Friday, May 08, 2009

Judging Interpretations

A friend of mine and I went to lunch recently and had a long discussion about the state of biblical studies. We are both proponents of historical criticism when it comes to interpreting the Bible. What I mean by that is that both of us understand that meaning is found in the text itself and thus one must understand the historical context into which that text was written in order to properly ascertain said meaning.

We both also admit that our presuppositions and social locations influence how we understand a text and its meaning but neither of us believe that meaning itself is found in the reader of a text. For me, one of the main reasons why I think this way is that if meaning is not found in the text itself then how can we judge a given interpretation? How would it be possible to say that one interpretation is more valid than another if the meaning resided within the reader?

To put this all more plainly: in this day and age of biblical studies in which ideological criticisms (such as feminist, African-American, gay, theological, etc) rule the day, how can one judge any of them? If meaning lies within the reader then isn't each and every reading valid?

8 comments:

patmccullough.com said...

I'm not sure I would go as far as to say that ideological criticisms "rule the day." At UCLA, I have been introduced to the world of social history in biblical studies and those scholars certainly don't seem to care much about what proponents of ideological criticism have to say about historical research. Besides this fact, Dale Martin's new book on pedagogy suggests that historical-critical studies still rules the day in biblical studies education.

But to be fair to those who advocate various ideological readings, I'm not sure they would claim any and every reading is valid. And also to be fair to them, they may argue (as Martin does) that historical-critical work has the same problem that you direct towards ideological criticism. That is, "any survey of actual historical critical studies demonstrates that different scholars come to widely different interpretations about even the historical meaning of the text. Even using the same methods of historical research, biblical scholars are able to offer widely divergent, even mutually contradictory, readings of the same text" (10, Sex and the Single Savior).

So our problem regarding the search for valid or authoritative readings of any given text is a common one, spanning across methodologies.

That said, I still live and breathe within the historical approach as my foundation, and then I ask the more "ideological" questions as a matter of hermeneutics--the next step.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

I completely agree that ideological readings are "the next step" -- what used to be called the application phase of understanding a text.

I guess what I am saying is that one can judge a reading which takes history seriously by examining how the critic handles historical evidence. However, how can one judge an ideological reading that is a-historical? Wouldn't any judgments of such readings be judgments of the reader and thus off limits?

patmccullough.com said...

Good question. I'm sure proponents would have an answer for you. On the historical work, though, we often have opposing views by stellar scholars doing their best with the historical evidence and both views seem equally plausible. Working with ancient history, we just have so little evidence to deal with. So, I still think it's important for folks like us to realize that our historical methods don't necessarily get us an ironclad answer.

Chris Spinks said...

A few things to think about:

1. The problem I see in this discussion is the understanding of meaning as some sort of object that is either uncovered by the historical critic or created by the current reader. Both of these are flat-footed notions of meaning. I think a more holistic conception of meaning would be helpful and move us beyond the historical vs. ideological interpretations, which is a dichotomy that is, quite frankly, long overdue for retirement. The notion of meaning for the Bible needs to somehow account for the complexity of a community, which moves across space and time, engaging its sacred text. Historical criticism too easily shuts out the Church with its attempts at objectivity, and ideological criticism too easily dismisses the Church as an oppressive institution. Scripture has no meaning as God's word without the Body of Christ, the Church. See also Michael Legaspi, “What Ever Happened to Historical Criticism?” Journal of Religion & Society 9 (2007).

2. Read Stephen Fowl's Engaging Scripture for a great discussion on how to judge interpretations.

3. What is the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 or 11:1–5 for a Christian if we stick to pure historical criticism? Can we read Christ in these passages if historical criticism is all we allow? A christological reading of texts like these would be "judged" as improper because they do not take the history of the text seriously.

4. Isn't a judgment of any reading a judgment of the reader? How can you get away from the reader altogether?

5. Living and breathing within the historical approach is an ideology. You can't get away from ideological criticisms either, at least in the non-technical sense of ideological. Supposing historical analysis is THE way at a text is an ideology, is it not?

6. As a point of clarification, hermeneutics is not the "next step" from historical work. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretive theory. One's hermeneutic is the interpretive philosophy with which one approaches the text in the first place.

I raise many of these points not so much to take the "other" side in the debate, but rather to challenge the way the lines have been drawn in the debate in the first place. I think historical work with the biblical texts is invaluable. I think ideological critics have much to teach me about reading texts, especially text to which I ascribe such significance. But, these approaches to reading Scripture need to be put into perspective. Historical criticism is not and cannot be THE way to THE meaning of Scripture. If that were so, then what do we say to all of those readers of Scripture before say the 17th century? And certainly no one ideological approach to Scripture will work for everyone; though, I doubt ideological critics would argue such a thing to begin with.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Chris, your points bring into the open the stereotyped nature of this discussion in general, for which I take responsibility. But some of the questions about the validity of ideological readings (including so-called "Christian" or "theological" readings) still remain. Chief among these, for me at least, is the notion of meaning. I agree that my beliefs about God, Jesus, history, myself, etc. influence how I go about understanding a text and ascertaining what it might mean. But I can mitigate these shortcoming to some degree with solid methodology and hopefully some of the rest can be dealt with as well through the community of scholarship.

But, like Pat pointed out, we can all still view the scarce historical information that we have in different ways. However, those who engage a text historically can have discussions with one another about evidence is handled and interpreted, etc since they all speak the same language and have similar epistimologies.

When engaging in dialogue with someone who explicitly desires to read the text from a particular social location, I have found that this sort of discussion is simply not possible. The reason is that whenever a reading of this sort is called into question the validity of reading a text through the lens of that reader's social location is ultimately what is being criticized. (Not to mention that dialogue is next to impossible because of the lack of common methodology, terminology, etc.)

However, whenever Baur criticized Strauss' method, Strauss may have taken it personally but it was his handling of historical data with which Baur took issue. So while it may feel personal when one's handling of historical evidence is challenged, ultimately it is simply a process of mitigating presuppositions and attempting to arrive at a place somewhere closer to the truth.

I guess what I am saying is that everything that is said about the Bible cannot valid, including some of the things that I say about it...just as it is not possible that all the things which are said about "Romeo and Juliet," the Civil War, the Watts Riots, the OJ Simpson trial, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer are valid.

Some understandings of historical events or texts (fictional or not) are simply better than others. While a person from a particular social location may have an interesting take on JFK's shooting after watching the video, at the end of the day his/her social location doesn't change the evidence. The same is true of the Bible. Where we are located socially may affect how we understand, apply, live out, etc. what we read in the Bible but not the actual historical evidence found therein.

Otherwise all of us are simply going around and around a circle of ad hominem arguments that gets us no where.

Chris Spinks said...

To respond will take up a lot of space in the comments, so, Matt, feel free to delete this altogether or put it in the body of a post, or leave it as a long comment. I think this is a conversation worth contiuing.
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"Chris, your points bring into the open the stereotyped nature of this discussion in general, for which I take responsibility. But some of the questions about the validity of ideological readings (including so-called "Christian" or "theological" readings) still remain. Chief among these, for me at least, is the notion of meaning. I agree that my beliefs about God, Jesus, history, myself, etc. influence how I go about understanding a text and ascertaining what it might mean. But I can mitigate these shortcoming to some degree with solid methodology and hopefully some of the rest can be dealt with as well through the community of scholarship."



What do you mean by “validity”?

How are theological readings invalid?

There is a tension in your response. On the one hand, the notion of meaning is chief among the questions about validity; on the other hand, beliefs influence how you go about understanding what a text might mean.

It is disturbing that you think your “beliefs about God, Jesus, history, myself, etc.” are “shortcomings” in need of mitigating. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and many others were obviously full of shortcomings.

And, how is it that methodology will guard you against yourself?

I’m also disturbed that you rely more on the “community of scholarship” than on the community of Christ to help you deal with these shortcomings.
"But, like Pat pointed out, we can all still view the scarce historical information that we have in different ways. However, those who engage a text historically can have discussions with one another about evidence is handled and interpreted, etc since they all speak the same language and have similar epistimologies."

No one is trying to keep you from having historical discussions. Indeed, such discussions are invaluable for a community’s engagement with its sacred text. But, to believe that such discussions alone will somehow yield THE meaning of the text for the believing community is as much an ideology as any other.

I’d also be willing to bet that there are a good many different epistemologies at work among historical critics. I do not think it is safe to assume similarity there. But, for sure, there is some common language, as there should be for any academic discipline. I’m not denying that. I’m simply questioning two things: 1. that the historical discussion is the only valid discussion one can have about the biblical texts; and 2. that the historical discussion is THE discussion that will yield THE meaning for the Body of Christ.
"
When engaging in dialogue with someone who explicitly desires to read the text from a particular social location, I have found that this sort of discussion is simply not possible."

Sure it is. You and your friend had just such a dialogue that prompted you to make the blog post. You both shared an assumption that historical criticism is the only valid way to read the biblical texts. That assumption and its history and foundation can be socially located."The reason is that whenever a reading of this sort is called into question the validity of reading a text through the lens of that reader's social location is ultimately what is being criticized. (Not to mention that dialogue is next to impossible because of the lack of common methodology, terminology, etc.)"

No arguments about the impasse on methodology and terminology. I agree. I just don’t think that’s such a bad thing. It would be a boring field if biblical studies had only one discussion governed by one methodology. And, I think you might be clumping all ideological readings together and building a straw man to say that all that can be done is to criticize their social locations. Many ideological criticisms have more texture and complexity than you are giving them credit for. But I will not argue that social location is not more important to these ideological perspectives. I would want to call attention to the ideology that lies behind your seemingly methodologically pure historical criticism. Terry Eagleton writes in his masterful, Literary Theory 2nd rev. ed. (1996), "It is therefore difficult to engage such critics in debate about ideological preconceptions, since th power of ideology over them is nowhere more marked that in their honest belief that their readings are 'innocent'" (173)."

However, whenever Baur criticized Strauss' method, Strauss may have taken it personally but it was his handling of historical data with which Baur took issue. So while it may feel personal when one's handling of historical evidence is challenged, ultimately it is simply a process of mitigating presuppositions and attempting to arrive at a place somewhere closer to the truth."

Again, I am not questioning the validity of historical discussions as historical discussions.

What do you mean by “closer to the truth”? Is truth somehow the sole property of the historical critic whose presuppositions have been adequately mitigated? When do we know if and when one’s presuppositions have been put at bay enough? What are the criteria?
"

I guess what I am saying is that everything that is said about the Bible cannot valid, including some of the things that I say about it...just as it is not possible that all the things which are said about "Romeo and Juliet," the Civil War, the Watts Riots, the OJ Simpson trial, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer are valid."

Still not sure what you mean by “valid”? I’m not sure what are the criteria for validity. How do you know when you’ve said something about the Bible that is invalid? (These questions should not be interpreted to mean that I believe all statements are valid. I raise them out of a genuine desire to know. I think this notion of validity may be the fly in the ointment for us.)

I’m not comfortable putting Scripture in the same category with Romeo and Juliet, the Civil War . . . Buffy the Vampire Slayer. None of these things constitute a community that holds them to be sacred texts containing the story of God with God’s people. I do not believe Christians ought to read their Scripture as they read anything else, at least not as they read it for their ongoing life in community and with their God.
"

Some understandings of historical events or texts (fictional or not) are simply better than others."

No argument here. But I still wonder what are the criteria for making these judgments. And I wonder if those sorts of judgments are the ones that are best for the life of the Body. If they are, how so?"While a person from a particular social location may have an interesting take on JFK's shooting after watching the video, at the end of the day his/her social location doesn't change the evidence. The same is true of the Bible. Where we are located socially may affect how we understand, apply, live out, etc. what we read in the Bible but not the actual historical evidence found therein."

Social location certainly makes a difference about what we take to be historical evidence and what we don’t. And so, historical critics can continue to have discussions. I don’t want them to stop. I do want them to understand what it is they are NOT doing. They are NOT discovering THE meaning. They can and do contribute to the meaning, but they should call what they are doing what it is—understanding the authors intentions, or situating the text in its social environment, or whatever. The question then becomes is what it is they are doing the (only) thing to do for the ongoing life of the Church."

Otherwise all of us are simply going around and around a circle of ad hominem arguments that gets us no where."

I think this is partially because we too often believe discussions can only happen when there is a point of disagreement to needle at, a question to answer, a problem to solve, a mystery to uncover.

Where is it you actually want to get? What's wrong with interpretations that shape, mold, discipline, challenge, etc.? Do we always have to have a "where" to get to?

Chris Spinks said...

I obviously did not format my previous comment well. I hope you can tell when I am quoting you (in quotation marks) and when I am responding (bolded text). Sorry.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Chris,

I understood your post, the formatting did not hinder that.

Here's a few responses:

By "valid" I mean that which can honestly be said about a text keeping in mind its place in space and time. I am convinced that some readings which explicitly utilize a- or non-historical lenses tell us more about the lens than they do the text.

What I am really saying is that I do not understand how reading the Bible as a Christian or in community (which I do by the way) sans historical research is any different than simply and naively affirming our beliefs or creeds. Is there room in these readings for the beliefs/creeds to be challenged? Or is the lens too important? And if a challenge comes is it from the text of the Bible or the culture in which the reader finds him/herself. The same criticism can be made about other ideological readings as well.

It seems to me, and many others like me, that many scholars today want to skip the historical step in understanding a text and jump straight to the hermeneutic question. Me saying that the historical step is important (not all important mind you but important nonetheless) is not saying that the question of what a text means in relationship to a community does not matter. What a text means to a particular community does indeed matter, but that particular community does not have a stranglehold on what a text means.

I also want to be clear that engaging in historical criticism does not guarantee that one will arrive at a text's meaning, since different historical critics using sound methodology come to different conclusions. However, simply throwing out historical criticism altogether (which I know you are not arguing for but there are many who do) or devaluing it because of this is not helpful. Without a historical understanding of a text there is no anchor, there are no parameters, there are no limits.

With regard to reading the Bible like other books, I really like what Hagner says on the topic: "We should read the Bible like any other book while keeping in mind that it is not any other book" (I've heard him say this dozens of times in different classes). I think that his quote encapsulates the position of many historical critics who also profess Christ and belong to Christian communities. The Bible contains words written be people who lived in the past to other people who lived in the past. Understanding as much as possible about the words, the people, the transmission of the text, etc is vitally important, just as it is for Dante, Mark Twain, or Joss Whedon. But a faith commitment that the Bible is the Word of God means that we believe that the Bible has a different sort of impact on us than other texts and that the continued illumination by the Spirit of God (both individually and corporately) helps us when discerning how the text can challenge, encourage, inspire, mold, discipline, etc us.

All that I am saying is that to skip or devalue the historical step seems irresponsible to me. I agree, however, that historical critics who ignore hermeneutics are equally irresponsible.