Thursday, April 28, 2011

Finally, a hermeneutic I can get into

Thanks to Mockingbird for pointing out this wonderful article by Timothy Beal, though I have serious problems with the interpretation they give. (In particular, I've found that Mockingbird presents a pretty distorted view of reality by relentlessly filtering it through the "law" and "gospel" dichotomy. Because of this, I also think their critique of Beal falls flat.)

This article seems to have been written just for me:
For many potential Bible readers, that expectation that the Bible is univocal is paralyzing. You notice what seem to be contradictions or tensions between different voices in the text. You can't find an obvious way to reconcile them. You figure that it must be your problem. You don't know how to read it correctly, or you're missing something. If the Bible is God's perfect, infallible Word, then any misunderstanding or ambiguity must be the result of our own depravity. So you either give up or let someone holier than thou tell you "what it really says." I think that's tragic. You're letting someone else impoverish it for you, when in fact you have just brushed up against the rich polyvocality of biblical literature.

In the midst of many discussions in which I feel sandwiched between the strident claims of atheists and the overly conservative claims of evangelical Christians, it's nice to hear someone say, as Beal puts so well,
Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what's at stake, namely the Bible's credibility as God's infallible book. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the most trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.

But you can't fail at something you're not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That's a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. On the contrary, biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.

I absolutely loved the stories about "Blind Willie Johnson, a gospel singer, preacher, and pioneer of the blues," who used his music to ask the deeper questions of life, wrestling with the tension between faith and life, between gospel truth and real-world oppression. Blues, in particular, illustrates so well how tension is not something to be avoided, but savored; dissonance is as much needed as harmony. For my part, I cannot see how life would be tolerable without music. This article reminded me why I feel that way: music--that is, great music--thrusts the unanswerable upon us all the more forcefully, disturbing us to the core, all the while opening us up to true beauty, which the mind can never comprehend. It's no wonder that music and worship have always existed together.

To me what Beal really brings out effectively at the end is a powerful critique of idolatry.
The ninth-century Zen master Lin Chi is remembered for saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him"—meaning kill your attachment to the Buddha. Nurturing an attachment, even to the master of detachment, prevents spiritual growth.

Attachment to the cultural icon of the Bible is similarly debilitating. It's a false image, an idol. If you see it, kill it. The Bible is dead; long live the Bible. Not as the book of answers but as a library of questions, not as a wellspring of truth but as a pool of imagination, a place that hosts our explorations, rich in ambiguity, contradiction, and argument. A place that, in its failure to give clear answers and its refusal to be contained by any synopsis or conclusion, points beyond itself to mystery, which is at the heart of the life of faith.
This is what I've been wanting to say for a while now. Of course, I know that many will complain that we don't need just questions, but answers from the Bible. To which I would respond, with Beal, "Would we rather not be free, to think and question for ourselves?" But I'll say more: it's not a matter of what we want, but of what's actually there. And I think if we look objectively, we will not find agreement, but, as Beal says, "a cacopho­ny of voices and perspectives."

Yet there is a reason the Bible has lasted longer than you or I. For most years of my life, I have been the victim of my own rationalism, believing that I could justify everything I believed. This rationalism can only end in unbelief and worse: reason alone leads to a bottomless pit. Biblical rationalism, the belief that the Bible itself can be rationally justified, seems to be a cornerstone of evangelical Protestantism. But the Bible remains not because you or I can justify its existence. It remains because it has been permanently attached to the worship of believers, integrated into our experience of the living God. It is our music, our window into the mysterious.

I find that if I try to make the Bible something it isn't, I'm only left with doubt and despair. The more I try to listen to various interpreters shed their light on the "true meaning" of the text, the less hope I have. I can only surmise that the reason we have so many interpretations stubbornly put forward as "orthodoxy" is that it's so darn difficult to escape that desire to be the defenders of the truth. Sometimes this desire only seems to be worse with those who have listened to different points of view, as if hearing what others have to say only makes a person a more hardened culture warrior!

But at the end of the day, you can't make Moses and Joshua agree with Jesus; you can't make Ruth agree with Nehemiah; you can't make the Gospel narratives into one continuous plot; you can't make Paul agree with James; you can't make the Psalms fit into a nice systematic theology; you can't make Ecclesiastes agree with the prophets; you can't make Proverbs agree with Job (and you can't make Job agree with itself); you can't make Acts agree with Galatians; you can't get moral lessons out of Judges; you can't even make Genesis 1 agree with Genesis 2. And just for good measure, no one can really know what Revelation means. I know a lot of people out there think they can do all of these things, and let them try. Maybe there's a lot to be gained from the effort. But they're still wrong, and I think I've finally made my peace with that.

At least for now, it makes me a good deal more hopeful.


  1. What is it you mean by "agree"?

    I think you and I are closer together on this than you might think. You justly object to a view that claims the "True Meaning" of any given passage in the Bible can be discerned, one which slots neatly into a systematic theology and which is in perfect harmony (dare I say it, unison) with the message of every other passage.

    What I want to maintain is that the Bible IS diverse, that it IS possessed of a multiplicity of voices and perspectives on the same events, that there are tensions that simply can't be harmonized rationalistically - and yet, for all that, it is (all of it) the word of God, exactly as He intends for it to be, truthfully conveying all that He meant it to convey to His people, and in that way it is unified: not on our terms, but God's.

    Does that change your understanding of what view I'm out to defend?

  2. Yes, it does. I guess I'm just really jaded by all those times "God's terms" are really just people's opinions--devout people, of course, but people nevertheless. And I'm really taken aback by the attitude that if you have problems with the Bible, well, that's just the influence of our secularized culture, blah blah blah. What I want to say is that I have biblical reasons to have problems with the Bible. I just wonder if there's any room for that in your reading.

  3. I'd say Job and Qoheleth (voice of Ecclesiastes) have biblical reasons to have problems with the Bible. I just don't think you can have biblical reasons to write any part or perspective of the Bible off entirely. Is that fair?

  4. Writing off perspectives is exactly what I'm against. Consequently, while I think it's extremely presumptuous to toss the Bible out the window, I also think it's highly inadequate to demand that I never react to it with suspicion. I just hate the whole "choose a side" method of reading Scripture. Why can't I read the text as I am, a whole person with many different interests, influences, and loyalties? This simply means that occasionally I will read something and say, "I can't accept this." What ultimate harm can there really be in that?

  5. I don't think it's harmful to read something and have that response, but how do you distinguish that reaction from that of someone who does write off the Bible, or at least who considers it to be some mixture of divine and human writings, the latter of which can be dismissed if they don't live up to a certain standard?

  6. My distinction would be between the rationalist approach and the anti-rationalist approach. The rationalist will throw out the Bible if he doesn't see the justification for its existence. Or he might at least do this with parts of the Bible, to some varying degree. It's also worth mentioning that many people cling to the Bible on rationalist grounds: they're persuaded that it is the only way to make sense of the world around us.

    The anti-rationalist point of view is simply that reason is insufficient, and that our personal and intellectual commitments cannot be rationally justified a priori. I have all due respect, I think, for Scripture--it will be here when I am not. I don't think it needs to pass my critique. By embracing how little my own critique actually matters, it actually liberates me to critique it all the more. The point, then, is not that I can make better sense out of the world by rejecting certain parts of Scripture. The point is that I can't really make sense out of the world, even when I think I can.

    There's more that I would like to say, so maybe I'll write another post about it soon.


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