Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part IV: On Scripture's Mountainous Geography

What was originally intended to be a brief recommendation and engagement of a column, then a separation of a handful of concisely hewn responses, has ballooned (to no one's surprise) into a series of sprawling posts, much bigger than I planned. I do that, but I constantly forget it. So we will test my ability to write anything under 2,000 words here, because at this point (1) I don't want to be repeating myself listlessly, and (2) neither do I want to write so much that the analysis loses its power.

This series is a happy engagement with David Plotz's account of his reading the entire Hebrew Bible start to finish, uninhibited by rabbi or synagogue, commentary or community. Part I addressed Israel's example of having Yahweh alone with whom to do; Part II the non-hagiographical memory of God's people; and Part III the necessity of belonging to a reading community.

In Part III I partly preempted this post by bringing Walter Brueggemann's work to bear on the conversation. I did so in the context of the subtitle ("Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy") of his magnum opus, Theology of the Old Testament, in which Brueggemann submits the image of the Canon's disparate voices speaking in different tones and cadences, out of various contexts and places, thus contributing to a polyphonic and pluralistic witness in a single collection of writings.

Elsewhere Brueggemann expands on the idea that, in essence, as a community no less present to the text than its original hearers, we must similarly enter into the arena of interpretation, choosing which text or texts define "us," which are our center or grounding vision that aid us in interpreting other more difficult texts. Here is a video of Brueggemann energetically modeling this disputation for us (watch the first five minutes or so, but know there's some language):



Halden Doerge rightly criticizes the potential for this endless cacophony of voices to lead to an anarchy of disjunctive noise drowning out the larger story of Scripture, what he calls a "hermeneutic of disintegration." That is to say, there is an identifiable narrative running through the witness of the Bible -- we needn't be imperialistic or domineering about it, but we must believe it is there if we are to believe there is any coherence to the faith (much less the God!) about which Scripture testifies.

In light of these two tensions, the following are four aspects of Scripture's witness and our reading of it that offer a way through the interpretive agnosticism in which Plotz finds himself at the end of his journey:

1. Scripture is not flat.

The statement is true for both Jews and Christians, but of course the locus around which the peaks and valleys of Scripture gather and find their value will differ. For Jews -- to the extent that I may briefly step my foot forward into a world that is not my own -- the Shema acts as one kind of locus. That is, passages like the Shema or the Decalogue or the creation story or the Exodus or God's self-revelation appropriately serve as a compass or magnet that we might hold next to other passages that sound different or less important.

For Christians, of course, the unambiguous locus is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Brueggemann declares in the video, "Jesus of Nazareth" offers an alternative narrative than those others offer, such as "I am a shit." The risen Jesus speaks a better word.

And so we do not come to every single verse of Scripture expecting an equally meaningful or important word as the good news that the crucified Jesus is risen. Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection is the lens through which we read all other Scripture; it informs and clarifies what seems discordant or out of place.

2. There are always alternative voices.

And yet! There is always a contrarian voice crying in the wilderness. And that is a difficult truth to accept for many Christians who want the Bible to serve as a single voice in constant, simple agreement with itself. Often it doesn't, but that is okay: it is the beauty of Scripture that we must wrestle with its differing tonalities and perspectives. How boring and unhumanlike would that document be, dropped down right out of heaven!

For Plotz, and for us, this means that, when we are frustrated or put off by one text, while we must allow the tension of that discomfort sit with us, we also know that other texts exist. As a texted people with texted lives, we must indeed enter into the lifelong pursuit of narrating our scripts into God's script as narrated in the life of Jesus Christ. Part of that pursuit is found in the slippery and irascible text called Bible.

(Did I just slip into Hauerwas mode? I apologize. Switch, off.)

3. Context matters.

I only want to offer another reminder that, while as receivers of these texts today as revelation and Scripture offering a word for us in the here and now, these stories were enacted, remembered, retold, written, and retained by another people in another time in another place. That fact needn't smooth out the rough edges of how Israel remembered their God, but it can be a tool to aid us in coming to stories and to a God that have the potential to seem so alien, even ugly.

4. Interpretation is a particular, and not a universal, practice.

As a consequence of context's importance, we also recognize that interpretation (and its children, doctrine and theology) is not a "once for all" activity, discovered or practiced at one point in time and then merely passed down through history untouched and unmarred by new hands of different places and hues and cultures. Rather, interpretation is particular to communities that actually live in time and space, in material bodies and in human cultures, all of which contribute mightily to how "we" receive and hear certain texts. There can be no doubt that the people of Basoga in Uganda hear the stories of Jesus casting out unclean spirits differently than my church in Atlanta. There can be no doubt that African slaves in the 19th century heard the story of the Exodus differently than their white masters.

In either example, is there a "right" interpretation? Certainly some seem closer to an understanding of the truth than others -- i.e., there is a generally identifiable "range" of viable interpretations -- yet even then we must continue simply to hear these peopled stories and strive to embody their message in our own communities. To practice such particular interpretation is, in the end, the ultimate faithful act to the text, and to the texted God.

[Photos courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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