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 Incarnational Paradox of the Bible

How does God’s word relate to human words? How does God speak in the Bible?

I am currently teaching two sections of a freshman course, New Testament History and Religion. On Wednesday we covered the portions of Luke’s gospel that deal with wealth and contrasted them with what 1 Timothy 6 says about wealth. Luke’s gospel has an uncompromising stance against the wealthy, while 1 Timothy 6 allows for wealthy Christians but urges them to be generous.

One thing I have noticed in teaching the Bible to undergraduates: there is a twofold challenge:

1. The first is getting students to acknowledge and appreciate the contextual nature of the biblical writings. Students easily see this when it comes to passages such as 1 Cor. 11 (where Paul commands Christian women to wear the veil when the pray) or 1 Timothy 2 (which forbids braided hair for women). But they struggle with the thesis that every passage in the Bible is rooted in its cultural-political context–that the biblical writers were not immune to influences from the culture in which they dwelled.

2. The other struggle is this: once students acknowledge the contextual nature of the Bible, there is a temptation, which is constantly reinforced by the general tendency of modern culture, to regard the Bible as irrelevant for us today because of its contextual nature. The reasoning goes: if what the New Testament says about veils and braids is rooted in its ancient culture, then who knows what else is irrelevant to us today? As a result, it becomes easy for students to ignore Luke’s gospels’ words about wealth precisely because they’ve grasped the contextual nature of these texts.

3. This twofold results from the central paradox of the Bible, which is also the paradox of the incarnation: how does the divine relate to the human? Jesus is not simply God appearing in the world. Jesus is God appearing in the world as a human being. By analogy, the Bible is not simply the Word of God spoken in human history. Just as the humanity of Christ is not merely a vehicle for the appearance of the divinity, so the Bible’s humanity is more than a vehicle for the Word of God. It is the Word of God spoken in and through the human words. As Jesus Christ is the inseparable union of divine nature and human nature, so in the Bible we find the Word of God only in its union with human words. The presence of the Word of God in the Bible does not nullify the humanity of the human words.

4. There is, in other words, no Word of God that floats above culturally conditioned human words. We hear the Word of God only by listening to the human words of the Bible. The Bible is culturally relative. And not just parts of it, but the totality. Whether it is Paul’s words about wearing the veil and not braiding the hair, or Jesus’s words about discipleship, the Bible’s words are immersed in the ancient world.

5. But this immersion does not prevent us from hearing the Word of God, anymore than Jesus’ being a first century Galilean prevents us from seeing him as the son of God. In the case of Jesus, it requires us to see that Jesus’ being is not a zero-sum game, in which the more divinity he possesses the less humanity he possesses. On the contrary, in Jesus the divine and the human do not compete. By analogy, we should not see the Word of God and the human word as competing, as though the more divine the Bible is the less human it is. On the contrary, God’s being embraces human being; God’s word embraces the human word.

6. This Christological meditation on the Bible does not solve concrete questions, such as, “What does Luke’s gospel say to us today about wealth?” But it does mean that this gospel can speak the Word of God while being a culturally conditioned human word.

The Unsettling Encounter with the Word of God

This semester I am teaching a course, BIB 101 Old Testament History and Religion. Today I introduced a unit on the prophets. At the same time, students have a weekly assignment to read the book of Amos and write about what they’ve learned.

Today, while talking about the prophets, a student asked whether the prophets’ words were God’s words. It’s a perfect question to ask. Unfortunately, it’s not the right time in the course to give a good response–I want students to do more reading of the biblical text before we get to that student’s question. So, I gave a few vague, preliminary words, indicating that we would address this issue more fully in a few weeks.

So, what is the relation of God’s word to prophets’ words? What is the word of God? As I’ve been saying in these posts, the word of God is not information–it is not intellectual content. The truth is, we don’t need God to reveal truths such as are found in the Bible. The truths of the book of Proverbs, profound as they are (“Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people [Prov. 28:15]), do not require divine revelation. They are truths that everyone knows. Not even the prophets’ words–their denunciation of inequity and lack of justice and faithlessness to God–need divine revelation. Many in ancient Israel must have felt what the prophets declared. We thus don’t need God to give us information or even insight. The prophets could discern evil and denounce it without a special divine gift of information.

It is better to say that the word of God is God’s use of human words to effect God’s purpose. The word of God is an event in which we encounter God. As we hear or read the prophets’ words, which are genuinely their words, God confronts us with words of judgment and grace.

For instance, take the man (in Luke’s gospel, chapter 9) who wanted to follow Jesus, but who first wanted to bury his dead father. Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead. In this confrontation with Jesus and his strange words, the word of God happened: this man and those who read and hear this story are confronted with the demand of the kingdom of God, a demand that differs from and takes precedence over the demands of conventional morality. In this confrontation, they are judged but also receive grace. It is similar with the ruler (Luke 18) who obeyed all of God’s commands, but is taken aback when Jesus tells him to give away all of his money. Jesus is here not presenting an addition to the law or commanding a new law. Like Paul (Philippians 3), the ruler was blameless according to the demands of the law. Jesus was not about increasing the burden of the law. Instead, in Jesus’ words the ruler experienced the challenging encounter with God. He was judged (he was the inadequacy of obeying the law) but also received grace (he was invited to follow Jesus). The word of God is the encounter, the disturbing confrontation with God that unsettles our conventions and assumptions about what it means to follow God.

It is important to emphasize the existential meaning of the word of God because doing so defines human beings as beings who are addressed by God. There are many ways of defining humans–biologically, psychologically, sociologically, and so on. But theologically considered, we are hearers–or potential hearers–of the word of God. Thus in Job 38, God confronts Job: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (38:3). In the world of the Bible, humans are responsible to God–we are called upon to respond to God’s address. Sometimes God commands; sometimes God questions. To be human is to receive the divine command or question and to respond.
This is why it is important not to equate the word of God with communications of information. The speech of God is not the imparting of information or truths of which we are ignorant. To think in this way is to reduce God to the status of divine encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are good, but they cannot judge and offer grace.  They cannot save.

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.

Psalm 137 and Infanticide

In my last two or three journal posts, I wrote about biblical narratives that seem to be about one thing but are in fact about something else–narratives in which the meaning that lies on the surface of the texts differs from the original purpose of the text.

The genocide passages in Joshua, for instance, seem to describe historical events in 1200s or 1300s B.C. But the purpose of these passages is not to transmit knowledge of historical events. It is instead to urge post-exilic Israel (in the 300s and 400s B.C.) to maintain separation from its pagan neighbors. So, we have to distinguish the literal meaning of the text (what the words of the text say–in this case, the story that they narrate) from the purpose of the text.

Likewise, the Gospel of John’s sweeping declarations that the Jews sought to kill Jesus seems, on the surface, to portray historical facts in the ministry of Jesus (in the 30s A.D.) , but in fact its purpose is to encourage Jewish followers of Jesus in the final decades of the first century A.D. to be public in their faith, even if it meant having to leave the synagogue. Once again, there is a difference between the text’s literal, seemingly historical meaning (its statements about “the Jews”) and its purpose, which is not to narrate historical events but to encourage Jewish Christians several centuries after the death of Jesus.

In passages such as these, the Christian community is interested in the purpose of texts, not in the events that they seem to describe. Our focus has to be on the purpose, because the narrated events did not happen, at least as narrated. While the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem were hostile to Jesus, many Jews supported Jesus. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Israel ever destroyed the Canaanite population prior to occupying the land. The book of Judges is adamant that such destruction did not take place.

In today’s journal post I want to talk about a different sort of biblical text whose literal-historical meaning is not the meaning that God intends for us. Take, for example, Psalm 137.

This psalm is written in the Babylonian exile (500s B.C.) and expresses the feelings of anger and pain that Jews in the exile felt. You will not hear many sermons preached from this psalm, for it ends on a shocking note:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (verses 8-9 [NRSV])

Like John’s characterization of “the Jews,” Ps. 137 is problematic, but for a different reason. Unlike Joshua or John’s gospel, there is in Ps. 137 no distinction between literal meaning and purpose. The purpose is to express feelings of anger and pain and the words of the psalm do just that. The problem of this psalm lies in its blessing upon those who would smash the heads of Babylonian infants.

In what sense is Ps. 137 the word of God? Most Christians will be uncomfortable thinking that these words express God’s sentiments–that God was using the psalmist as a mouthpiece to utter God’s own wishes. But it is just a difficult to call these words God’s word because God inspired them and caused them to be written. Jews in exile in Babylon did not need divine inspiration in order to feel and express pain and anger.

What, then, does it mean to say that Ps. 137 is God’s word? How can these human, all too human words of anger and hatred be the word of God?

We can get some perspective on this matter if we focus, not on this psalm, but on the themes of this psalm in the context of the entire Bible. The desire for revenge and expressions of malice are common in the Bible, as are hopes, fears, and joy. In passages such as Ps. 137, we do not hear God in any direct way. Instead, we are hearing a Jew of the exile cry out to God from a situation of pain and injustice. In this psalm God is silent; humans speak.

But in fact God is speaking in silence, for the Bible is a dialog between God and God’s people. Sometimes people express thanks for God; at other times, they express anger and frustration. Sometimes God responds; sometimes God does not respond. Sometimes God speaks directly; at other times God is silent.

In Ps. 137 God does not speak. God listens to the exiled Jews pouring out their pain and anger. Their feelings fall short of the love of enemy of which Matthew’s gospel speaks. But God does not interrupt or correct. God listens.

Ps. 137 is the word of God because it is an integral part of the Bible, in which God speaks, but also listens. God’s word, in other words, is dialogical. God’s word is not pure address. It is God speaking and God listening, for in listening, God draws human speech into God’s own word. The human words become a part of God’s word.

We don’t have to pretend, then, that Ps. 137 expresses God’s sentiments or wishes–that God blesses those who smash the heads of Babylonian infants against the rocks. We only have to acknowledge that the word of God is God’s address that also includes humankind’s response to the divine address.

Just as in the incarnation of the eternal word, so in the Bible the divine embraces the human.

The Word of God and Spirit

I want to begin where I ended my last journal entry and ask, Why is it important to affirm that the Word of God, i. e., revelation, is something other than information?

It is important to do so because information is inert; it cannot save us. It is true that we can make use of information for our good. If I am on a diet and learn that a piece of bread contains 100 calories, I may be deterred from eating it. If I am told that investing in a certain way will increase my wealth, I can use that information. But information, in itself, does nothing. It is simply available for use.

Contrast this with the Bible’s affirmations about the Word of God. It is living and active; it works; it accomplishes God’s purpose. Information is not living and active; it does no work; alone, it accomplishes nothing. It thus cannot save us.

The living and active quality of the Word of God explains why the Bible associates the Word with Spirit. Consider these texts:

  • John 6:63: It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
  • Psalm 33:6: By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath [literally Spirit or spirit, ruach] of his mouth.

Consider also how Word and Spirit are coordinated in Genesis 1: God speaks the creative word; the Spirit of God rushes over the void.

The coordination of Word and Spirit explains as well the Gospel of John’s teaching that, after Jesus (who is the Word of God) returns to heaven, the Spirit will continue the ministry of the Word: the Spirit will teach the disciples everything, reminding them of what Jesus has said (John 14:26) and will guide the disciples into the truth (John 16:13).

These texts tell us that the Word of God is spirit-ual; filled with the Spirit of God. Because the Spirit is creative, the Word is creative. That is what it means to say that the Word is living and active. Information may be interesting, useful, and important, but it cannot be filled with God’s Spirit. It cannot save us.

It is important to deny that the Word of God is information for another reason, one that bears on the way in which we read and interpret the Bible. For too long, Christians have treated the Bible as though it were a big encyclopedia of true statements–as though God wanted us to know some facts and caused the biblical writers to write those facts for our benefit. The result of this approach has been crazy and unsustainable interpretations of the Bible’s creation stories, as well as astonishingly stupid interpretations of the Bible’s eschatology. It all comes from treating the Bible as a huge store of facts, instead of approaching it as the principal way in which the living and active Word of God comes to us with creative and saving power.

So, we honor the Word of God when we receive its saving, transforming power–when we hear its message of judgment and deliverance. We do not honor it by ascribing to it the sort of petty truth that facts possess.

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.