Second in a series started on my old blog to be finished here.
Texts do different things. And because they do different things, they have different characteristics. The stop sign around the corner from my house only works if it is not open to interpretation.It always comes in the same shape, size, font and color. We don’t want anything subject to the whims of the reader. This text needs to be reduced to one meaning and one meaning only.
The thing about a stop sign, though, is that I never imagine a person behind the text.I don’t think of an author or it doesn’t make me ponder the meaning of my life in relation to the person who authorized it. I doubt this is a maxim related to texts, but their might be some sort of correlation here–the more reducible a text, the less relational it is.
So, I’m thinking that a text designed for relationship, especially a relationship over time and space, has to be more porous to meaning than a stop sign.And this might especially be true if a text were hoping to serve relationships across time and space. In other words, certain texts have the ability to communicate beyond their immediate circumstances. My grocery list from Monday is a perishable text and fairly reducible in meaning. No one will be reading it tomorrow, much less 2000 years from now, even though as grocery lists go it’s a pretty good one. For a text to continue to speak to new audiences, it has to be fairly open or porous to meaning. And this might especially be true if the relationship to be secured by the text has as its subject a non-reducible subject. Like God.
Now, its conceivable that a text speaking for God might serve the same kind of purpose as a stop sign–to get people to obey certain signs.Then we might want a reducible text. But if the text speaking for God was primarily interested in sustaining across time and space relationship with a holy God, a non-reducible God, then that text might have to be fairly porous, open, interpretable, relational, or dynamic in its capacity to make meanings.
I would submit that this is what we have with the Bible: a non-reducible text in the service of relationship with a holy God.
This is not, however, how many of us have been taught to regard or use or study the Bible. Ironically, we have thought that for it to speak for God it has to be reducible to one meaning, to one interpretation. We think it has to be like a stop sign. I have a spate of books on my bookshelf dedicated to the pursuit of making the Bible hold still. I think this says more about us, particularly those of us conditioned by the modern story of human mastery, than it does about the Bible.
So, I’m trying to rethink all of this without overreacting, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, without reducing things to an either/or approach. Stay tuned.
Mark, this is another great reflection and post. Thank you.
I’m driven to think about the function of authority in general and how allergic my generation seems to be in regards to authoritative claims. On the one hand there seems to be a visceral reaction against authoritative propositions because they tend to be reductive and do not adequately encompass the complexity of reality. On the other hand, I fear that our reaction against authoritative claims are going to drive us further into hyper-individualism and abandonment of any transcendental claim to our allegiance. I know it sounds cliche, but I hear, over and over, the claim that truth is completely subjective – “in the eye of the beholder.” Over and over again, I keep wanting to react with the claim that, “theological authority is so much more dynamic than your own personal whims or a reduced propositional claims!”
But how do we nourish the relational dynamic of Jesus’ Lordship without reducing it to text or tradition? I feel like our history has reduced it to either/or in this respect and has left us with this dysfunctional sense of authority (there are some ways in which I envy the pentecostals on this matter, knowing that they have their problems too). It does not matter how much we emphasize the authority of Jesus as Lord, the text or the tradition will pragmatically supersede this greater claim and leave us with something that funds our craving for a knowledge that is independent of faith’s claims.
Now as a “wanna be theologian”, I know better than to capitulate to modernities foundationalists claims or post-modernities penchant for subjectivity. (Here is my core question) But, how do you engage in congregational praxis that resists both of these tendencies?
If all of this sounds way to “wordy” it is because I’m struggling to communicate my concerns as a congregational leader and will make further attempts to communicate more clearly if needed – any help you might give will be appreciated.
Great questions. I think the nature of the text might give us some clues. First, the Bible as a whole is authoritative e without being reductive. It is not monolithic. So the Bible doesn’t locate authority in monologue or in a static tradition. I’m a big believer that the Bible’s own use and resue of tradition (intratextuality) provides examples for us as well. The master here is Richard Hays as you know, but I think you should also read some James Sanders (OT scholar). Anyway, the authority of Scripture lies in its multivocity
Sorry, hit post too soon. So, Reading communities are important to anything that would constitute a living tradition. And a living tradition is far more authoritative than a static one over time.
It is important not just that we form reading communities with contemporaries, but that we find ways to bring others through time into our reading as well. There is no guarantee against subjectivity, nor should there be in my opinion. But there are better readings and worse readings and they tend to reveal themselves over time.this is what Gadamer refers to as fruitful prejudices. So, someone(s) in our reading communities needs to represent other voices as well.
I would also say that the text can’t mean just anything. It might represent and produce more thN one meaning, but it can’t mean just anything. Which is why we allow the text to be read again and again. It has first voice. So, the great thing about a text is that it is both fixed and porous. It has the potential for a dynamic authority.
Finally, and I should have started here–the authority is borrowed. The text is authoritative as long as it draws us into the life of a living God. So, the reading of the text should always be the first act in the performance of the text. It has to get off the page, tested against the actual conditions of life.
Hope that in the arena of your concerns.
I’m so enjoying this train (roller coaster?) of thought. We would like to think that some things can “be reduced to one meaning and one meaning only.” But even a stop sign is interpreted differently in different cultures and situations. Do I bring my car to a complete standstill (and for how much time), or is it okay to just slow down and roll through slowly and vigilantly. Or can I ignore it completely if it’s in a parking lot as opposed to on a public street? And maybe I frequent the wrong stores, but the clerks are constantly interpreting my grocery list: “Ah, having a party tonight? Oh, are you Jewish? Getting ready for Thanksgiving?” Anyway, communication between people who are alive and standing face to face is difficult and complex enough, even such with simple statements. Understanding scripture is far more difficult than that. Moreover, there is another layer even beyond God, author, text, and reader. The translator plays an enormous role in how most readers today grasp the text. Yet, cutting through it all, the Word remains a sharp sword in the purposeful hands of the Holy Spirit, or, as you say, “the Bible as a whole is authoritative without being reductive.”