The Reader’s Culture (part 2)

August 15, 2016

Here are some thoughts about biblical interpretation as I try to get clear about the reader’s role in the phenomenon of meaning.

The chapter that I am currently working on is about the way in which we create meaning as we read the Bible.  This is because the Bible (like any text) is, at the most basic level, marks on a page.  Readers interpret those marks as words bearing meaning.  But the act of gathering the meaning is not simply a matter of decoding signals, as an old model of communication suggested.

Communication_process

This model suggests a machine-like simplicity in the act of communication.  One brain encodes information in linguistic signs and expresses those signs in some form (speech, written words).  Another brain then perceives the signs and decodes them, extracting the meaning.

Interpretation is in fact a much more creative process, especially if interpretation is trying Billie_Burke_and_Judy_Garland_The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939)to get at something besides the semantic content of a text.  Think about interpretations of The Wizard of Oz.  Some have seen it (especially the book) as an allegory about the political movement, Populism.  In this view, the story is about the struggle of farmers (e.g., the scarecrow) against industrialists (the Wicked Witch).    The city of Oz represents Washington, D.C.  Dorothy’ journey there symbolizes the ultimately futile hope of farmers for help from government.

A different line of interpretation see the Wizard of Oz (especially the film) in psychoanalytic terms.  Dorothy represents the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  In a Jungian interpretation, the various characters in the film symbolize the various parts of Dorothy’s psyche that she must integrate into order to achieve full individuation.  The scarecrow represents rationality, the tin man emotions, Glinda (the good witch) Dorothy’s ideal self, and so on.

These sorts of interpretations are not really about discerning the meaning of events within the film (e.g., how Dorothy proposes to deal with Miss Gulch after she wakes up from her dream).  They are instead interested in grasping what I will call the film’s existential meaning–its message for the viewer.

The idea of existential meaning is that something can say more than what it seems to mean.  There is, for instance, the example of rhetorical questions.  When I was in high school, we thought it was hilariously funny to respond to questions having obvious answers with the rhetorical question, “Is the pope a Catholic?”  Rhetorical questions show us that the meaning of a sentence goes far beyond its grammatical form and semantic content.

The interpretations of The Wizard of Oz discussed above all assume that it communicates at two (perhaps more) levels: At the level of narrative, it is the simple story of an adventure, a journey.  As such, it is primarily an act of entertainment; it has no message for the audience, except perhaps homely bits of advice like “endure hardship” and “persevere in troubles.”

But at another level, The Wizard of Oz perhaps does contain a message or messages that bear on the audience’s existential situation.  Perhaps the book really was a satire about Populism cast in the form of a children’s story.  Perhaps it really does reflect the dynamics of the psyche, comparable to the way in which the original Star Wars films (episodes 4-6) reflect oedipal dynamics (the Luke Skywalker and his father theme).

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader

Asking about the existential meaning of a film or text involves the viewer’s or reader’s situation.  We can ask political or psychoanalytic questions about The Wizard of Oz because of our cultural situation.  In our situation, those sorts of questions make sense. The text/film makes sense to us in those terms.  It is, in a word, meaningful.

This means that reading a text or seeing a film is more than just receiving information. We do receive information from the text or film, but we do so according to our cultural situation.  Our understanding of what the film/text is about is a process in which elements from the film/text are joined together by means of resources available in our culture.  Put differently, we inevitably understand things according to our situation.  Being embedded in our culture (really, cultures), we necessarily find the existential meaning of a film/text in its capacity to speak to us in our situation.

Here’s the point: The act of reading the Bible for its existential meaning (i.e., reading the Bible as the word of God) necessarily involves hearing it speak to us in our situation.  Historical study of the Bible helps us to a limited extent get out of our cultural situation and enter into the thought-world of ancient people.  This is necessary and important in order to appreciate the historical particularity of the Bible and to avoid manifestly bad interpretations.

But historical study cannot in itself yield the existential meaning of the Bible.  For this sort of meaning, we have to engage the biblical text, not in the somewhat artificial guise of the historian, but as beings rooted in a particular, contemporary culture.  Without this approach the Bible remains a historical artifact, like ancient coins and pottery.

Obviously, there is much more to be said on this subject.

The Reader’s Culture

August 8, 2016

I’m working on a chapter that deals with the role of the reader in interpreting the Bible.  In contemporary theory, the meaning of a text is not simply in the words, but in the ways in which readers construe those words.  The words bear a potential meaning, but the meaning is not actualized until the text is read and understood.
Sound wave

It’s like sound: molecules vibrating in the air are potentially sound, but they are not actually sound until they strike an ear that transmits signals to the brain.

 

Music score

Or, like music: a composition (notes on a page) is potentially music, but it becomes actual music in performance.

 

And just as musical performance and hearing involve interpretation (e.g., selective attention and judgment), so reading a text like the Bible always involves interpretation.  The reader constructs the meaning of the text by focusing on certain parts of it.

Theologically considered, we can say that revelation is not revelation until it is received.

However, it’s not just that the reader completes the process of meaning.  The larger point is that the reader’s situation (his or her gender, culture, political context, and so on) is a factor.  Who we are determines, at least in part, how we understand.

There is scientific evidence to support this notion.  Reading a facial expression is like Eduard_von_Grützner_Falstaffreading a text–there are physical signs that must be interpreted. It turns out that gender is a factor in interpreting facial expressions:

Women assessed smiling individuals as more honest than men did. . . .  Social judgements may be affected by gender-based expectations. Women are expected to be more communal and expressive than men as well as more sensitive to emotional expressions of others. Smiling increased women’s perception of communal trait honesty of others (See reference 1 below).

Our cultural situation even affects basic acts of perception. In one scientific study, test subjects

report[ed] what they saw in underwater scenes. Americans emphasized focal objects, that is, large,  brightly colored, rapidly moving objects. Japanese reported 60%  more information about the background (e.g., rocks, color of  water, small nonmoving objects) than did Americans.

fish-908862_960_720The researchers concluded that “compared  with Americans, the Japanese encoded the scenes more holistically, binding information about the objects with the backgrounds.”  In another experiment, it was discovered that “Americans to spend more time looking at the focal objects and less time looking at the context than the Chinese participants” (Reference 2).

In other words, cultural factors determine what we see–what the mind/brain picks out as significant.

Our cultural situation also conditions how we feel our own bodily states.  Asians, as noted, generally experience things in connection with surrounding objects to a greater extent than do Americans and Europeans.  In several experiments, researchers tested subjects’ abilities to perceive their heartbeat.  The experiments found “cross-cultural differences in heartbeat detection ability, with Asians demonstrating less accuracy than European Americans.”  The reason for the difference is “the greater amount of attention they [Asians] pay to context. The contextual dependency that makes Asians more sensitive to situational-environmental cues also rendered them less able to focus and accurately perceive their own internal bodily states” (Reference 3).

Human beings who read the Bible and who receive God’s revelation are enmeshed in the particularities of their cultures.  This inevitably affects how they read and understand the Bible.  We who inhabit technological, scientific cultures tend to read the Bible in ways that make sense to us, but it is good to remember that people in other cultures have their own ways of understanding the Bible.

 

  1. Krys, Kuba, et al. “It is better to smile to women: Gender modifies perception of honesty of smiling individuals across cultures,” International Journal Of Psychology 50, no. 2 (March 2015): 153.
  2. Hannah Faye Chua, Julie E. Boland and Richard E. Nisbett, “Cultural Variation in Eye Movements during Scene Perception,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102, No. 35 (Aug. 30, 2005), pp. 12629-12633.
  3. Ma-Kellams, Christine, Jim Blascovich, and Cade McCall. “Culture and the Body: East-West Differences in Visceral Perception,” Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology 102, no. 4 (April 2012): 718-728

Theology, Politics, and Rhetoric

July 7, 2016

So, I’m writing a book on how to read and understand the Bible.  The book is for undergraduates, not for theological professionals, so rhetoric becomes an important consideration–how to find the right way of saying things so that communication actually occurs.

Communication in theological  subjects is a challenge for several reasons.  The nature of the subject matter is one, but another is that often the teacher or writer inhabits a different culture from the learner or reader.  This difference of culture assumes a sinister character in today’s political climate.

There is an excellent editorial by David Brooks (“Revolt of the Masses,” June 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/opinion/revolt-of-the-masses.html?_r=0) in which he describes the two cultures that are driving this year’s presidential campaign and why neither understands the other.

The articles focuses on what he calls the “working-class honor code” and makes several incisive observations (relying, in part, on the research of other people).  My attention was caught by one comment in particular: The working-class honor code “has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes.”

Red state blue state

Map of the Christian Church in the United States

The red state-blue state cultural bifurcation that afflicts American politics today is mirrored in the Christian church.  I doubt that my church has many “cosmopolitan cultural elites,” but there is a cultural divide; it is to some extent generational and to some extent educational.

Under these circumstances, theology is no longer simply an intellectual  task.  Instead it becomes a political matter of negotiating the differences among various cultures.  It’s not unlike the task facing a presidential candidate, who has to find a message, or a way of presenting a message, that the various factions within his or her party can be happy with.

For instance, several years ago I was writing a textbook of theology.  The section on sanctification required two thorough rewrites, demanded by the various layers of ecclesiastical editors.  The rewrites were required because I had to find a way of stating the idea of sanctification that would not offend or irritate the most conservative readers.  Rewrites were necessary to find the right rhetorical tone for a potentially wide audience of varying theological cultures, including the culture whose members are acutely sensitive to departures from the hallowed tradition.

This means that ecclesiastical leaders have a nearly impossible task.  My church, like most others, contains at least two distinct cultures, one socially conservative and the other not.  The leaders of my church have the unenviable job of keeping this mixed multitude together on one ecclesiastical ark (I resist the temptation to use here the image of clean and unclean animals on the ark) and of articulating our theological heritage in a way that allows the multitude to inhabit the ark with some degree of harmony and shared vision.  (Not that our leaders do this very well.  From my location at the far edge of the denomination, they seem to excel mostly at traveling and administration.  They and their bureaucratic acolytes appear to have nothing in their theological toolbox except hackneyed platitudes satisfying an increasingly small number of zealots.)

Unfortunately, the need to preserve unity and avoid conflict results in a culture of pervasive fear and in risk-averse conduct.  A similar situation obtained in ante-bellum America, when the debate over slavery was so acrimonious that it threatened to split churches.  As a result, many churches for several decades tolerated slave-owning members, believing schism to be a worse fate than tolerating slavery.

In a context of political anger such as we experience today, when fury has become a Christian virtue, church leaders will understandably be reluctant to expose themselves to the vitriol of the aggrieved culture and to run the risk of schism.

So what is a theologian to do when the church is populated by differing tribes, differing cultures?  What is the theological task in a situation in which segments of the church react with near hysteria to changes in the social and intellectual landscape?  It’s not necessary to adduce gay marriage as an example–portions of the Christian community are still fighting over the theory of evolution and the ordination of women, and I’m confident that somewhere in the church there are lingering doubts about the civil rights movement.

I’m tempted to regard this situation as generational and to hope that time will reduce the conflict between the cultures.  My undergraduate students mostly come from conservative, non-denominational churches.  Nonetheless, on social issues such as homosexuality they hold views that are far different from and less militant than the way in which Evangelical thought is commonly portrayed–a portrait of  representatives of conservative churches who are usually typically pretty old.  Even students who oppose homosexual marriage exhibit a rhetoric that is considerably milder than the alarmist speech characteristic of Evangelicalism’s spokespersons.

A stubborn sense of realism, however, intrudes into my hopes and forces me to acknowledge that the difference between cultures is not simply generational.  It is in fact deeply ideological.  The Christian community in America today simply possesses contrary views about the church’s relation to culture and nation.

In this situation, where theology inevitably acquires a political dimension, rhetoric becomes important.  It becomes, in other words, important to attend to means of persuasion.  Theological scholars and intellectuals have only words, but words can persuade.  The task is to find the right words and to place them in the right order.  Behind this task lies the whistling-in-the-dark confidence that there are Christians in every political culture who can be persuaded.  Whether this confidence is warranted is a matter of debate, but Christianity is, after all, a religion of hope.

Veiling women and the word of God

Arab woman with veil

Arab woman with veil

Last week I raised the question of progressive revelation within the Bible. I noted that Christians generally acknowledge that the New Testament reveals God in a fuller way than does the Old Testament. (This statement obviously requires qualification. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that parts of the OT reveal Christ while parts of the NT do not, at least directly. So, the relation of the NT to the OT is complicated.)

I also argued that even within the NT we should distinguish among passages. Some reveal God and God’s will more fully than do others. As a practical consideration, this means that, if we ask whether women can and should be ordained into the church’s ministry, we take Galatians 3:28 (In Christ there is neither male nor female) as our rule instead of passages such as 1 Timothy 2 (I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority or a man [or, her husband]).

This argument suggests that some NT passages are problematic. The Christian community has no problem admitting that there are parts of the OT that represent problems–I’ve mentioned Ps. 137, for example, with its approval of those who would kill Babylonian infants. But are there NT texts that are similarly problematic?

This is a hard question. Because the Christian church believes that the NT represents (or at least bears witness to) the ultimate revelation of God, it is very difficult for us to admit that it contains unworthy or problematic ideas.

However, if we are honest, we will admit that there are NT passages that are embarrassing. Take, for instance, Paul’s insistence (in 1 Cor. 11) that women must wear a veil when they pray and prophesy publicly, along with the curious notion that, while males are the image of God, females are the image of males. Although Paul’s words made perfect sense and had an important pastoral function in first century Greco-Roman-Jewish culture, I think it would be a mistake today for us to insist that Christian women wear a veil when they pray or prophesy in public. Likewise, the idea that males are the image of God, while females somehow are images of males strikes us today as very odd.

Faced with these sorts of texts, we might be tempted to fall back on the belief that the New Testament is the words of God, and that if 1 Cor. 11 is out of step with modern sensibilities, then too bad for those sensibilities–we must obey God even if it means rejecting contemporary culture.

It is true that being faithful to our Christian calling will sometimes require us to reject some aspect of our culture. Part of the church’s task is to identify those features of contemporary culture that are destructive and to bring speak prophetically against them.

But can we really say that wearing the veil represents God’s everlasting will, so that Christians today, in our culture, must resist any attempt to remove the veil?

Most Christians never face this issue because, let’s be honest, few Christians read the Bible and it would be the unusual pastor who chose to preach from 1 Cor. 11. Even Christians who do read the Bible find it easy to miss Paul’s words about veiling. 1 Cor. 11 is a scriptural back alley known to few, most Christians keeping to the well-known parts of the Bible such as Proverbs and Psalms.

Nonetheless, Paul’s words about veiling are indeed in the New Testament and we are obliged to come to terms with it. What is problematic is not just the insistence on veiling, but also and most important the fact that it is set within an odd, hierarchical framework: Women must wear the veil because they are the image of males.

This is one of those places where the intelligent Christian should just acknowledge that here, as occasionally elsewhere in the NT, the author’s cultural horizon has managed to appear in the text. It’s like Deuteronomy’s stipulation that females captured in battle must be allowed one month to mourn their parents before an Israelite is allowed to marry them. This law betrays all sorts of cultural presuppositions that are questionable. We would surely not want to simply adopt it as God’s will just because it is in the Bible. In the same way, Paul’s words about veiling represent a cultural legacy that Paul shared. This legacy is foreign to our culture. More important, there is no reason to identify it with God’s will. It is a particular way in which God’s people, in the past, worked out their understanding of God’s will. We can honor their efforts without identifying their understanding of God’s will with God’s will itself.

Of course, once we acknowledge that the Bible, and even the NT, contains culturally relative ideas and practices, we invite the criticism that we have thereby stripped the Bible of all authority. How can the Bible be the word of God if it is or contains culturally-bound human thoughts.

The problem with the question is that is assumes that the word of God must be culturally-neutral–that it any statement, belief, or practice that reflects human culture cannot be or contain the word of God. If we begin with a different of God’s word, however–if we begin with the assumption that God’s word is always joined to and expressed in culturally-relative human words, then both the Bible and the relation of the Bible to the word of God look very different.

Revelation, Information, and Action

For more than a hundred years, Christians in America have debated the nature of scripture. Terms such as “Evangelical,” “Fundamentalist,” and “Liberal” get thrown around, marking various stances. Two years ago my church, the Church of the Nazarene, felt compelled to issue a statement on the nature of the Bible.

I’m very happy that my church does not share the Fundamentalists’ view of the Bible; however, official statements go only so far. We all have built-in assumption that may get in the way of our understanding the Bible. Some of those assumptions relate to the idea of the word of God.

The Christian tradition identifies the Bible as the word of God. This is the ground of the Bible’s authority. It is not “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16 [all biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version]) or a “human word” (1 Thessalonians 2:13), but God’s declaration.

So, if we are to understand the concept of scripture, we have to answer the question, What is the word of God?

In our culture, we usually use words to convey information; the transfer of information is a critical matter. That is why universities have academic departments of communication. The president of the United States has a press secretary to manage the flow of information. Most tellingly, we have “information technology.” This shows us that information is so important in our culture that we have made it the object of technical expertise.

We are thus tempted to identify the word of God with the communication of information. In other words, we easily assume that the Bible reveals facts that God wants us to know–that God has lodged information in the Bible and told us to locate that information by reading, just as a journalist may publish an article because he or she wants the public to know some important information.

However, when we identify the word of God with the communication of information, we are projecting a modern understanding of “word” onto the Bible. It is very easy and natural for us to engage in this sort of projection. For example, in my experience of teaching, I have seen how difficult it is for us, who live in a culture that celebrates individuality, to see that people in biblical times lived in collectivist societies–the primary reality was the group; individuals had existence and meaning only because they belonged to a group. Faced with this collectivist culture, so different from ours, we normally just project onto the Bible our individualistic understanding of church and salvation.

So, it is not surprising that, when we hear the phrase “word of God,” we immediately assume that God’s word performs exactly the same function that words perform in our culture.

But what did “word of God” mean for the biblical writers?

Here are some biblical texts that speak about the word of God:

Isaiah 55:10-11
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Hebrews 4:12: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The first chapter of Genesis

1 Thessalonians 2:13 “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”

These texts declare that the word of God is another name for God’s acting: God creates by speaking; God’s word is at work in believers; it accomplishes God’s purpose; it is living and active, dividing and judging. In these texts the word of God is not about communicating information. It is instead the expression and means of God’s creative power. That is why the ultimate manifestation of the word is Jesus Christ, the word become flesh.

The lesson for us is that, when we affirm that the Bible is the word of God, we are affirming that the Bible is an instrument of God’s creative and saving power. It really isn’t an encyclopedia of facts that God has revealed.