Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Judging Readings...

Tomorrow at Fuller Gordon Fee will be answering some questions about NT exegesis during an informal lunch session with students. He is an authority on the subject since he has been exegeting the NT for nearly his entire life and has written and/or contributed material to several books on the subject, including a book entitled, New Testament Exegesis, go figure! I was asked by one of the coordinators of the event to provide some questions prior to the luncheon so that Dr. Fee could begin thinking about the subjects. Others presented questions as well. Mine were focused on the problem of the "new methods" of biblical interpretation, specifically on the multiplicity of readings that are now considered valid (especially in reader-response and ideological criticism).

In other words, in our culture today, if you can think it up and apply it to some part of the NT, then you will be applauded for breaking the mold and being creative. But shouldn't there be a way to judge the value of these different readings? An example of what I am talking about can be found in Amy-Jill Levine's new book entitled A Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. To highlight my point, here is a quote from page 89 (of the uncorrected proof):

The same book, the same words, can take on profoundly different meanings and make profoundly different impressions. That such alternative readings exist is the result of the way all people make sense of the world they encounter. Each reader and community of readers brings to a text different presuppositions and experiences, and each will emphasize different parts of the text.

Toward the end of the chapter (page 117) that contains the above quote, which happens to be about anti-Judaism and the NT, Levine again highlights my point:

Words--inevitably--mean different things to different readers. We need to imagine how our words sound to different ears.

I find these quotes at first quite appealing, mainly because we experience this sort of thing every day. A very crude example could be the usage of the notorious n-word. The word has virtually no meaning from some mouths but elicits hatred and violence from the mouth of others. But this example, and most of the examples from our daily experience, have something in common: The speaker/writer and the hearer/reader can quickly understand one another's context and thus the intended usage of the word. In other words, Levine is right, we need to watch our words, they can and do mean different things to different people.

But when applied to an unchanging document, how valid is it to say that we each get to read it the way we want to? Further still, how fair is it to get mad at Paul for not using the sort of speech and rhetoric used in the postmodern academy? The answer to the first question is that it is not valid and the answer to the second is that it is not fair.

Though Levine and almost every other proponent of the "new methods" dismiss (no matter how they qualify it) historical inquiry (unless it highlights one of their points of course!), the test for the validity of a reading has to be the plausibility of its connection to the original text. Though the words "meaning" and "intent" are slippery, they come into play here. For instance, if someone reads Paul in an overtly unsympathetic light, accusing him of Antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia, then they should be aware that they are more than likely placing a matrix on Paul that is anachronistic. And anachronism should be the bane of all intellectual endeavor, especially in dealing with ancient documents! Simply because a text can be read a certain way (I have in mind an article on the internet that I read which viewed a gospel text from the perspective of a homosexual African-American woman) does not make that reading of any value for understanding the text itself! The reading may be helpful in understanding how it is heard by a particular person or sub-group, but it in no way gets us any closer to understanding what it is that a NT text is getting at or intending.

Thus, the only way to see the validity of a reading that seeks to explain a NT text is by the careful and tedious work of historical analysis. I am aware that a historian, no matter how adept, is not capable of total objectivity. We all come to the text with presuppositions. But if we are aware of these and make them known from the start, then we can keep them in check and have others make sure that we do the same. This is how a community of interpreters should work. All interpreting and all guiding and correcting one another. So if someone claims that, as a Jewish feminist NT scholar, Paul it is anti-Judaic when he describes Jesus as the end or fulfillment of the law, we can examine the texts at hand and uncover some of Paul's situation, which can and should shed much light on the issue.

The basic disagreement between the "old methods" and the "new methods" is the location of meaning. Is it in the words themselves or is it in the hearing of the words or is it in the interaction of the words on the hearer or is it simply non-existent? I would argue that words have meaning, as long as we understand the context in which they are spoken/written. For instance, the following question would have been nonsensical prior to 1972: Who is Deep Throat? One might have been able to determine what each of the words meant on their own, but as to their relationship to each other, that would have likely been a mystery. After the Watergate scandal hit all the papers and news broadcasts in the U.S. and around the world, the question began to be understandable. Therefore, meaning is dependent not only on the words themselves, but their relationship to one another and the context in which they were composed.

The problem, of course, with the NT is that we are separated from the composition of the documents by more than nineteen hundred years. In other words, the contexts for the words found in the NT are often hard to determine. This does not mean, however, that the historical endeavor should be disregarded (as is so often asserted by the proponents of the "new methods") but that much work and creative energy needs to be poured into the process.

Working at this historical task together, we can begin to understand more and more about the texts of the NT and we can begin to judge with some confidence the validity of the multiple readings which are lauded today.

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