Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Context is Everything

I have 4 signs that I've made that I hang in the classroom where the residential BS101 class meets. These signs are some of my key interpretive principles when it comes to reading the Bible. I hope they become yours as well.

Context is Everything

OK, well maybe not everything, but pretty close. The following contexts are all factors in reading the biblical text.

    •historical context. This itself is complicated. There is the historical context stated by the biblical text (such as “In the days when the judges ruled...” Ruth 1:1), the historical context of when the text was written (such as Ruth may have been composed during David's reign [or not]), and the historical context of when the text was canonized (for Ruth probably the post-exilic period).
    •literary context. Verses occur in within chapters, which are within books, which are within larger collections (e.g., Torah, Former Prophets, Wisdom), which are within the canon
    •personal context. This has to do with who you are as a reader. Some of my contexts are: female, single, white, heterosexual, middle class, US citizen, Christian, United Methodist.
    •other contexts. These include various other contexts than the ones listed above including, but not limited to: later historical contexts, other religious contexts, other geographical contexts, or any context other than one's own. I would also add in here popular culture and the history of biblical interpretation.

All of these context are factors in interpretation. In other words, there is no such thing as a completely objective intepretation. The meaning of a text will be different depending upon which of these contexts one considers since different contexts raise different issues and concerns. One of the things I hope you become aware of is these various contexts and how they matter in interpretation. Just so you know, in general I think it is a good thing to read a text first in its historical context and its meaning for ancient Israel before considering its meaning for today.

Often our theological disagreements arise from the differences in our various contexts and the questions and concerns we are bringing to the text.

This also means that there's not a right reading and a wrong reading. An historical critical and a literary and a postcolonial reading of the same text might look very different, but they are all “correct” readings of the text. In summary, because context is everything, multiple meanings of the text are possible.

Interpretation Matters

This issue is related to what I left off with in “context is everything.” If multiple meanings are possible, then how do we adjudicate between competing interpretations? The traditional answer has been to declare only one type of method (such as historical criticism) or one social location (such as white, male) to be normative. But if one wants to value mutliple methods and social contexts, such an approach is itself unethical.

My approach is to consider ethical interpretation. That is, what matters is how an interpretation functions. Does it function to liberate or to oppress? Interpretations that liberate and give new life to individuals and communities should be viewed as more authoritative than interpretations that oppress or cause harm to individuals and communities – even those interpretations that correctly use a particular methodology or may have been what the author originally meant (even if we could figure out what that was).

We all know how the text can used to harm. Here are some examples from Genesis.

    •Gen 1:28—subduing the earth has been taken to mean that it is OK to use (exploit) the earth in whatever way is good for us. (Anyone seen Avatar?)
    •Gen 2-3—Those who forbid the ordination of women base that in part on their interpretation of Eve's alleged subordination to Adam (2:18, 21-24) and her alleged role in the “fall” (3:1-7, 13, 16).
    •Gen 8:21—The promise that God will never again destroy the earth by water/flood has been interpreted by some that this implies it is OK to increase nuclear weapons. God never promised that the earth would not be destroyed by "fire."
    •Gen 9:25-27—the curse of "Ham" (really Canaan) was used in the US in support of black slavery
    •Gen 10-11—The table of nations in chap. 10 and the confusion of languages at Babel in chap. 11 was interpreted by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa to show that race differences are included in the Bible and that separation is God's will and therefore apartheid is biblically based.

In other words, what we are doing is not merely an interesting intellectual exercise, nor is it solely about what it means to me. Our interpretations have real impact on the lives of real people.

However, this is complicated (see below). For example, a text that I find liberating, my neighbor might find oppressive and vice versa. This means that I also believe that interpretation is best done in community so that I know how my interpretation affects another.

It's Complicated

One the one hand, reading the Bible isn't rocket science and often the message is self evident. On the other hand, it is a mystery to me why anyone should think reading the Bible is easy or that the meaning of a text is intuitively obvious. Often when I'm asked a question about the text my answer usually is prefaced with, “Well, it's complicated.” Often the answer is complicated because of issues in the text (such as determining the meaning of a word) or there is insufficient or contradictory evidence (such as trying to determine when the exodus would have happened). Sometimes it's complicated because the world of the 21st century is so different from that of the Iron Age (especially in matters of science and knowledge of how the world and human beings work).

My next most frequent response is to questions is, “Well, it is, except when it isn't.” That is, the Bible itself is complicated and full of tensions and contradictions. I follow the wisdom of my mentor James Sanders. One of his favorite sayings is, “For every absolute you will find in the Bible, you will find it's opposite somewhere else.” For example, compare the following:       

        Ps 44:23      Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
                           Awake, do not cast us off forever!
        Ps 121:4     He who keeps Israel
                            will neither slumber nor sleep.
        Isa 43:18     Do not remember the former things,
                            or consider the things of old.
        Isa 46:9      remember the former things of old;
                          for I am God, and there is no other;

His second favorite saying is, “No controversial issue has ever been resolved by appeal to the Bible.” Think about it. Both slave holders and emancipators quoted the Bible, as did those who advocated for women's ordination and women's subordination. Which makes me think that we're not going to solve the debates about issues of homosexuality or abortion or global warming or any other issue by appeal to the Bible.

Keep in mind that one of the reasons there is such theological diversity is because “it's complicated.”

Mind the Gap

On the London Tube (underground subway) when the doors open and close this very pleasant British voice says, “Mind the gap, please,” asking you to be mindful of the space between the train and the platform. This sign is about being mindful of the spaces or gaps that are present in the biblical text. These are places in the story where the reader feels the need to supply "missing" information. A couple of examples:

        -Where did the women come from that Cain and Abel married? (Gen 4:17)
        -Why did God have regard for Abel's offering but not Cain? (Gen 4:4)
        -Who were the "sons of the gods" or the "sons of God" in Gen 6:2?

The point is that the text does not supply this information. Our inclination is to fill those gaps.  That's fine to do. But be aware that although you might want to ask the question, you will never be able to answer it by appeal to the text. Sometimes "gaps" can be filled with reasonable and intelligent speculation based upon a variety of other types of evidence, such as appeal to elsewhere in the biblical text, appeal to other Western Asian texts, or appeal to archeological evidence from antiquity. Gaps can also be filled with anything that springs forth from the human imagination. I'm not trying to forbid gap filling, but what I do want is for you to recognize when you're doing it! And when you become aware that you are "gap filling," ask yourself with what you are filling it and why.

This is a way of encouraging you to be aware of what is said and not said in the text.  The absence of something that we might feel is vital may also be a clue as to the concerns of the biblical writers. However we might be concerned with where those wives came from (and that gap has led to all sorts of speculation), it's not a concern of the Bible. And maybe we should take a hint from that.

Another main "gap" in biblical narrative is with characterization. Generally the text does not give information regarding the thoughts, feelings, or emotions of folk in the Bible. People are known by what they do, not what they feel. So we'll be wondering, what was going through Abraham's or Sarah's or Isaac's mind in Gen 22? Note that the text doesn't tell us! In terms of characters, the tendency is to fill the gap by asking ourselves what we might think or feel in such circumstances.

In summary, when it comes to gaps we can make some (un)educated guesses but ultimately we don't know. It's important to come to terms with what we know and what we don't know.

nancy_bowenNancy Bowen is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Earlham School of Religion. She has recently published a commentary on the book of Ezekiel.

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