Hermeneutics

could mission be the key to reading (and applying) the Bible?

I read Richard Bauckham’s new — and as-yet-unpublished — paper on ‘Mission as Hermeneutic for Scriptural Interpretation’ last night (h/t Mike W). I loved his treatment of the ‘theological geography’ of Christian mission in terms of:

  1. The centrifugal movement of individuals ‘sent out’ from the gathering of believers,
  2. The centripetal pull of a community that God is powerfully present in, and
  3. The exilic scattering/dispersion of churches such that our identity is detached from any one physical centre.

You can get hold of the whole thing HERE. But I want to share this brilliant quote:

[T]he church’s mission takes place between its commissioning by God and the coming of the kingdom of God. It lives from the God who gives and sends and towards the God who gives and comes. We can see how the world of possibilities the biblical narratives create for their readers is not simply a different way of seeing the world, though it is that, nor are the possibilities such as the church’s mission itself can achieve. The missionary church’s “passion for the possible” (Ernst Bloch) is a passion for what is possible with God, for what the church, living faithfully and expectantly, receives as divine gift in every anticipation of the coming kingdom.

Much hunch is that only something like this can break the deadlock between the advocates of Christianity-as-world-transformation and those (like David VanDrunen) who are concerned that this emphasis threatens to unhitch redemption from God’s decisive action in Christ, attaching it instead to God’s continuing presence in Christian engagement with culture…

the trouble with ‘principlizing’

I take the title of this post from one of the books that changed my life — The Trouble With Principle by Stanley Fish.

Although, that’s only part of the story. While I draw inspiration from Fish, I particularly want to take aim at one of the favoured strategies we evangelicals typically deploy for making ethical mileage out of a Bible passage — something Walter Kaiser dubbed ‘principlizing’.

According to Kaiser, if you want to apply a biblical text that’s not straight up and down didactic, you need to distil what is timeless and abiding in it, paying special attention to how it addresses current needs (Towards An Exegetical Theology, pp 150-152).

One of the most well-worn examples of this strategy is on display almost every time someone preaches on the instructions to slaves and masters in the household codes that crop up regularly in the New Testament. Have you ever heard the principle extracted from what Paul or Peter says to slaves and transferred directly across to today’s employees? Yep. Well, that’s ‘principlizing’ in action.

It’s not necessarily a totally illegitimate strategy. And a case could probably be made that Paul himself paves the way for it when he lays out the rationale for his instructions to slaves in Ephesians 6.5-8.

But at every point I fear we risk falling into the trap John Howard Yoder highlights (The Politics of Jesus, p 25):

[M]odern ethicists … have assumed that the only way to get from the gospel story to ethics, from Bethlehem to Rome or to Washington or Saigon, was to leave the story behind.

Which is a long way of saying that I agree with Mike: ‘We know God by reading a story. We need to just read the story more.’ The same goes for how God wants us to live in response.

‘are you the one who is to come?’

A friend of mine recently pointed out something fascinating about the time John the Baptist sends messengers to quiz Jesus, asking: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

(Don’t get distracted by the apparent scandal that John seems to be harbouring doubts. That’s not that fascination, or even scandalous — believers in both Testaments often harbour doubts. But instead of denying or obsessing over it, they take it to God.)

The truly fascinating thing here emerges once you realise that Jesus is in the middle of doing a bunch of things that evoke the stories of Elijah and Elisha — a healing connected with a Gentile soldier, a widow’s son restored to life, that sort of thing.

An 18th Century Russian Elisha

Now assuming that this isn’t about furnishing an all-purpose proof ‘that Jesus is God’ or something, John’s puzzling question begins to make sense: John is interested in what it means for Jesus to be acting like Elijah (or his historical successor, Elisha).

And within the framework of expectations John was probably working with — about Elijah’s true end-time successor, the herald who would pave the way for God’s own arrival — you can understand why he’d want to know what it means!

Everything else had seemed to point to John being the end-time herald, announcing the imminent arrival of God. And as the encounter unfolds that’s exactly how Jesus does identify John.

But only after he’s done a number on John’s expectations. Jesus doesn’t hand out an immediate reassurance along the lines of: ‘It’s OK. I am the one who is to come’. Rather, he says: ‘Look at what I’m doing. Like the Servant Isaiah spoke about (that perplexing figure who represents Israel), I’m restoring sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, humanity to lepers, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead; I’m bringing glad tidings to the poor’.

Ultimately, it is only as the Servant — not just as a human being, but as this human being, destined to suffer and by suffering redeem many — that Jesus answers to John’s expectations about the arrival of God.

Fascinating, huh?

the virtue of gazing into the middle distance

And here you were thinking it was a vice!

By Henningklevjer (from Wikimedia Commons)

Apparently, far from being vicious the ‘middle distance perspective’ is used in the New Testament to render both the life of Jesus (in the Gospels) and that of ordinary Christians (in letters like Ephesians). At least, that’s what David F Ford reckons.

Check out what he says in his essay, ‘System, Story, Performance: A Proposal about the Role of Narrative in Christian Systematic Theology’ (from Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, p 195):

The middle distance is that focus which best does justice to the ordinary social world of people in interaction. It portrays them acting, talking, suffering, thinking, and involved in institutions, societies, and networks of relationships over time; in general this perspective renders … “the detail of how things are”. The perspective and the content go together. If one moves too close and allows the dominant perspective to become, for example, one person’s inner world or stream of consciousness, then the middle distance has been supplanted. Likewise, if one takes too broad an overview and subsumes the particular people, words, and actions into a generalization, a trend, or a theory, the middle distance loses its own integrity and becomes, at best, evidence or a supportive illustration.

I guess this is something like the tension many people experience in preaching — or otherwise trying to present the good news of Jesus. It’s easy to fall into the trap of either over-familiar, confessional, ‘look at me’-ism or of trotting out pithy-sounding but bland platitudes and hastily formulated generalisations about ‘society’ or ‘the world’.

Perhaps it’s time to rehabilitate the virtue of gazing into the middle distance…

some thoughts on John’s presentation of Jesus

I’m mulling over the way Jesus is presented in John’s Gospel — and especially how he’s presented in relation to God. Let’s start with the following points culled from Dunn’s Christology in the Making (pp 258-265):

  • Jesus’ designation as the Word and Wisdom (and Shekinah) of God in 1.1-18 adds depth to his portrayal as the Son of God and Son of Man in the rest of the book.
  • Despite its very ‘Greek’-sounding cadences, John’s presentation of Jesus is not entirely unJewish, bouncing off the ways First Century Jews already spoke of God as both near and far, immanent and transcendent.
  • At the same time, John constantly foregrounds the relation between Father and Son in a manner that almost suggests we’re dealing with two beings here.

Placing all these things side by side results in a variety of apparent anticipations of later orthodox confession about Jesus and his identity of being and activity with God the Father. Such is the sophistication and clarity of John’s presentation of Jesus.

All of which is more or less uncontroversial. But I keep wanting to ask: What about the elusiveness of Jesus? The lack of recognition he constantly meets, the hostility and division his arrival produces?

Sunrise over Mt Sinai

Now I suppose we probably persist in privileging John like this because it seems to tell us what the other Gospels merely show us. But I suspect we’re in danger of forgetting that John’s language only sounds explicit (and compelling and powerful) from the perspective of later orthodoxy.

What’s more, we’re in danger of underplaying the shock and difficulty — even the mind-bending paradox — of what has become so comfortable and familiar to us: speaking of Jesus as the ‘Word become flesh’, etc.

We just need to do better at reckoning with the fact that almost every time it looks like we get something approaching the high formulations of later orthodoxy Jesus sidesteps any unambiguous identification with God (which is what happens in John 5.16-30 for example).

John may pose the question with unusual directness and clarity (to our ears). But rarely are his answers as cut and dried as we might imagine.

power reading

I’ve been looking back over some of my recent posts about how to become a more moral, less anxious and more efficient reader. As I’ve done so, I’ve been wondering what Christian ethicist Miroslav Volf would say about them.

In his essay, ‘Theology, Meaning and Power: A Conversation with George Lindbeck on Theology and the Nature of Christian Difference’, Volf says (p 55):

Though I believe that Michel Foucault slights the “domain of signifying structures” and elevates unduly the “relations of force,” he is right in warning against reducing the relations of power to relations of meaning. “Semiology” may indeed be a way of avoiding the violent character of social conflict “by reducing it to the calm Platonic form of language and dialogue,” as he suggests.

The Foucauldian accusation Volf is channelling needs to be taken seriously. Attending closely to what happens when a text is read risks underestimating the ‘relations of force’ within which all texts are embedded and implicated in extending.

And it’s a real danger. If you’re anything like me, you’ll know what it’s like to get so caught up in figuring out what a text means that you overlook what it does.

G20 - Riot police storm squad

G20 - Riot police squad (by Tanya N, on Flickr)

To counteract this I suspect I need to get much better at ‘power reading’. I need to sit at the feet of the so-called hermeneutics of suspicion (in its Nietzschean, Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic and post-colonial varieties) and find better ways of asking about what the text is doing — intentionally or unintentionally, with the best or worst of intentions — and how it is doing it.

It’s a mistake to treat a text simply as a neutral and inert object, lying anaethetised on the dissection table ready to be poked and prodded. No doubt doing so may help expose how it works. But most texts aren’t written to be studied — they’re written to persuade or make requests, to subvert or reinforce authority, to upset or reassure, and myriad other things.

No-one claiming to be a genuinely moral reader can afford to ignore this…

untangling Hebrews

knots

I’ve heard Hebrews preached on more times than I can remember. I’ve been in countless Bible study groups that have wrestled with it.

And yet I’m not sure I’ve ever really ‘got’ it. You know? Figured out how it hangs together, why the argument takes the twists and turns that it does, what unites the exhortations and exposition.

But as I’ve been preparing for exams this past week, I feel like I’ve started to get somewhere. Let me share a couple of hunches I’ve got about Hebrews which might help untangle the knot:

To begin with, people often say that Hebrews aims to prevent its readers ‘going back to Judaism’.

However, it’s not at all obvious to me that such a sharp distinction between Christianity and Judaism could have been presupposed by the letter’s writer. A solid case can be made for seeing Hebrews as part of a process that resulted in the distinction.

I think this sheds light on how the Old Testament is handled in the letter. There’s something more complex is going on than either ‘Jesus has come, so forget all that junk’ or ‘Actually, the OT was all really about Jesus anyway — e.g., because He’s its deep, spiritual meaning’. It’s neither Marcionite not allegorical.

Along these lines it’s worth noting that while the letter is full of exposition about who Jesus is and what He has done, it doesn’t contain a ‘Christology’ in the narrow sense of an argument that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Rather, the fact that Jesus is the Messiah is assumed — sort of like the backbone of whatever else is said about Him.

So its argument kind of works like this:

WRITER: ‘Jesus is the great High Priest’.

READERS: ‘Really?’

WRITER: ‘Yeah. Because he’s the Messiah’.

Again, this is important in terms of its reading of the OT. While it won’t spiritualise Israel’s experience and say ‘They were actually all about Jesus’, what it will do is pick up the loose ends of the OT story and pulls! And, of course, foremost among these loose ends is the expectation of the Messiah…

how to become a more efficient reader

Ahh… Yes. The bottom line. (Watch the stats go through the roof on this one. No-one wants to know how to become a moral moral reader and only a few think it’d be worthwhile becoming less anxious. But more efficient? Bring it on!)

reading

This time it was a Political Science lecturer who inducted me into the deep mystery of efficient reading. And here it is — just between you and me: the best place to begin reading is … at the end.

If what you’re reading is written well (and having just put together a sustained 15000 word argument, that’s a big ‘if’), then you should be able to rip out the guts of it by reading the conclusion — and then working backward, picking up the first sentence in each paragraph. It’s all about finding the main thread of through the text and pulling.

I guarantee this strategy will make you a much more efficient reader.

But isn’t this pure pragmatism? Aren’t I betraying my own principles by suggesting that you read like this?

Well, I guess maybe I am. Although, I’m not sure that this approach necessarily rules out the strategies for respecting the text’s otherness that I’ve already suggested. For example, I can imagine hitting some puzzling or unexpected turn in an argument as I’m reading this way, stopping to take some time over it, but not getting so hung up on figuring out this detail that I start anxiously trying to wring out every last drop of meaning.

You see, the intuition underwriting this reading strategy is the (charitable) assumption that the text has a logic and coherence and is more or less effective at sustaining its argument from beginning to end. And this need not compete with the intuitions underlying the other strategies. They can coexist — even if they demand some effort to hold them in the appropriate tension…

how to become a less anxious reader

Reflecting on my last post, I realise that reading with slow, painstaking care may not always be a virtue. (It certainly doesn’t feel like a virtue when you’ve got a stack of reading to knock over before class!)

And it would probably just be paralysing to get bogged down in every puzzling detail or surprising expression that some writers come up with. I’m thinking particularly of certain fiction authors — James Joyce and Umberto Eco spring to mind — and philosophers — the chief culprits in my experience would be Wittgenstein and Derrida.

Which brings me to another piece of advice a different English Literature lecturer once gave me: just relax.

This really is the key to becoming a less anxious reader. Sometimes it’s best just to let the prose wash over you. Or, less poetically, to stumble ahead in the fog desperately hoping it’ll clear up before you do yourself too much damage.

foginthefjord

And it’s really true. You can’t read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or On Certainty by stopping whenever you hit something perplexing or unexplained. Really. You can’t. (I’ve tried.)

Instead, you’ve got to trust that things will become clearer, that the same theme will reappear again (and again and again), that a different metaphor might break the insight open for you more effectively.

What’s more, this is as much a moral issue as learning to notice what you hadn’t noticed you’d noticed.

I suspect that it’s those readers who hammer at a text with utter desperation — trying to force it to yield up its meaning — who are at the greatest risk of doing violence to the text by refusing to allow it its (sometimes infuriating) otherness

how to become a more moral reader

I still remember the English Literature lecturer who taught me how to read attentively. He put it like this: you’ve got to notice what you didn’t notice you’d noticed. Sounds great. But what does it mean?

studying

When I’m reading, I’ll often stumble over something in the text. But my usual reaction is simply to press on. (I’m not really sure why. Maybe because I consider myself a ‘strong’ reader and don’t want to admit confusion or difficulty with some argument, detail or unfamiliar word. Or maybe because I’m reading to a deadline. Or hunting for something in the text and don’t want to get hung up on irrelevant details.)

But for me, reading well involves paying attention to these ‘Huh?’ moments. I need to stop and notice — and maybe even re-read — what I’d already noticed (because I’d stumbled over it even though I didn’t want to admit it).

There are some pretty obvious benefits to this strategy. Not only does it help me isolate those words or arguments that I don’t quite grasp (for whatever reason). It also forces me to give enough space to the author to surprise me. To say things that I don’t already know. To put things in fresh and unfamiliar ways. To make connections I wouldn’t automatically make. To take the argument that I probably thought I could have made myself in new and adventurous directions.

Better than all of this, learning to notice what I didn’t noticed I’d noticed helps me become a more moral reader. It does this because it demands that I recognise that what I’m reading is other than me. And this makes me relinquish my assumption of mastery over every idea or domain of discourse.

But maybe that’s just me…