, his sexual exploits and idolatry are condemned while his economic and military aspirations are ignored or even praised.
I wonder if that is because criticizing Solomon’s quest for empire strikes a little too close to home? Or, perhaps, are we so accustomed to seeing military and economic superiority as inherently good (or even a sign of God’s blessing!) that we fail to see the ways Solomon is turning Israel into yet another Egypt?
The Bible was written from the underside of empire. And for those of us who read it today from a position of power, I want to suggest that might pose a more significant interpretative hurdle than we tend to realize.
In other words, we all naturally read ourselves into stories as “the good guy,” but when the prophets speak their warnings against economic and military injustice, they just might be warning us.
Yes, I said I wouldn’t be posting on Tuesdays anymore, but I came across some brilliant videos – that were not exactly on topic with my current series – and wanted to take this opportunity to share them with you.
The first features John Dickson discussing the fascinating and beautiful story of Christian charity in the ancient world.
The next clips return us to the conversation about hermeneutics, evolution, and how we interpret Genesis 1-3.
John Walton and Tremper Longman, two of the top Old Testament scholars in Evangelicalism, take turns explaining how they approach these issues, and then do some Q and A. If you can make the time, I could hardly think of a better resource for evangelicals wrestling with these difficult questions.
(HT: Louis McBride)
Yesterday Melinda and I made the drive down to Mars Hill to see our friend Rachel Held Evans. She was there to speak about Ruth and her Biblical Womanhood project [the podcast should be up soon here], and we had made plans to join her after the service for lunch.
The meal was quite good, and the conversation was excellent, but this morning I wanted to offer a couple reflections on her sermon.
Too often our conversations about “Biblical Womanhood” devolve into complementarians and egalitarians lining up their favorite verses in some sort of exegetical chess match.
What I appreciate about Rachel’s project is that she is questioning that entire approach.
Not because there are not relevant passages of Scripture, or because the Bible isn’t authoritative, but because the my-verses-beat-your-verses model makes a number of assumptions about what kind of book the Bible is, and tends to brush aside both historical and contemporary context.
For example, Rachel pointed out (rightly I think) that the current emphasis on complementarianism within many traditions is largely a response to the second-wave feminism of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. What that has often meant is that, intentionally or not, the image of womanhood that people are attempting to reclaim ends up looking quite a bit more like the early 1900’s than gender identity in the Ancient Near East.
Now inevitably the pushback from complementarians is that they are not striving for a return to the 50’s, but attempting to be faithful to the Bible. Most of the time, I think that’s true. I have no doubt that a desire for biblical faithfulness is an important motivation for those who advocate more traditional views of gender.
But the reality is more complicated than that, and in the end complementarians have a grid for picking and choosing which verses they take seriously, and which they sweep under the rug, just as much as any egalitarian. Even the most determined complementarians are not advocating that women should be forced to marry their rapist, be sold to pay off their family’s debts, cover their heads during prayer, or stay silent in the church; and yet those all appear in the text.
The problem, Rachel insists, is that we have been taught to approach the Bible like it is a blueprint for womanhood, or marriage, or finances, or how to choose the right college.
We assume that if we just figure out the puzzle then suddenly all the verses in the Bible that address womanhood will align into one unified vision. They don’t – because God didn’t give us a blueprint, and something like womanhood is far too varied and complex for a blueprint anyway – but both sides often work under that paradigm and are then left in the awkward position of pretending that the other side “picks and chooses” while they do not.
I have to agree with Rachel that the more interesting conversation is not “how can we avoid picking and choosing?” but “why do we pick and choose the way we do?” In other words the debate behind the debate is about interpretation, about hermeneutics.
We’ve been having that conversation for quite some time here, sparked by books like Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. But I think a sermon like this drives home why the conversation matters – because it plays out in the daily-life issues like gender, and because it sits behind debates that often seem intractable within the rules of Biblicism.
Suggesting that “I just read the Bible literally” is often used as a trump card in debates, especially over issues like differing interpretations of the Genesis narratives or apocalyptic literature like Revelation. The assumption being made is that one person is taking the text seriously – literally – while the other is twisting it to fit their theological agenda.
I’ve seen this play out in pop-theology quite often, and even promoted as the only faithful hermeneutic for approaching the Scriptures by some theologians. But even though it has a certain surface level appeal, I’ve come to believe this is an inherently problematic way to frame the issue. For one thing, it often takes for granted that a “literal” reading that is obvious to us in the 21st century would be anything like how the original readers would have understood the text; for another it begs the question what do we mean by “literal” in the first place?
In this clip from BioLogos N.T. Wright and Peter Enns discuss the term literal, and how interpreting the Biblical text might not be quite that simple.
Enns has an interesting essay in the Huffington Post today, Once More, With Feeling: Adam, Evolution and Evangelicals.
As you might expect from the title of his latest book, Enns is particularly interested in the Adam question, which is probably the most heated and controversial part of the conversation between evolutionary science and Christian theology.
And what he says is spot on, this has everything to do with what sort of book we imagine the Bible to be. That doesn’t make one side correct, but I do think it points us to the real crux of the matter – like a host of other pressing issues in Evangelicalism this is not simply a matter of my lining my verses up against yours.
The battle for the Bible centered on inerrancy and inspiration for quite a long time, but when people on both sides of most Evangelical debates believe in the truth and authority of Scripture it should become apparent to us that agreement on the right “in-“ terms does little to ensure agreement on what the text actually means – and so we must discuss the real point of tension, hermeneutics.
Below is a selection from Enns’ essay [I would love to hear your thoughts on it], and you can read the rest here.
“Evangelicals have been butting heads with evolution for 150 years. A lot is at stake.
If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn’t. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what’s in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God’s version of human origins isn’t what actually happened — well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope. The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one’s personal faith.
That, more or less, is the evangelical log flume of fear, and I have seen it played out again and again.
In recent years, the matter has gotten far worse. Popular figures like Richard Dawkins have done an in-your-face-break-the-backboard-slam-dunk over the heads of defenders of the biblical story. They’ve taken great delight in making sure Main Street knows evolution is true, and therefore the Bible is “God’s big book of bad ideas” (Bill Maher) and Christians are morons for taking it seriously. Evangelicals have been on high alert damage control mode.
Then you have the mapping of the human genome. It’s a done deal: humans and primates are 90-something percent related genetically. The best explanation for it, geneticists tell us, is that humans evolved from primates. …
…Evolution is a threat, and many evangelicals are fighting to keep Adam in the family photo album. But in their rush to save Christianity, some evangelicals have been guilty of all sorts of strained, idiosyncratic or obscurantist tactics: massaging or distorting the data, manipulating the legal system, scaring their constituencies and strong-arming those of their own camp who raise questions.
These sorts of tactics get a lot of press, but behind them is a deeper problem — a problem that gets close to the heart of evangelicalism itself and hampers any true dialogue.
It has to do with what evangelicals expect from the Bible.”