Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meaning: The Thin or Thick of It

In teaching freshman about the Bible, I am constantly made aware of how odd Scripture is to them. This is true not only of the high number of students who have little experience with the Bible, but also with the "Sunday School" kids. The distance, in many cases, between their world and the world of Scripture, makes it difficult for them to make sense of what they are reading. This "gap" might be characterized many ways. The sheer size of the historical gap between text and reader means negotiating significant cultural, cosmological, literary, and theological differences--not to mention spiritual ones.

Readers of the Bible have tried many strategies to overcome these differences. Most recent "critical" strategies for interpreting Scripture have emphasized the historical gap. How do we understand a document written thousands of years ago? This is a fair question. The answer given by the majority of biblical scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries began with limiting the amount of light shed on the text from our side of the historical divide. We needed, through the use of an objective, "scientific" method, to free our readings from our own prejudices. These prejudices came not only from our own personal biases, but also from the tradition-laden readings we inherited along the way. Alexander Campbell captured this commitment when he wrote that he hoped to read Scripture as if no one else had read it before.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to critique this reading impulse. I want to note here only one. It collapses the encounter of the text with the contemporary reader. The question, what is the text saying to me, is postponed in favor of the question, what was the author saying to the original audience. Now, this business of an author and original audience has its place. I am interested in that question and the answers revealed can be revolutionary in producing understanding. It is not a question we should abandon.

Still, there are problems inherent in the question. We have no direct access either to the intention of the author or the original audience. This move to focus on the world that produced the text, the world of author-original audience, was hoped to provide a foundation--an objective place-- for assessing the enduring meaning of a text (usually expressed as an idea). The irony is that it threw us into a largely hypothetical world of historical reconstruction. For some issues of interpretation, this is a fairly productive preoccupation. But for others, not so much.

I have been reading a draft of my friend, Sara Barton's, forthcoming book (which is very good) on her struggle as a woman to find a place for certain public gifts she believes are given to her by God. She has to contend with texts that seem on their face to speak against her being able to exercise those gifts. Often in the book, she has taken up issues related to the world that produced the text. And while her readings find support in the world of historical-critical scholarship, the fact is a dozen other equally plausible readings could be offered. We know a fair amount about the world of Corinth (not nearly as much as we do with more literate cultures, however), for instance, but not enough it seems to reconstruct with exact certainty the situations being addressed. We are left with a seemingly endless set of hypotheticals. Helpful, but falling short of the standard of objective or foundational.

And as Paul Ricouer and others have pointed out, this business of authorial intention is extremely problematic, and at several levels. What we have once the ink is dry is a text and not an author. And while our best clues about the author's intentions, especially one dead for 2000 years, is the text itself, what we have is the text, not the author.

Again, I want to be careful here. I think its important to ask what the author is up to, even if we can't know for sure. And I also think that the text is the best place to get after that, rather than through elaborate historical reconstructions. (See Richard Hays on this point).

So, what's my problem? Good question. Here's how I want to say it now. This business of isolating meaning in relation to the original intention of the author possesses a strong view of the author, a weak view of the text, and a weak view of the reader. It places the weight bearing load of interpretation on the beam least capable of supporting such a load--the hypothetical world of authorial intention. I don't want to jettison this line of pursuit. I want to mitigate its headlock on our understandings of how meaning is created in this mosh-pit of author-text-reader. (Sorry about the metaphor overload). I want the mosh-pit.

To switch the image, this way of understanding interpretation is a thin strategy. It reduces the world of significance making by at least half, locating it in the world that produced the text rather than in the world being created in front of the text. And the biggest thing here from my point of view is that this is simply a naive way of understanding understanding. Making meaning is a thick enterprise--always. And especially when it happens between persons or perspectives without shared cultural perspectives.

Finally, I think this thin strategy fails precisely at the place it matters most--saying how it is that a text, in all of its textiness, could be connected to a living God. And when I figure out how to say this part well, we'll have another blog post.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Richard Beck on Brueggemann

Check out the promo videos, including this one where Beck talks about Brueggemann's influence on his book, Unclean. Beck on Brueggemann

We are going to have an outstanding conference at Streaming 2012: Mercy, Not Sacrifice. Help us get the word out. Bloggers, help us.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Non-Reducible Text in the Service of a Non-Reducible God

Texts do different things. And because they do different things, they have different characteristics. The stop sign around the corner from my house only works if it is not open to interpretation.It always comes in the same shape, size, font and color. We don't want anything subject to the whims of the reader. This text needs to be reduced to one meaning and one meaning only.

The thing about a stop sign, though, is that I never imagine a person behind the text.I don't think of an author or it doesn't make me ponder the meaning of my life in relation to the person who authorized it. I doubt this is a maxim related to texts, but their might be some sort of correlation here--the more reducible a text, the less relational it is.

So, I'm thinking that a text designed for relationship, especially a relationship over time and space, has to be more porous to meaning than a stop sign.And this might especially be true if a text were hoping to serve relationships across time and space. In other words, certain texts have the ability to communicate beyond their immediate circumstances. My grocery list from Monday is a perishable text and fairly reducible in meaning. No one will be reading it tomorrow, much less 2000 years from now, even though as grocery lists go it's a pretty good one. For a text to continue to speak to new audiences, it has to be fairly open or porous to meaning. And this might especially be true if the relationship to be secured by the text has as its subject a non-reducible subject. Like God.

Now, its conceivable that a text speaking for God might serve the same kind of purpose as a stop sign--to get people to obey certain signs.Then we might want a reducible text. But if the text speaking for God was primarily interested in sustaining across time and space relationship with a holy God, a non-reducible God, then that text might have to be fairly porous, open, interpretable, relational, or dynamic in its capacity to make meanings.

I would submit that this is what we have with the Bible: a non-reducible text in the service of relationship with a holy God.

This is not, however, how many of us have been taught to regard or use or study the Bible. Ironically, we have thought that for it to speak for God it has to be reducible to one meaning, to one interpretation. We think it has to be like a stop sign. I have a spate of books on my bookshelf dedicated to the pursuit of making the Bible hold still. I think this says more about us, particularly those of us conditioned by the modern story of human mastery, than it does about the Bible.

So, I'm trying to rethink all of this without overreacting, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, without reducing things to an either/or approach. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More on Religion and Spirituality

A few posts ago (which was a long, long time ago), I suggested that given a choice between claiming to religious or spiritual, I would choose religious. I admitted in the piece that this was something of a false choice, that I could likely put these two together in a satisfying way. I was commenting more on how the option is often presented with religion as the big, bad wolf and spirituality as the deep choice for deep people.

Harvey, Shannon and others properly pointed out that this should be a both/and. Yes, clearly you are right. And let's not drop our objections to religion gone amuck. And again, I say "amen." Tyler brought up Bonhoeffer and his notion of a religionless Christianity being picked up now by Rollins, asking how I would square what I'm saying with that. So, just a post to respond to Tyler briefly.

I don't know.

I'm not a Bonhoeffer expert. So, I don't want to wade into that blindly. But I would say that he would have to go a ways to convince me that there is such a thing.

I think our lives are irreducibly religious. By this I mean that we are constantly embodying our beliefs in rituals and symbols. Even people who are protesting against religion do this. In fact, I would suggest that their protest would not be visible, recognizable as a protest, apart from some way of routinizing or ritualizing their behavior.

I have visited churches who have a stated a bias against "religion." They are just coming together as "Christ-followers." The irony to me is that I have felt more lost and excluded in their assemblies given the high degree of insider lingo and casual ritual (which favors the insider) than I do in more typically "religious" congregations. I say irony because most of these groups are lowering the formality and enhancing the intimacy all for the sake of being more welcoming, but I have found the opposite to be true.

I know Bonhoeffer and Rollins must have something more specific in mind than my broad, sociological definition of religion. I know both of them well enough to know that they would be both baptismal and eucharistic in their approach to Christianity. So, what do they mean by religion? Maybe they would distinguish between being religious and religion, or even doing religious things and religion. But I think its a terribly difficult distinction to make consistently.

To me the question is not whether or not religion. The question is good religion or bad.

PS, Harvey pointed me to a piece at Huffington Post with a similar rant to the one I wrote. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lillian-daniel/spiritual-but-not-religio_b_959216.html

Friday, November 11, 2011

Texts Don't Just Hold Meaning, They Create Meaning

For awhile now, I have been a person of diminished appetites. Slowly, however, they have been returning. One of the last things to return has been interest in my blog. I've simply been uninterested in writing anything, in creating anything. I've thought about taking it down or starting something new. But mostly I've simply been searching for something worth writing.

So, this might be just for today, but here goes. A modest post, but one I think with big implications. Texts don't just hold meaning, they create it.  And this is especially true for sacred texts. Surely part of what sets a sacred text apart from others is its capacity continually to create meaning.

Texts do hold meanings. 1 Peter, for instance, is a certain text. It is not another one. It has certain words and certain ideas presented in a certain order. It can't mean just anything. But it can create multiple meanings as well. As any author knows, a text also has a relationship with a reader or group of readers, and not just the original readers. It's meanings are not limited to the intention of the author or the circumstances of the first readers. 1 Peter spoke powerfully to me when I was in 7th grade, and it spoke to me in the particularity of my circumstances that were simply not anticipated by the author. 1 Peter created meaning for me. It spoke into my life. It has a living voice.

I'll simply say at this point that I wasn't taught to think about the Bible this way. I was taught to isolate one meaning of the text, to trap it and make it hold still, to make it say only what the author intended for it to say, to curtail its ability to make meaning. And this, I think, was wrong.