Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Hermeneutics of Passion

At the SBL Annual Meeting this past few days, I encountered phrases like "hermeneutics of welcome" and "hermeneutics of sympathy" pitched against the "hermeneutics of suspicion" other scholars supposedly hold. The thing is, no one ever names the people who hold a hermeneutics of suspicion -- probably because the charge wouldn't stick.

A word of explanation. A few decades ago Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza described a hermeneutics of suspicion as one feminist strategy for engaging the Bible (among others). She meant that feminist readers may safely assume the biblical authors downplayed the contributions of women. A hermeneutics of suspicion, then, looks for signs of women's agency and history where it's not emphasized. I've oversimplified things, but a hermeneutics of suspicion, properly speaking, is primarily a creative strategy -- not a destructive one.

Apparently some people (and I'm not naming them out of charity) feel a need to defend the Bible from its supposed attackers. They invoke "hermeneutics of welcome" or "hermeneutics of sympathy" to suggest that they're open to biblical truth -- while those who differ from them employ the more hostile "hermeneutics of suspicion." It's a specious argument, cowardly even, because it suggests that only one mode of interpretation really values the Bible.

The real truth is, relatively few interpreters set out to find negative things to say. Many more of us, however, find ourselves passionately engaged with scripture -- to the point that the Bible continually surprises us. Sometimes it says things we wish it wouldn't. Sometimes it confronts us with questions we'd never thought to ask. Sometimes signs of hope, grace, and correction leap from the page and into our hearts. Rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, let's call this a hermeneutics of passion (copyright right here). What about it?

"Passion" in its truest sense means the capacity to be acted upon. I don't mean primarily the passion of desire, often eroticized (more below), but the passion of wild openness to the encounter of the text. I'm talking about a deep engagement, one in which we readers make ourselves vulnerable to the encounter. I'm talking about the possibility that we cannot predetermine interpretive outcomes. I'm talking about passion.

And yes, I'm talking about the passion of desire, eroticize it if you will. We come to the Bible from a lack, a deficit, a need. We come from a world that keeps selling us petty things all glittered up. Music overproduced. Food overportioned. Bodies over-Photoshopped. We lust for something that calls us beyond ourselves, a reality that fills us truly, a set of relationships that lead to transformation. We read passionately.

So... my resolution for today. When someone dismisses another interpretation with the "hermeneutics of suspicion" label, I'm gonna call them out as they cowards they are. It's a hermeneutics of passion, people!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SBL Time: Papers I'll Miss

For those out of the loop, SBL means the Society of Biblical Literature and its Annual Meeting, November 21-24 in New Orleans. The SBL is the world's preeminent biblical studies conference, and I suspect about 6,000 people -- way too many of them in polyester and tipping poorly -- will descend on the Crescent City this weekend.

I always look forward to SBL. Most of all, I'm anxious to reunite with old friends. Then there's meeting with editors and working groups, interesting presentations, and the famous book exhibit -- some publishers discount as deeply as 50%, though things are getting tighter every year. This year there will be a panel review of Sinners on Saturday morning, I'm meeting with a prospective editor concerning a secret project (really, it's secret), and the Rhetoric and the New Testament Section has lots of business to conduct. I've already booked up my calendar with sessions, meetings, and socializing.

But there are also the papers I'll miss.
  • For example, there's a retrospective session on Wayne Meeks' The First Urban Christians. Steve Friesen is speaking there, and I'm particularly interested in Steve's work on the economic resources of the first Christians (extremely bleak, says Steve).
  • Thomas Blanton has a paper on 2 Corinthians 3 and the New Perspective on Paul (available online -- it's a very strong paper).
  • There's a session on the value of (or otherwise) religious experience as a category for the study of early Christianity -- I'd be especially keen to hear Jim Crossley's remarks.
  • Shawn Kelley has a paper that challenges many of our cherished assumptions concerning parables.
  • There's a session on reclining (at meals) -- Jennifer Glancy has some thoughts on how early Christians reacted to this custom.
  • Paul Middleton has a paper on how Revelation's hymns relate to violence. (I've written on this myself.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Death (and Paul)

I used to think -- and teach, and write (Ultimate Things, 133-34) -- that Paul changed his mind concerning what happens when we die. In 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that those who have fallen asleep will be raised and transformed upon the return of Christ. As I understood it, these early letters of Paul revealed a series of assumptions concerning afterlife hope.
  1. We are not immortal, nor do we have immortal souls.
  2. When we die, we really die. We don't go on to "a better place."
  3. Life is a gift from God, and it is embodied life. Paul believed in the resurrection of the body -- a new body, for sure -- but one continuous with the body in which we lived our lives, the same body that really, really dies.
Abe Simpson sound byte on death.

However, in Philippians 1 Paul writes that "to die is gain," since to die is "to depart and be with Christ" (1:21-24). This sounds much more like the Gospel of Luke, in which the rich man and Lazarus go on to afterlife dwelling places and Jesus says to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." It seemed to me that Paul's opinion changed as time passed, as the return of Jesus tarried, and as he faced the prospect of his own death more seriously.

Here's the key: Early Jews and Christians expressed two kinds of hope concerning the afterlife, one involving death then resurrection, and the other involving an intermediate life beyond the grave but before one reaches one's final destination. The classic studies on this topic are by Richard Bauckham, in an enormously wonderful book, The Fate of the Dead; Jaime Clark-Soles, in Death and the Afterlife in the New Testament; and N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. See also Oscar Cullmann's famous essay.

I've made a lot of this point in my teaching. Christians, I've argued, believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul. Our hymns and liturgies demonstrate great confusion on this point, as do some of our creeds. This is important for several reasons (and I still think it is):
  1. Resurrection means the reclamation of our bodies -- our bodies matter. Therefore, what we do in and with our bodies, and how we relate to the bodies of others, also matters.
  2. There's nothing special or immortal about us, except insofar as God graces us with life and status. Our life depends on God, now and forever.
Now I'm thinking I might be wrong about Paul. In Philippians 3:11 Paul writes in hope that he will "attain the resurrection of the dead." Could it be that for Paul (and for the author of Revelation), the idea of a temporary dwelling place and a final resurrection did not represent exclusive options? I can't get my mind around it, but the presence of both ideas in both Philippians and Revelation suggests that I may need to revise my views. How much, or in what way? I'm still sorting that out.