23 September 2009

Brief Interruption: On Text & Interpretation

This is not the post I promised last time, but I think it’s a good way to preface the next stage of discussion.  

I think our beliefs about the place of women in the church are governed, at least initially, by our gut reactions.  We’re predisposed by experience, upbringing, personality, etc., to one position or the other, and then we follow up with reasons why things should be the way we think they should.  This “rational backing of a predisposition” has a direct impact on our interpretation of the Bible.  We tend to collect what we consider to be the relevant portions of Scripture and provide interpretations of them that fit our perspective.  In some ways, this is unavoidable.  We all bring our webs of beliefs and assumptions to the text when we read it, and these things affect what we look for and how we interpret things.  No one is unbiased.  Often the best we can do is be aware of how these assumptions shape our interaction with Scripture; we usually can’t completely separate ourselves from them or be purely objective.  We all have a gender and a particular assumption about what “genderedness” implies.  

Something I’ve appreciated about the class that I’ve been sitting in on is that they chose to open their study addressing how people interpret the Bible.  I think there may be some in the room who are impatient with this approach because they “wanna get down to business,” but our different approaches to Scripture are a big part of our disagreement.  In the churches where I’ve grown up, there are many ways that people go about interpreting Scripture.  (This is by no means comprehensive, of course.)  One of the traditional ways has been to quote a passage that presumably backs up your position, citing book, chapter and verse.  This often entails ripping a text out of its original context to use in some other setting.  Rather than allowing the Word of God its proper authority, we impose our conclusions on the text and try to force it to fit our position.  This is akin to forcing puzzle pieces together: you might be able to make them “fit” but the final picture will be distorted at best.  

Another way that people often approach Scripture is to describe how they feel about it.  Now, I think there should be room for a reader response to the Bible.  It seems especially helpful for certain kinds of spiritual disciplines.  However, when we’re trying to make communal decisions about major issues facing the church, personal reaction to the text is too subjective to provide much help.

I think the best we can do in a conversation in which we’re trying to make a decision for the whole community is to investigate what the original intent of the author may have been (and often there are multiple possibilities).  This is generally called the “historical-critical” method.  We want to consider how the original context of the author and audience may have shaped that text.  The basic idea is that we can hopefully grab some concrete, objective data to prevent our biases from taking over (they’re pretty tough to quell anyway!).  Hopefully, having a common approach encourages us to have humility about our own opinions and to find common ground with people who think differently.  (And so, historical-criticism, although it sometimes seems overly dry and rational, can also be a spiritual discipline.)  We also want to do some careful thinking about our own context and what it looks like to faithful to the gospel here and now.  Obviously, that is a matter of contextual discernment, and it’s more of an art than a science.  Maybe even more a matter of trial and error!  But we are a people who believe that the Holy Spirit is an active participant in our communal discernment, and we need not fear walking in faith together.

This historical-critical approach is used by both the HC and the E, and they come to different conclusions... partially because their assumptions have already predisposed them to that conclusion.  When there are multiple possibilities for the interpretation of a text, we are naturally inclined to pick the one that coheres best with our predisposition.  Sometimes our predispositions prevent us from giving a legitimate interpretation the hearing it deserves because it doesn’t fit what we want to believe or prove.  What I’m striving to do here is admit my limited insight, express my opinion as coherently as possible, and give other points of view a listening ear.  (I’m relying on you, reader, to help me hear those!)

Enough prolegomena - next time it’s the real thing!


III said...

I like your prolegomena. :) Even if it is a bit wordy, it's good & comprehensive & important...

I felt a like you over-rated the influence of patriarchal culture on HC a little. Not a lot; just a little.

Anyway, enjoying the ride so far. Looking forward to see where it goes!

Kelli said...

Overrated? It's possible... but you've got to admit that most of human history has been patriarchal. Most cultures still are. Hard not to be shaped by hundreds of years of hierarchy, isn't it? Sometimes the ubiquity of cultural assumptions makes it even harder to recognize their influence.