People of Babylon, you will be destroyed.
The people who pay you back will be happy.
They will punish you for what you did to us.
They will grab your babies
and throw them against the rocks.
~Psalm 137: 8-9, (International Children’s Bible)
there is no need to interpret, in the sense of debate the real meaning of, the vast majority of what the Bible addresses ~ Contributor to Dialogic Christianities Discussion
the Bible is NOT easy to understand correctly and doing it requires some skill and work. ~ A Different Contributor to Dialogic Christianties Discussion
A Biblical View of Babies?
I don’t know about you, but I strive to hold to a biblical view of babies– you know, the counter-cultural, conservative view that does NOT involve throwing them against rocks. But if I’m being honest, I don’t think I arrived at my perspective of babies with any help from the Bible. In fact, if anything, I arrived at it despite what the Bible says in Psalm 137. Does that mean my view of babies isn’t biblical? What do we do in moments like this, when the Bible is just not as biblical as I wish it would be?
Back when I was a high school English teacher, I would set a nasty little trap for my students. I would have them read and discuss Psalm 137– except I wouldn’t tell them that it came from the Bible. Interestingly, students (many of whom were, mind you, well-versed in the Bible) rarely guessed that this poem had anything to do with the Bible. The Koran? Maybe. Whatever kind of justice was being espoused in this poem, it didn’t sound Biblical: it sounded brutal, primitive, vengeful, and excessively angry. For one of my classes especially, I remember the icy silence when I revealed that this was in fact Psalm 137 from the Bible. I actually felt pretty icky about it afterwards, and I decided that that would be the last time I set this kind of trap for my students.
But as I think of it, the Bible sets these traps all the time. What we find in the Bible and what we mean by “biblical” are often two different things. So it makes me wonder what we mean when we say “biblical”? Do we really mean “relating to or contained in the Bible”? Or are we actually meaning something more like “moral” or “politically conservative” or “White Western European”? Maybe a more accurate word would be “churchical”.
But this isn’t to say that we don’t TRY to use Biblical as a way of referring to something “relating to or contained in the Bible”– it’s just that it’s difficult. But even when we try our best, I think when we say biblical, we are still simply referring to “something valued or important that has something to do with my community’s interpretation of the Bible.”
This is a post about the interpretation part.
5 Ways to Bible
I think all communities that revolve around the reading of Scripture ought to consider carefully the history of the debate that’s gone on in the fields of literary studies, linguistics, literacy, and the social sciences. People have raised really important questions about the process of reading, and these questions often result in new theories, which in turn have led to more questions. I think regardless of which reading theories you find yourself most comfortable with, understanding the direction the conversation has taken can only help as you, like Eugene Peterson himself, seek to affirm a biblical view of everything.
1) The No-Theory-Theory (Plain Text Approach):
Recent discussions on the Dialogic Christianities Facebook group have brought up the question of how to read the Bible. One early contributor to the dialogic Christianities discussions asserted that “there is no need to interpret, in the sense of debate the real meaning of, the vast majority of what the Bible addresses.” This is a clear example of the “Plain Text Approach”– a common assumption not only about the Bible but of any text. Reading is a straightforward transmission of information, and assuming that a person knows how to sound the words out, getting the right meaning from a text is a straightforward process.
Furthermore, the reading of a text will also induce a real, material change in your character. I used to ascribe to this view early on in my teaching. I had operated with the assumption that offering students a rich text would result in their own nourishment, providing all kinds of behavioral benefits. Reading True, Good, and Beautiful texts, I believed, cannot help but make you a better person– and what truer, better, and more beautiful text is there other than the Bible?
Limitations: The tricky element that this perspective always runs into is the long history of Bible readers who obviously did not seem to read it right. There doesn’t seem to be a straight shot from reading the Bible to having a “biblical” view of everything. The question that the last hundred years of scholarship has tried to answer is, “What happens in between the reading and the biblical worldview? Why do some Bible readers not see what I see? What exactly is happening during interpretation?”
2) The New Criticism (Formalism):
Another recent contributor to dialogic Christianities writes “the Bible is NOT easy to understand correctly and doing it requires some skill and work.” This is where the New Critics of the early 20th century started from when they argued that reading ought to be the scientific inquiry into the one objective meaning of a text. This perspective involves building up the reading tools in the tool kit so that with the right skill and implementation of those tools you will be guaranteed to excavate the one true meaning of the text, and thereby discover “a biblical view of everything”. Interpretive tools include but are not limited to a working knowledge of the original biblical languages, working knowledge of all preceding texts that the text at hand could be referring to, a working knowledge of literary devices in a given genre (the convention of, say, chiasm in Hebrew poetry, along with a host of others like allusion, synecdoche, anaphora, ansubstantiation [just kidding, not a real word]), and so on. Basically what the New Critics called for was what we English teachers call close reading.
Limitations: When I first learned the close reading techniques of New Criticism, reading looked both difficult and super exciting; it promised an all-around satisfying experience. With the right amount of effort in the right direction, I could strike gold. However, as I began to develop these literary skills (and also tried to teach them), I began to wonder if the project wasn’t merely hard, but actually impossible. Gold is harder to find than the instructions suggest. Granted, the close reading skills were always useful and helpful in a “journey-is-the-destination” kind of way, but they never seemed to result in agreement about the one true meaning of a text. There were always mutliple and conflicting interpretations that I and my students would arrive at using very solid close-reading techniques.
3) Reader Response Perspectives:
I. A. Richards, who helped begin the New Critical movement, conducted a study in his university English classes in which he gave his ivy-league students the same poems to analyze. He was surprised to find the myriad misreadings produced by his students. What he concluded was this:
“We should be better advised to acknowledge frankly that, when people put poems in our hands (point to pictures, or play us music), what we say, in nine cases out of ten, has nothing to do with the poem, but arises from politeness or spleen or some other social motive” (Richards, 1964, p. 318; retrieved from Morris, 2006, p. 164).
In other words, all readers bring their own life experiences to a text and even when they use the exact same methods, they cannot help but bring their own pasts, worldviews, assumptions, and intuitions to their interpretations. This baggage always impacts how any person reads a text.
Reader Response continues to be the most common reading perspective used by English teachers in American school settings. Perhaps that’s no surprise, but upon further research I’ve seen that there is a strong case to be made that Reader Response perspectives are also the most common approach to the Bible in your typical evangelical Bible study (Bielo, 2009), or in your average Sunday morning sermon. If you’ve ever gone around the circle and shared one thing that stuck out to you about a biblical passage, you’ve used Reader Response methods. If you’ve ever journaled about how a text spoke truth into your personal life, you’ve implemented Reader Response. If you’ve ever engaged in lectio divina, praying through the scriptures, you’ve used reader-response reading methods. Even John Piper’s advice about how to read the Bible can’t entirely escape being reader-oriented (see points 2.6 and 2.7).
Limitations: Reader Response tends to be critiqued from two different angles. I think people who tend to lean toward unreflective New Critical assumptions argue the most against Reader Response, believing that it is essentially an attack on absolutes and objective meaning; if there is no one interpretation of a text, then all truth must be relative and (I’ve heard some argue) that means that society will digress into moral chaos. These critics are mostly offended by the prospect of there being “a biblical view” among many rather than “the biblical view” which I and my people have sufficiently sorted out.
But there are other grounds on which people have critiqued Reader Response methods, primarily from post-modern multiculturalists and anti-racist advocates (see for example Lewis, 2000 or Borsheim-Black, 2015). Reader Response has been, it is argued, used in the service of dominant White communities to resist engaging seriously with any critique of their White privilege. By overly identifying with characters in texts situated in completely different cultures than my own, I am at risk of assuming too much sameness and thus missing some of the most important, critical, and disruptive messages in the text. I feel like I understand Toni Morrison’s Beloved by relating it to the time I felt ostracized on a train in Moscow. But did I really hear her message to me as a White man? One researcher calls it “reflexive affirmation” when readers’ readings of major historical events like the Holocaust always seem to conveniently position them with the good guys, never the bad guys (Schweber, 2006). It is rare for me to be able to even acknowledge harsh critique of my own positionality when employing Reader Response methods, let alone accept it and be changed by it.
If I had a dollar for every time I was warned about Deconstruction in a worldview class . . . Deconstruction is invoked by reformed evangelicals as often as and for the same purposes as the name Adolph Hitler. It is a solid, ready-made example of everything that is evil and bad (mmmk). The anxiety around deconstruction is perhaps warranted in that it has no reverence for the orthodox readings of any text. It holds that the text is made up of language, and language itself, a deconstructionist might argue,
“is unstable and ambiguous and is therefore inherently contradictory. Because authors cannot control their language, texts reveal more than their authors are aware of. For example, texts (like some institutions as the law, the churches, and the schools) are likely, when closely scrutinized, to reveal connections to society’s economic system, even though the authors may have believed they were outside the system” (Barnet, 1996; retrieved from Appleman, 2015: p. 113).
Deconstruction involves implementing an even closer reading of texts than the first 3 perspectives above. Deconstructive close readings, involve a little bit more: methodically interrogating the binary oppositions implied in texts. The word girl, for example, has no meaning without its binary opposite, boy. The word left has no function unless there is also a concept of right. When I question these seemingly “natural” binaries in a text, I often find that one “end” of the binary tends to be privileged over the other. “You throw like a girl” conveys meaning through a gender binary; and it just so happens to favor boys, at least when it comes to throwing.
Inherent in Psalm 137 above is the binary opposition implied in the reference to “Babylon”– and it is the Israelites, of course, who are on the privileged end of this binary. To deconstruct this passage would involve this thought experiment: What if I approached this passage without partiality toward the Israelite perspective? How would that change the poem? What if instead of automatically assuming that the Israelites are favored by God, we examine the poem as if they are merely another human group of people hungry for power and dominance. How does that affect our readings of their pleas to the LORD?
Limitations: Deconstruction always and perpetually calls for another side of the story. While this can result in readings of texts that have never been considered before, it also results in a type of “hermeneutical vertigo” in which it feels like all meaning has been ripped out from under you. This results in a lot of stomach aches and vomitting– just kidding, or, on second thought, sometimes it literally does.
Especially if done poorly, deconstruction has been criticized to do more harm than good. “The problem with deconstruction,” Barnet puts it, “is that too often it is reductive,”
Telling the same story about every text– that here, yet again, and again, we see how a text is incoherent and heterogeneous. There is, too, an irritating arrogance in some deconstructive criticism: ‘the autor could not see how his/her text is fundamentally unstable and self-contradictory, but I can and will issue my report’ (Barnet, 1996, p. 123; Appleman, 2015, p. 115).
While I think this problem tends more often to be a problem with the way a person chooses to deconstruct a text, the fact that this reading approach can be and is so often misused in this way is defintiely a limitation, and deserving of critique.
5) The Social Lenses:
Because this post is getting way too long (have you seen this cat GIF yet?), I’ll lump several reading lenses into one. These lenses all assume that reading is a socially determined practice. Interpretation happens in social contexts, is informed by social contexts, and it has potential to reshape social contexts. These lenses all implement the close-reading tools used by the above perspectives, except they do not stop with texts; close reading tools and the interrogation of binary oppositions also prove useful when reading a given social world.
When I say social contexts, I mean the social realities of race, gender, and class. Each of these social realities are complex enough, however, to merit their own unique reading lens. The social sciences have generated libraries and libraries of discussion about the ways these realities behave and interact with written language throughout history. But no inquiry into the social reality of a text makes much sense without beginning with certain basic principles.
- All text is ideological; all interpretations are also ideological; the ideology of an interpretation can easily be different from the ideology of the text.
- A person’s ideology often depends on how much power they and their group have/has; members of dominant groups have the ability to force their ideologies on others; members of marginalized groups struggle to have their perspectives validated.
- Colonization, exploitation, and oppression are powerful destructive forces that have serious consequences on the identities and ideologies of both the oppressor and the oppressed. These forces are always influencing the writing and reading of text.
- For many socially-minded theologians, it is a fundamental presupposition that God is always on the side of the oppressed, marginalized, abused, poor, and needy (see especially Isaiah 42:6-7). Along with this, the dominant group always misappropriates and manipulates text to protect their own privilege.
From the social lenses, we might ask, does it make a difference that the social context of the writer in Psalm 137 seems to be that they have been colonized by Babylon? What difference would it make if it turned out historically that it was the Israelites who colonized the Babylonians? How might a person’s gender impact the way they interpret this poem?
Limitations: Another term I could give to these lenses would be “The Ideological Lenses”– They are often seen by many to be agenda-driven and overly political. And many of these lenses have no response to the critique that they are ideological distortions of the Bible for political purposes (see Cone, 1997, p. 123). All I can say is that the critiques are often valid but not always.
Of course, there is much more than needs to be said, but if you want a brief overview of different reading lenses, check out Deborah Appleman’s “Literary Theory Cards”–
So, next time someone claims to have a Biblical view of anything (or everything), could we all agree to ask them what exactly they mean by that?