Tag Archives: criticism

As with literary criticism, so with Biblical interpretation

“Further, if the [literary] work is indeed a stable object, about which careful readers can make objective statements, then why hasn’t there been an emerging consensus in criticism? Instead, the history of criticism seems to be one of diversity and change, as successive critics provide innovatively different readings of the same work. Even in the sciences, the idea of an objective point of view has been increasingly questioned. Facts, as Thomas Kuhn has argued, emerge because of a certain system of belief, or paradigm….in the wake of Einstein’s theory of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Gödel’s mathematics, and much else, it seems clear that the perceiver plays an active role in the making of any meaning and that literary works in particular have a subjective status.” — Steven Lynn, in a chapter on reader-response criticism, in his book Texts and Contexts 

Lynn’s quotation stands to reason, regardless of the genre in question.

This is not to drop myself, or to attempt to drop anyone else, into the false dilemma that says either we accept everything as relative or we hold to absolute truth. I’m merely agreeing with the premise that “the perceiver plays an active role in the making of any meaning.”

In ways that are more or less accurate to the situation in which a text was written, readers, especially readers of the Bible, apply their interpretations of Scriptural passages to their lives.

To make more sense of this, let’s flip the issue around and look at it from a different angle.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, a major research university has an original letter written by Saint Paul of New Testament fame. They have the very manuscript over which Paul’s hand once moved. All scholars and clergy, internationally, are permitted to view it (as much as travel funds allow). The scholars have the best possible understanding of the ancient cultural and social milieu in which the letter was written. They understand the language. They understand the themes, which they cross-reference with other letters written by Paul. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, all conditions are set for a perfectly accurate interpretation of the God-inspired letter. The social, cultural, literary, historical, and theological contexts are all understood to the point that a broad consensus — on the letter’s meaning and function within its audience — has been established.

What impact does this perfect interpretative situation have on a man in Marion County, South Carolina, who awakens to read his King James Version of the Bible and applies a passage to his life — while removed more than 2,000 years and a language from its presumed source?

MORE ON THE BIBLE & INTERPRETING IT:

“A Conflicts of Beliefs” — a bad document for Orthodox Anglicans and differences with The Episcopal Church

“Dear Lord, if only I had a simple faith in the Bible…”

Robert Heinlein with the counterpoints

Bible-based cult leader sentenced today

How and why community plays a role in interpreting the Bible

If you take the Bible literally…

The only mystery allowed is the mystery that can be explained

Within the lesson emerges an analogy:

‘In the act of writing about art, then, you press language to the point of fracture and try to do what writing cannot do: account for the experience. Otherwise, you elide the essential mystery, which is the reason for writing anything at all. The easy alternative is just to circumnavigate the occasion of seeing something—to “professionalize” art criticism into a branch of academic art history—to presume that works of art are already utterances in art-language that need only to be translated into a better language to achieve perfect transparency. In this way, the practice of criticism is transformed into a kind of Protestant civil service dedicated to translating art-language into a word-language that neutralizes its power in the interest of public order. The writer’s pathological need to control and reconstitute the fluid universe of not-writing is fortuitously disguised by this strategem—since in a truly “professional” discourse, no more intimate engagement with the “needy” object is required than that of a doctor with a patient, and no more stress need be placed upon the language than that required by the clinical assignment of names to symptoms.’ (boldface added) — Dave Hickey, from his essay “Air Guitar,” from Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy

‘the problem of Lewis the storyteller’ in Text Patterns at The New Atlantis

“I don’t think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard,” sayeth literary critic and distinguished humanities professor Alan Jacobs. “Every time he sat down to write a story he was moving outside the sphere of his strongest writerly gifts.” To get Jacobs’ full view on the matter, as well as a few words about storytelling differences between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, read the entire post here: “the problem of Lewis the storyteller – Text Patterns – The New Atlantis”.

Why factual discrepencies in the Bible are a barrier to faith: lower-order and higher-order concerns

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United States Library of Congress, demonstrating printed pages as a storage medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As this Ex-Fundamentalist-now-Reformed-Anglican-Anglo-Catholic-Episcopalian Mutt struggles with factual discrepencies in Scripture, I think I finally realized why evangelical and Reformed claims about the Bible have fallen on hard times.

And in part, this is a different thought to add to Ross Douthat’s analysis of why American became a nation of heretics, as described by Tim Keller.

The factual discrepencies within Scripture are nothing new, but what they mean, and why they mean what they mean, should be the puzzles addressed by Douthat, Keller, and many others who occupy influential positions in Christianity.

Otherwise, any Christian is on unstable intellectual ground: Making rational arguments based on a self-contradictory book is non-rational. If your starting point is non-rational, then ultimately, your rational arguments are unsupported.

To me, the challenge of defending the Bible in our time is understanding that people automatically, intuitively, common-sensically organize information according to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

What do I mean by those phrases? Well, sometimes, when talking about how to grade an academic paper, my colleagues and I refer to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

Lower-order concerns might be (in some cases) correct use of commas, while high-order concerns might be (in some cases) having a real argument and supporting it. Missing a couple of commas isn’t as bad as a thesis statement that argues nothing or an unsupported argument.

Considering claims about the Bible, people will be more likely to believe higher-order claims when lower-order claims are correct.

Basic factual information could be considered a lower-order concern. As a former newspaper section editor, I can assure you that, all kidding and warranted insults about journalists aside, a cub reporter can get the time and date and basic facts of a city council meeting — and get them right most of the time.

What that cub reporter (usually) cannot do is understand the political philosophies at work. The political philosophy, the ideas, behind a city-council decision might be a higher-order concern. (Granted, city councils don’t always appear to be populated by philosopher kings, but stick with me a few more seconds.)

Indeed, those journalists who leave newspapers and broadcast journalism to work for National Review or The New Republic are those journalists who, early on, excelled at getting the facts right — and then progressively moved into higher-order thinking. You worked hard at the lower-order concerns to earn the right to write about the higher-order concerns.

Now, in the Bible, what we see are numerous discrepencies in lower-order arenas. For whatever reasons, the Biblical texts we have today do not always give a consistent picture of the facts of important events — events important enough, evangelicals and Reformed folks assume, to be part of God’s revelation.

I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic.

Again, many people will say, “If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?”

Wouldn’t you think a similar thought if a salesperson or a politician couldn’t get his or her facts straight?

Isn’t that a normal, shrewd reaction backed by the Proverbs?

God hates dishonest scales, right? Let your yes be yes and your no be no, right? Truthfulness, right?

Of course, it’s not that simple — but simplistic thinking is exactly what evangelical and Reformed churches have offered on this topic. Sure, you can say there are non-simplistic answers by pointing to the big guns at the seminaries and all the Gospel Coalition folks, fine, but they’re not leading the vast majority of churches.

Here’s my current, tentative, in-progress solution.

I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed. I’m not sure the Scriptures reasonably can support the Bible-study industry that keeps Christian bookstores open.

I think believing in the atonement, based on the general thematic trajectory of the Scriptures, makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense are the Bible studies that try to unpack every little verse and turn each one into grand statements about humanity or morality or whatever.

The available text criticism simply does not render a Bible that reliable.  Furthermore, I don’t think the common use of the terms “inerrant” and “infallible” can possibly be relevant when glaring factual discrepencies exist. Maybe the problem is our post-Enlightenment, rationalistic way of considering something “inerrant” — without error — but more about that later.

Of course, text criticism is a very high-order matter. Someone might counter my arguments by elevating a side issue and saying that not many people know about the Bible anymore, at all, never mind text criticism. Not that many go to church anymore. Not that many people read anything anymore, so reading in and of itself, and the Bible, actually aren’t even the issues. The culture is the issue. Social change is the issue. Et cetera.

Maybe, but maybe not. Ex-evangelical and popular author Bart Ehrman teaches classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each semester. I don’t know how large his classes are, but you can bet he’s taught hundreds by this point in his career.

And Ehrman is not the only one at a univeristy with his point of view. College for the middle class has almost become a political right, and kids have to take classes outside their fields to fulfill curriculum requirements. I imagine Ehrman’s perspective, and indeed his books, are presented positively in numerous universities to tens of thousands of students each academic year. (Although, as Ehrman himself has said, many people in New Testament text criticism remain believers.)

So consider the likelihood that many college-educated people have been forced to assess the higher-order claims of the Bible — its theology, its doctrine, its history, its claims about Jesus Christ — in light of the lower-order problems.

A significant portion of the college-educated middle class dismissed higher-order claims due to problems with lower-order claims.

When the lower-order claims fall apart, the higher-order claims do not seem legitimate.

Now, I also want briefly to note that we have to ask hard questions about why, if the Holy Spirit guided this canon down through history, God allowed us to wind up with a text that doesn’t offer the kind of testimony a cub reporter could get right.

And, if those discrepencies can be explained away legitimately and truthfully, then how can this Book truly be a book for all people, when it requires a specialist’s academic knowledge and historical and liguistic understanding to keep straight?

Could it be, simply, that certain understandings about “inerrant” and “infallible” render the Bible’s testimony unreliable at best, ridiculous at worst?

Maybe, just maybe, the task is to undo post-Enlightenment rationality. Maybe, as Stephen Toulmin tried to do late in his career, the task is to replace “rationality” with “reasonableness.” In other words, I don’t think we can advocate a self-contradictory text on the micro level, on the verse-by-verse level, unless we radically recreate everyone’s daily, default epistemology.

We could, however, begin understanding the Bible texts as historical testimony.

Please comment, correct, rebuke as you have time.

cheers,

Colin

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Four Ways to Celebrate Reformation Day

As always, Reformation Day coincides with Halloween. But as our Catholic brothers and sisters know, Christian celebrations and leftover paganism work together quite well.

Here are some thoughts on how to wed Halloween and Reformation Day.

1. Instead of playing Ring-and-Run, try Nail-and-Run.

You remember the old ring-and-run trick: sneak up to someone’s doorstep, ring her doorbell, run, hide, and watch the hapless lady of the house come to the door and look around.

To celebrate Reformation Day, take a page from Martin Luther.

Instead of ringing the doorbell and running away, nail some profound thoughts to the door and then run away.

2. Give Reese’s Theses to trick-or-treaters.

Using your home printer and PhotoShop, recreate the Reese’s Pieces bag as Reese’s Theses.

Now open a few bags of Reese’s Pieces. Count out 95 candies and insert them in a Reese’s Theses bag. Seal and set by the front door.

Image how cool it will be if someone comes to the door dressed like the Pope.

3. This year, try the un-costume

As many Protestants believe today, robes and mantels and cassocks are all Romish trappings.

Roman Catholic priests wear these offensive costumes of robes as a statement against justification by faith.

There is only one fully adequate, completely satisfactory act of defiance in the face of these vestments.

You guessed it. You must dis-robe. You can’t be justified by boxers — or briefs.

4. Instead of handing out evangelistic tracts, preach sound theology.

When you hand out candy to trick-or-treaters, tell them, “This is an example of unmerited favor.”
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Happy Reformation Day! Happy Halloween!

Son Volt: ‘The jury is guilty’

From an interpretive standpoint, it’s risky to isolate lines from a poem or a song, but two lines from “Down to the Wire,” on Son Volt’s album “American Central Dust,” are worth repeating and thinking about, even if my thoughts slip out of the song’s context.

No jury will have a final say
Everyone knows the jury is guilty

It’s not enough to believe in the doctrine of The Fall, the primordial sin of human ancestors by which decay and destructive motives entered into the world.

Eventually, each person must become fallen in his or her own eyes. Each person has to realize what he or she has done to contribute to the ongoing mess of this world.

I’ve known a few people who have yet to cross that bridge, while considering themselves righteous because of their doctrinal stands. If they were on the jury, they would pride themselves in their formulas and principles, never realizing that they are part of the problem, too.

Jesus once defended an adulterer from death by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In two simple lines, Son Volt has placed the concept of self-incrimination into the context of our contemporary jury system. A jury of my peers consists of people like me.

New book offers first critical biography of C.S. Lewis’ friend Ruth Pitter, first woman to win Queen’s poetry award

LiturgicalCredo.com has posted an interview with Don W. King, author of Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter (Kent State University Press). The book is due in May.

In 1955, English poet Ruth Pitter became the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. She had previously won two other major poetry awards.

Pitter was admired by W.B. Yeats and C.S. Lewis, as well as other members of the Inklings.

Don W. King discovered references to letters between Lewis and Pitter while he was doing research for his 2001 book, C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse (Kent State University Press). After that, he continued to research Pitter, and the result was Hunting the Unicorn.

You’ll find the interview prominently displayed on our home page.

(Mac users, if you happen to notice any strange breaks in the text of the interview, please let us know by leaving a comment on this post.)

cheers,

Colin Foote Burch

LiturgicalCredo.com