Thursday, May 28, 2009

Continuing the Conversation: Why Read the Bible at All?

Continuing the conversation about theological interpretation, Christopher Spinks commented on my most recent entry, "toward what end(s) are these people of faith engaging scripture?" and "why do they feel the need to engage this particular set of texts and not another?" Two different questions, but good ones.

Oddly enough, I'm speaking on this very topic Monday night in Lancaster's Theology on Tap series at Annie Bailey's pub. Some quick thoughts, beginning with the second question, why this Bible?

My basic reply is pragmatic. We turn to the Bible because it is our book. When I read David Tracy's The Analogical Imagination, gosh, 15 years ago, I didn't like his concept of the Bible as a "classic." I wanted to be able to say that something inheres in the Bible that makes it special. However, I can't find a meaningful way to articulate that. (More on that below.) So I return to a more pragmatic understanding.

The Bible is our book because we continue to practice the reading and interpretation of it. We continue to invite scripture to shape our imaginations and conversations. But we do not -- and have never -- given the Bible the final or only word. One might add something else, but this claim has some problems: The Bible provides our primary witness to the story of God and our people. That's sort of true, but spelling out the qualifications would take more time than I can give. Anyway, this understanding of the Bible as our book implies some responses to the first question, "to what end" we read it.
  • We read it because it connects us with the church through the ages and around the world.
  • We read it in search of the transforming power of God, because the church frequently testifies to the power of God at work on our reading of scripture.
  • We read it to find inspiration, transformation, challenge, and comfort.
  • We read it to shape our imaginations and our questions -- that is, to shape us.
None of those claims can avoid challenge. On occasion the Bible has been used to great harm. It hasn't even taken a lot of effort to turn the Bible toward the legitimation of slavery, apartheid, misogyny, and heterosexism. Thank God, a neat thing happens: even in those painful conversations the Bible challenges the Bible, and in the long run things work out. (Here I'm influenced by cultural studies on African American biblical hermeneutics -- see essays by Clarice J. Martin and Allen Dwight Callahan in Semeia 83/84, Slavery in Text and Interpretation, ed. Callahan, Richard A. Horsley, and Abraham Smith.)

I would argue that this pragmatic understanding is grounded in history. We got the Bible because people went to great pains to copy it. As Jewish and Christian literature multiplied, we find Christian leaders saying, "Here's what we'll read in church (and not the other stuff)." That's essentially what Luther is doing in translating the Bible. He includes James and Hebrews, but he notes his major problems with both. On James, he describes the problem in precisely a pragmatic vein: It's okay to read it, even if Luther could do without it. In other words, we do in fact read the Bible because our ancestors have read it.

I also made a negative claim, that I can't make sense of saying meaning, inspiration, or authority inheres to the Bible. What about that?
  • The church, ecumenically considered, does not have a single Bible. For most NT authors, the Bible was Greek versions of Jewish scriptures, not the Old Testament we have today. For the author of Jude, the Bible included the Book of Enoch. For the Ethiopic church, Enoch remains in the canon. What Bible are we talking about, and how do we defend the definition? (Quick footnote: Of course we Protestants read scripture in the context of the whole. I'm simply saying that whole isn't "natural" or inherent.)
  • To ascribe inherent value to the Bible implies something about the status of biblical books in relation to other books. I have no desire to change the canon of my church. However, I defy anyone to explain how the epistle of Jude offers more wisdom than, say, 4 Ezra.
  • Many, many persons have lived exemplary Christian lives without ever reading the Bible -- or hearing it in any level of detail. Obviously, the Bible is a huge part of the context, but the authority for their Christian lives did not reside in the Bible.
  • I avoid attributing properties to the Bible because believing the "right things" about the Bible has never guaranteed healthy interpretation. In fact, I'm not sure there's any evidence that such belief would foster healthy interpretation.
  • The main reason I don't believe authority inheres in the Bible is spelled out in my recent entries. The Bible doesn't speak with a unified voice, nor can we assume that taking the Bible as a whole will result in a coherent voice. If we're honest about the Bible, we know that there are dimensions of it (notice, I didn't say "parts") that we privilege and others that we don't. (This is not to say that we have any business skipping by dimensions of scripture -- or parts of it, for that matter. I'm committed to engaging the whole of scripture.) Such decisions are not -- and cannot -- be traced to some inherent pattern we find in the Bible. They are instead the product of communal discernment, usually informal discernment, over a long period of time.
One sometimes hears the dramatic story of a hotel room conversion. On the brink of despair, sometimes suicide, a person opens the nightstand and pulls out their Gideon Bible. Upon reading it, God's love breaks through to them and they find salvation.

I don't doubt the storyline, but let's think about that critically. What drives someone to open the Bible? There's already a context of a faith community that has somehow implanted the thought that the Bible might contain answers. If they open the drawer to find a Dear Abby anthology, or even the Gita or the Qu'ran, the story would work differently, yes? And what about that Bible? Are we to think they just randomly open to, say, Hosea and the love of God broke through to them? Mark? But wait a minute. Gideon Bibles always come with packaging. There's a guide to how to read the Bible there, complete with recommended verses (and page numbers? I'm not sure). In other words, we don't have the Bible speaking on its own to a lone individual; we have communities of faith and conventions of interpretation surrounding this event. That's how the Bible comes to life.

One final thought. The things I'm saying are not the result of modernist historical criticism, nor of postmodern linguistics. I'm a product of both, of course. However, these concerns go at least as far back as Augustine and Origen. Early Christians knew the Bible was messy; for that matter, neither Augustine nor Origen had a fixed canon that matches ours. That is why they developed principles of interpretation to guide communities in their reading of scripture, including allegorical exegesis and the law of love. Scripture comes to life when we read it in the context of walking the path of faith along with our brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More on Theological Interpretation

Christopher Spinks has been kind enough to respond to the blog post on "Theological Interpretation of Scripture." Replying to another blogger, Seth Heringer, Christopher rightly denies that theological interpretation is an academic discipline and that professional biblical scholars should rule the day in biblical interpretation.

Christopher then turns to my blog, where I wrote, "I’m not convinced the [theological interpretation] movement has fully faced the complications implied in the questions it is asking," and he asks what questions do I have in mind. Well, a few -- if he'll indulge me in a few generalizations. I'm not active in the movement, and I don't know the range of works he does. I'll really stick with one question, answered in multiple ways in the theological interpretation movement. These answers stand in complementary, not competitive, relationship to one another.

The question: "What kind of book is the Bible?"

Several folks in the movement recommend we should read scripture primarily as story. While I'm sympathetic to that point of view, strongly so, this model opens the path for all sorts of questions. Scot McKnight, for example, tells us what the story is in The Blue Parkeet. But surely the Bible resists such reduction and essentializing. The Bible tells many stories, woven into and against one another. While I'm willing to talk about how all the stories relate to a big story, I would insist that we'll never arrive at consensus on what that one story is. Well, creation and redemption, perhaps. But that's not the whole of scripture by any means. So the question, "What kind of book is the Bible?" opens the way to lots of questions, not a single answer.

Another item. Christopher refers to the Bible as "divine discourse." I have to admit, I have no earthly idea what that means. Does it mean God is the ultimate source of the Bible? God is the ultimate source of everything. Does it mean God spoke directly through the authors? Well, I don't buy that. What does it mean? May I suggest that this answer to the "What kind of book" question tends to locate the Bible's significance in the past?

I'm fully aware that's not what Christopher means. He clearly believes God continues to speak through scripture. But would it not be better not to link the "divine" bit to the text but to the process to which the church testifies down the ages? Isn't "Bible" here shorthand for something wonderful that happens when people read the Bible? And if that's what it means, what about the awful things that also happen when people read the Bible? More questions from the one question.

Finally, several theological interpretation authors claim that God is the Bible's subject matter. Another essentialist reduction of the question, "What kind of book is the Bible?" Again, are we talking about the text of the Bible, its authors, or our tradition and practice of reading it? If we mean either of the first two, the claim that the Bible is "about" God falls flat in front of the evidence. Often it is about God; often it's about politics, ethnicity, sex, and so forth. We might step back and say the Bible situates all those things in the context of God, but one might as easily reply that the Bible also appeals to God as a pretext for some of those conversations. And if we mean that God is the subject of our reading of the Bible -- that is, that we read the Bible in search for God -- then, no, I don't accept that. I dearly expect to encounter God in the practice of reading scripture. But that's not the only question I have. It's not helpful to prescribe reading in that way.

The gist of my overall reply is to say this. Our generalizations about the Bible emerge from our desire to find some essential essence for the Bible. I often share that desire; sometimes I don't. Therefore, I resist any attempt to define the Bible's essence in the process of defining theological interpretation. I prefer a more open, more pragmatic, approach, as spelled out earlier: theological interpretation of the Bible happens when people of faith engage scripture in the praxis of living the life of faith and in the context of the broader historical and global church.

And I fully apologize for referring to Christopher by the surname Sparks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Theological Interpretation of Scripture"

Last week I posted concerning the emerging evangelical conversation about the Bible. In a conversation on another venue, an esteemed friend mentioned an influential movement with which I have only entry-level familiarity. It goes under the label, "Theological Interpretation of Scripture." This conversation has succeeded in doing some of the things I'm hoping to do in reaching out to evangelicals on this blog. ("Come on in. The water's fine.") That is, it's brought mainline and evangelical interpreters into constructive conversation with one another.

The "Theological Interpretation" movement isn't monolithic; on the other hand, as an outsider I do identify key figures, standard works, and perhaps some common commitments. (See Christopher Spinks' essay, which offers beginning bibliography.) At the same time, I'm not convinced the movement has fully faced the complications implied in the questions it is asking. Consider two standard formulations for "theological interpretation."
  • Kevin J. Vanhoozer: "The theological interpretation of the Bible is characterized by a governing interest in God, the word and works of God, and by a governing intention to engage in what we might call 'theological criticism.'" ("Introduction," Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible [ed. Vanhoozer, et al., 22)
  • The Scripture Project enumerates nine theses on interpretation, which include, "Scripture truthfully tells the story of God's action of creating, judging, and saving the world," and "The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus." (Ellen F. Davis, and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture, 1, 3)
I can fully embrace that first quote. It concerns what kind of activity theological interpretation presupposes. In my view, theological interpretation of the Bible happens when people of faith engage scripture in the praxis of living the life of faith and in the context of the broader historical and global church.

The second quotes, those two theses, I cannot embrace. They concern the kinds of conclusions theological interpretation may advocate. I'm sure there's a philosophical sense in which one could make those two theses seem meaningful, but let's be real. On an ordinary reading, those theses rule out the possibility that the Bible itself might present problems to us. Sometimes the God of the Bible saves through genocide, and Luke himself tells us he was trying to improve on earlier Jesus stories -- like, say, Mark (Luke 1:1-4). I cannot discern how these theses help us sort through God's command to slaughter the Amalekites and their cattle or how to respond to the diverse testimony of the four Gospels.

I mentioned engaging this conversation in another venue. In response to Sparks' essay, referenced above, I wrote, "Whatever generalizations we make regarding the Bible as scripture must stand up to reading the Bible as a whole and in its particulars, I think." Those particulars included things like genocide as a model of divine deliverance and the legitimation of slavery.

One colleague, to whose work I refer frequently, suggested that perhaps I was stuck in the archaic pattern that moves too quickly from "interpretation" to "application." According to him, "theological interpretation" has moved beyond that pattern. Another participant mentioned the essay on slavery in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible. There William J. Webb finds a "redemptive movement" in biblical discussions of slavery. Apparently, the biblical texts are relatively progressive in their own contexts. The biblical witnesses were not "redemptive in any absolute sense" but rather set a "clear direction" that would have served the church well in its later slavery debates.

This is inadequate. On a spectrum of ancient opinion, yes, the Bible comes off well to the progressive end on slavery. Others, including some pagans and some second century Christians, held even more egalitarian views. But that's beside the point. A good healthy dose of historical analysis shows that the Bible itself speaks with diverse voices on the question. Paul may well have opposed slavery with all the power available to him (I don't have space here to spell out that argument), but people writing in Paul's name aggressively tamed Paul's liberatory push. Thus, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy put slaves back in their (relatively less abusive) places. How, I ask, does Webb's discussion, which ignores the standard issue of authorship and diversity within Scripture, help us negotiate such diversity?

I believe I have offered a different model for theological engagement of the slavery question, one that does not "jump" from interpretation to application, in Sinners. There I engage 1 Peter, which exhorts slaves to endure abuse. Historical and rhetorical analysis come into play here, as I argue that the structure of 1 Peter surrounds socially conservative social teachings with concern regarding persecution. I do not draw a conclusion on the matter, but I suggest that 1 Peter raises significant questions for contemporary disciples. In a context marked by alienation and persecution, I suggest, 1 Peter offers its audience two ways of relating to the world. On the one hand, they are a holy nation, a royal priesthood, called to distinctive discipleship in a hostile world. On the other hand, they are to avoid persecution by living within standard social norms. All Christian communities face this challenge of balancing distinctiveness with cultural "respectability." This is merely a suggestion, but it models what I believe theological interpretation should be about, bringing the life of faith into conversation with scripture (141-44). That can be a messy process.

Joel B. Green's recent book Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture, suggests that terms like "infallibility" and "inerrancy" have not served the church [originally, "evangelicals"] well. They reduce scripture to propositions, but they do not guarantee the kinds of interpretations that represent faithful engagement (146-48). Proper reading of scripture, Green argues, takes form in lives shaped by the Bible rather than in rigidly "correct" conclusions regarding it (see also his argument from Luke and Acts, pp. 42-50). But like McKnight and Dunn, Green entirely avoids the Bible's "problem" dimensions. Thus, I'm not convinced that what he says about the Bible in general will bear the weight of the Bible's particulars.

This is why I'm reaching out to my evangelical sisters and brothers. Let's not generalize about the Bible and its subject matter, thus boxing us in to those dimensions of scripture that fit the model. Instead, let's commit to read the Bible with curiosity, passion, and faith -- the whole Bible -- trusting the Spirit and the community of faith to guide us through.

Monday, May 25, 2009

SBL Forum: generalist or specialist?

A recent article by Michael Bird and Craig Keener in the SBL Forum is garnering lots of positive attention in the blog world. Bird and Keener, both accomplished scholars, are making the case for generalists who range widely in the field. Generalists, they say, (1) are necessary for translating scholarship to popular audiences, (2) tend to promote interdisciplinary research, (3) help us overcome disciplinary myopia, (4) make for better classroom teachers, and (5) tend to be the scholars who most influence the field in the long run.

(I note that all their examples of great and influential scholars are European or European American men.)

Obviously, I'm a generalist. I'm the only NT professor in a theological seminary, so I have to be informed about the entire canon. I need to stay in healthy conversation with my colleagues, especially in Hebrew Bible, theology, and history -- not to mention with the ongoing life of religious communities. My research tends to come out in essays and in books like Sinners, which is clearly the work of a generalist. I agree with all the points Bird and Keener offer.

However, there's a part of me that greatly admires the specialists. They dig deeply into specific fields of inquiry, demonstrate patience and discipline, and drive the field forward. They're the only people who keep up with the whole range of literature in a specific subfield. My personality isn't well suited to specialist work, and my employment context isn't either, but we shouldn't downplay the value and quality of that calling.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

an almost serious theological question involving LeBron

Last night my girlfriend and I came in from dinner and settled down to an OnDemand movie. The movie ends, Anna goes up to the bathroom, and I click out to the Cavs-Magic game. Since the program guide says it's been time for NBALive for over 30 minutes, I just go back and check the OnDemand menu again.

Then it strikes me. I still don't know who won the game. I click back, and immediately -- I mean, immediately -- LeBron receives the inbounds pass, steps back, leaps, and bangs in the winning 3-pointer.

As it happens, I'm stunned. Surely this is a replay. But chaos is breaking out everywhere, and after a few minutes it sinks in. This is live. Single greatest NBA shot I've ever seen, especially if the Cavs go on and win. Right there with Michael vs. the Cavs.

Could it be that God didn't want me to miss this shot? Could LeBron be the One? Or maybe the Antichrist? And almost seriously, does God get into little blessings like that?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Evangelical Conversation about the Bible

This week I'm reflecting on the role of scripture in the life of the church, especially as that conversation is playing out among evangelicals. Two recent books have come my way, Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008), and James D. G. Dunn's The Living Word (2nd ed.; Fortress, 2009). I'm interested in these conversations because (1) I'm still an evangelical in my piety and was an actual evangelical for much of my life and (2) I believe we mainline Christians might learn something from this conversation. Oh, and (3): I have a word for my evangelical brothers and sisters: come on in, the water's fine!

What on earth am I talking about? A little background. The 1970s saw the emergence of a new wave of Bible wars among evangelicals, particularly involving the notion of biblical inerrancy, the idea that whatever the Bible teaches on any topic is necessarily true. Evangelicals who did not confess inerrancy often found themselves marginalized or even fired from their positions.

Nevertheless, many evangelicals never found themselves satisfied with the inerrancy position. They knew several things. In particular, they knew Christians don't apply all of the Bible's teaching. None of us do. We borrow at interest (prohibited in scripture) and oppose slave labor (legitimized in scripture). And sometimes they knew it was time for the churches to move beyond the literal words of the Bible and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, as in the case of women's equality and leadership. No surprises for us progressive mainline people yet.

But being evangelicals, people like McKnight and Dunn have turned to the Bible to articulate their position. Here they have some things to teach us. The Bible, both scholars demonstrate is not -- and never was -- static. Biblical figures, including "minor" characters like Jesus and Paul, regarded scripture as a living tradition to be appropriated in new and fresh ways in emergent contexts. This explains one major event related in the New Testament, the full inclusion of Gentiles without their conversion to Judaism. Scripture never authorized such a thing, but the Holy Spirit sure did (see Acts 10-11 and Galatians 3:1-5 for this line of thought).

Dunn and McKnight use different language for this phenomenon, but they're both on the same trail. Dunn regards scripture as a "living word," never finally fixed by an ancient context in its potential relevance for us today. McKnight regards the Bible as a huge story about God's ways in the world. Rather than cook the Bible down to doctrine nuggets, faithful readers are to recognize that God spoke to in one way to Moses in Moses' day, in another to Paul in Paul's day, and in still another to us in our day. For both Dunn and McKnight, the Bible's word for today emerges in conversation with its word "back then" -- but it is not limited to its "back then" meaning. Scripture, then, is a living word.

We mainliners will do well to attend to these arguments. Both Dunn and McKnight provide richly detailed examples of how the biblical authors themselves regarded scripture as living and dynamic, how they adapted earlier texts to their own days. It's a wonderful model for interpreting the Bible, and I recommend it highly.

But I also want to extend an invitation to my evangelical colleagues. Come on in, the water's fine! Both Dunn and McKnight shy away from what they really know. (It's clear they really know what I'm about to say, but they just don't go there.) Sometimes the Bible itself is the problem. Some aspects of scripture simply don't represent God's word for any time. I don't believe God ever told Saul to slaughter all the Amalekites -- and their cattle! I don't believe God ever provided a trial by ordeal for women accused of premarital sex. I don't believe God ever wanted a slave code. And I don't believe God ever inspired Hosea to compare God's love for Israel to a husband who beats and exposes his unfaithful wife. I don't believe those things. And I suppose Dunn and McKnight don't, either.

It's time, in churches liberal and evangelical. Time for brutal honesty. We do hear the word of God in scripture. It challenges us, it inspires us, it teaches and corrects us. It is truly a living word. But it does not always convey God's word -- not for then, not for now. And that's okay. The water's fine.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What about Rhoda? Acts 12:12-17

Everybody makes fun of Rhoda. After his miraculous escape from jail, Peter knocks at the "door of the gate" outside Mary's house. Rhoda, a slave girl, comes to answer. Recognizing Peter's voice, she runs inside to tell the others that Peter was standing at the gate. So moved by joy is she, that she abandons Peter outside while she tells the others.

Poor Peter keeps on knocking while the other disciples refuse to believe Rhoda. They call her crazy. They say she's seen Peter's angel. (But wouldn't that be something?) And Peter keeps knocking. Apparently, Rhoda never thinks to bring Peter in to make her point. Finally, the others hear Peter and open the gate for him.

Read this way, Rhoda provides a case study for literary criticism of Acts. Like other ancient writers, Luke clearly enjoys spicing his stories with humor that draws upon common stereotypes. For example, consider the superstitious Lycaonians who mistake Barnabas and Paul for Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:8-18). Because Rhoda is a servant and a woman, she's an easy mark for Luke. Foolish and impulsive, she fits a well recognized character type. So the reading goes.

But wait a minute. Foolish? Rhoda knows Peter's voice. She's not fooled. Impulsive? She runs from joy, the most appropriate response to Peter's deliverance. It's common wisdom, though uncommonly practiced: first things first. Message before person. So Rhoda, who testifies to the message. She opens the path for them to demonstrate faith (see Luke 24:10-11). Rhoda, hearing Peter's voice, believes. They, hearing hers, do not. So Rhoda.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Scot McKnight: "New Perspective on Paul"

Scot McKnight has initiated a discussion of the "New Perspective" on Paul. For what it's worth, I put together a brief summary of the New Perspective, with some theological reflections about 18 months ago on this blog: "What Does the New Perspective on Paul Look Like"?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

How Not to Resolve a Church Conflict; Galatians 2:1-14 (21)

Last week I was leading an adult study on Diversity in Early Christianity. Looking into Galatians 2:1-10, a perceptive man wondered at the genius of the solution. Paul and his colleagues continue his mission to the Gentiles, Peter and his continue among other Jews, and to cement the collaboration Paul continues to raise funds for the poor in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the solution didn't hold up. In retrospect, the reason is obvious. Things fall apart when Cephas (some have suggested that Peter and Cephas are different men, but I doubt it) visits the church in Antioch. Cephas joins Gentiles at the table, just as Paul and his colleagues do. But when representatives from Jerusalem come up, Cephas withdraws -- he maintains the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, thus breaking table fellowship.

Paul condemns Cephas for his inconsistent -- hyprocritical!, Paul says -- behavior. But the roots of the problem lie in Jerusalem, not Antioch. The Jerusalem solution could hold, but only so long as the Jewish and Gentile believers don't cross paths. What happens when two missions, with two different sets of rules, collide?

The Antioch conflict bears implications for some contemporary church compromises. For example, the ELCA is considering a measure that would allow local bodies to take diverse positions with respect to sexual minorities. One Mennonite group adopted a similar temporary resolution to the matter of ordaining women. Such compromises can work in theory, but they don't resolve the justice and discernment issues at hand. When real people encounter one another across the artificial boundaries that keep them apart, further conflict is inevitable. No halfway compromises, please.