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.


Steven Gaines said...

Thanks for your reflections. I just finished Scot McKnight's "The Blue Parakeet," which offers some similar thoughts. I wish I had read it a couple of years ago when it first came out. I appreciate your voice in the conversation.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I enjoy lectio divina in a small group is the notion of "what is the text saying to me right now" or "what is this text saying to my friend right now". I find this experience refreshing. And as reluctant as I am to say what God does or does not do, I sense the spirit at work in these times - especially when participants share similar thoughts. I also think there is validation of these more "immediate" translations when filtered through a group of spirit-filled friends.

Ben said...

Seriously, I am going to send my son to you along with $50k and you can't figure out how to tell him how to read the Bible?

The guys at the electronic and architecture engineering departments can't get away with that. Stuff falls down and people get hurt.

We will be looking at another school. Thanks for the post.

Payton said...

"Of course, such apostolic hermeneutics, grounded as it is in the interlocking convictions that God is sovereign in history, is working in history his one redemptive plan focused in Jesus the incarnate and reveals this one plan with one Voice through Scripture’s human voices and historical eras, will only seem cogent and compelling from within this framework.

Evangelicals whose calling address the academic guild of biblical scholarship may find little receptivity among colleagues for a claim that first-century fishermen, tax collectors, and one notable rabbi are more reliable guides into the meaning of the collection of Ancient Near Eastern religious texts Israel revered as Scripture than are the methods and resources linguistic, literary, and historical research now available.

Then again, the guild’s suspicions concerning the appropriateness of the Testament’s intertextual engagement with the Old may be only one symptom of a more comprehensive repudiation of the worldview presented in the Bible. Those called to the academy should count the defense of apostolic hermeneutic as part their apologetic mission to the guild in which they serve." Dennis Johnson

joey tilton said...

This is simply outstanding, Mark. A great piece. Very useful.

Mark Love said...


I'm certainly not going to tell you how to spend your $50k, but I didn't say we can't teach your son how to read the Bible. I only said that one way that has been taught doesn't deliver what it promises. In fact, the problem is that some thought that the only way to have a defensible reading of Scripture in the academy was to learn to read it like an engineer. Unfortunately, neither God nor sacred texts hold still enough for such an approach. Fortunately, the historical-critical method has not been the only way that Christians, past and present, have read the Bible. So, their are choices for your son. I have found a much more satisfying way of thinking about Scripture and God. Blessings on your search.

Unknown said...

Thank you Mark, I really appreciate your insights. It seems that I end up addressing a lot questions from Christians by using historical-critical method to sketch the range of possibilities, but at the end of the day, we all have to take the vastly more disturbing step of making a leap of faith (whether or not we recognize it). Perhaps we should strive to be better citizens of the Kingdom and let go of our impulse to litigate.

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Anonymous said...

Great article Mark! (I think) But... suppose someone reads this article 250 years from now and is trying to understand what you meant. How would you recommend they proceed? Would your answer to this question have a bearing on what you are working through now? Oh... you're welcome! Ray McC... :o)

Anonymous said...

[Shurangama Sutra]
[The Diamond Sutra]
[The Heart Sutra]

~oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ~

/Six samsara /
/Cause and effect/
/Engages in introspection sees the nature/
/Do not beg abhiññā/


The Twelve Vows of the Medicine Buddha upon attaining Enlightenment, according to the Medicine Buddha Sutra are:
To illuminate countless realms with his radiance, enabling anyone to become a Buddha just like him.
To awaken the minds of sentient beings through his light of lapis lazuli.
To provide the sentient beings with whatever material needs they require.
To correct heretical views and inspire beings toward the path of the Bodhisattva.
To help beings follow the Moral Precepts, even if they failed before.
To heal beings born with deformities, illness or other physical sufferings.
To help relieve the destitute and the sick.
To help women who wish to be reborn as men achieve their desired rebirth.
To help heal mental afflictions and delusions.
To help the oppressed be free from suffering.
To relieve those who suffer from terrible hunger and thirst.
To help clothe those who are destitute and suffering from cold and mosquitoes."