13.11.09

Interpretation 'good'

"The Fall then destroyed the pristine perspicuity of Edenic immediacy, where "knowing" was not hindered by the space of interpretation. Of course, the story doesn’t end there: redemption is a restoration of this interpretive paradise (at least for these evangelical readers) by the illumination of the Spirit coupled with the perspicuity of Scripture. Hermeneutics is a curse, but it is one from which we can be redeemed in the here and now; we can return from mediation to immediacy, from distortion to "perfect clarity" and from interpretation to "pure reading."

So yesterday, I put up this quote and wondered how many of us resonate with it. I made very little comment about it but did identify that it is a paradigm with which I have found myself sympathetic. So it is refreshing to meditate on this and wonder if there might be something more intrinsically good about hermeneutics than we think.


I first became fascinated by hermeneutics, although I didn't know what it was called then, when I realised that I was approaching the scriptures very differently to people with whom I studied the Bible who were conservative evangelicals. I had far more uncertainty than they had but if I was certain about anything it was about my uncertainty. They seemed to recognise little that in their supposed 'knowing' they were actually promoting very much an unknowing about the human condition and our struggle for meaning.

With a degree in English literature in which my analysis of texts, particularly the 19th century novel, had been very much ensteeped in reader-response theory and deconstruction, involving myself in the study of God's word meant that I had to navigate pathways of truth. There was God's truth but then there was a truth that was being declared by my friends' interpretation which somehow I was being asked to swallow as unmediated truth. Yes, the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth but how 'all' is the truth and is it not compromised by our baggage? Can we attain a place of pure truth whilst we are here.

My wrestlings with the text were construed as a result of me being a product of my post-modern generation where all truth and authority is compromised. I had to discover for myself that what I was engaging in was not a liberal expression of the faith. In fact, i felt I was really rather conservative when it came to the resurrection and the virgin birth and the truthfulness of scripture but i was also conscious of meaning shifting due to genre, history and context and that whilst something is true it can also exist at a level that is not best described by the word 'truth', which in itself carries the baggage of the Enlightenment and our Aristotelian preference for all things rational. 

So last night I read about how,


We never have the "crisp, unadorned voice of God" because it is always heard and read through the lens of our finitude and situationality. Even when someone purports to deliver to us the unadorned voice of God, or "what God meant" , we always receive only someone's interpretation, which is wearing the badge of divinity. 
(Smith) 

and


Thus "a genuine biblical theology will strongly affirm that humans (Christian and non-Christian) are inevitably influenced by their own culture, tradition, experience. Until and unless the evangelical community wrestles more seriously with this fact, they will not overcome the unreflective biases that characterize the evangelical appropriation of the Bible"

So can we live knowing that in our 'unknowing', we are more legitimately being the creatures that God has called us to be. In our claim to 'know' so certainly we might be attempting to out-God God! 

It is painful when you are deemed as rebellious for not falling in with the dominant interpretation.


If being human necessarily entails our having expectations and presuppositions and if being human means being God's creatures, then why should such expectations and filters be descnbed as "distortions" that "color" our understanding? Is that not to make being human a sin? 


The dominant interpretation within the Church of England is no longer one which silences women or prevents them from exercising their leadership gifts but it has not always been that way. It is still an interpretation and possibly one which General Synod in February will make significant allowances for. There are still going to be both men and women who feel compromised and hurt by a hermeneutic which silences one half of the human race and says that they somehow can not represent Jesus in his humanity. If we could perhaps embrace the messiness of this pain so that we fight not against it but rejoice instead in humanity's creative bent, understanding that all claims to 'know' are but interpretations and rethink those which restrict and wonder if they are something else altogether.

Hermeneutics is about the messiness of being human in its diversity and splendour, something which God also declared good, for he made us each unique and he reaches us all differently but is our acceptance of a semiotic slipperyness enabling us to practice a redemptive-hermeneutic for the sake of the whole of human-kind?

2 comments:

David Ould said...

Rachel, many thanks for this. I love it when people write these personal accounts - it gives us all a better insight into each other.

A few comments about what you wrote and quoted...

With a degree in English literature in which my analysis of texts, particularly the 19th century novel, had been very much ensteeped in reader-response theory and deconstruction, involving myself in the study of God's word meant that I had to navigate pathways of truth. There was God's truth but then there was a truth that was being declared by my friends' interpretation which somehow I was being asked to swallow as unmediated truth. Yes, the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth but how 'all' is the truth and is it not compromised by our baggage? Can we attain a place of pure truth whilst we are here.

This strikes at the heart of one of the problems - we live in a culture that reads texts in a different way to our forebears. Some, in particular, have particular "training" in that way of reading - so no doubt your degree has affected the way that you read the Scriptures.

I don't think the language of "interpretation" is overly helpful for us, indeed I think the concept itself is part of the problem - it places far too much emphasis upon the reader. Rather should we not be far more concerned to speak about the author and the authorial intent? That is not to say that we do no bring our own lens to bear as we read but, ultimately, the focus is not upon US as reader but upon the author.

We never have the "crisp, unadorned voice of God" because it is always heard and read through the lens of our finitude and situationality. Even when someone purports to deliver to us the unadorned voice of God, or "what God meant" , we always receive only someone's interpretation, which is wearing the badge of divinity.
(Smith)

Smith's approach betrays, I would contend, a reduced view of the Scriptures. God's voice comes to us unadorned in the Scriptures despite their finitude or situation. Indeed, on may occassions the situation is the means of revelation. So there is no filtering going on, as though the specific events of a particular revelation somehow obscure the universal truth - rather in those specific historical events we actually have God's revelation. Much of the time it is God acting in specific situations that IS the revelation - it actually clarifies the communication from the divine author to us.

Again, it strikes me that what Smith ends up with is the focus upon the reader again. This is, I dare say, unhealthy for us - once more we are placed as arbiter of what God is actually saying.

Rachel Marszalek said...

"I don't think the language of "interpretation" is overly helpful for us, indeed I think the concept itself is part of the problem - it places far too much emphasis upon the reader. Rather should we not be far more concerned to speak about the author and the authorial intent? That is not to say that we do no bring our own lens to bear as we read but, ultimately, the focus is not upon US as reader but upon the author."

Yes but surely everything that comes out of my mouth about authorial intent is a response of the reader purporting to 'know' what the authorial intent might be.

"Smith's approach betrays, I would contend, a reduced view of the Scriptures. God's voice comes to us unadorned in the Scriptures despite their finitude or situation. Indeed, on may occassions the situation is the means of revelation. So there is no filtering going on, as though the specific events of a particular revelation somehow obscure the universal truth - rather in those specific historical events we actually have God's revelation. Much of the time it is God acting in specific situations that IS the revelation - it actually clarifies the communication from the divine author to us."

Yes and it is this that Smith promotes in his book, that there is a legitimacy to the truthfulness of this - God's communication to us in our messiness with messy results ie that God's actions to one person will mean something different for another person.

This focus on the reader which you think is unhealthy,is it not overly-influenced by the paradigm that I began the post with: that hermeneutics is a curse from which we are seeking redemption? What Smith does which is so radical is to claim that there is something creational and even prelapsarian rather than postlapsarian about this - God made us diverse and declared it good. The fall speaks into this in the sense that it is in our overly confident attempts to know that we are fallen.

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