I’ve been reading Dale Martin’s Pedagogy of the Bible. Sometime last month I vaguely promised Chris Tilling I would blog about it. So here’s the post kicking off my return to WordPress, and what I hope will be more regular blogging after my desultory and rather depressed recent blog history.
Martin (for those who don’t know) is an excellent and exciting NT scholar teaching at Yale, whose work of detailed historical investigation is influenced by queer and reader response hermeneutics. He bases this book on the results of an informal and personal investigation he undertook into seminary Bible teaching, and offers some programmatic reflections.
The seminaries / theological schools he selected for his sample of included conservative and liberal ones. Among his observations about them, the key one is that the historical-critical method rules. Interestingly, given the history of scholarship, he felt it was held to more tightly in conservative evangelical circles: “The more “liberal” schools tended to teach other approaches in addition to historical criticism—though admittedly more likely feminist, literary or perspectival approaches than thorough reader-response, deconstruction or even allegory.” (p12). Even in those schools, though, there seemed to be little doubt that the historical-critical method was king.
There is at least one interesting side-effect to this. Martin observed that this created a “gate-keeper” effect — not so much against cultural minorities (although that is also one possible criticism as the recent spat over Larry Hurtado’s remarks about biblical language expertise demonstrated) but within the faculty. The Scripture scholars were the priests of the one true method, and perceived as exercising a censoring role on other discipline’s ways of using Scripture in practical theology. One remark he quotes is “the stress, for example, on reading the Hebrew Bible as Jewish texts first and foremost leaves them with the impression that reading them as Christian texts is inappropriate” (p16 — a comment that needs some teasing out!). Another professor, introducing the use of Scripture in pastoral care was told by student well-drilled by their historically critical teachers “You can’t read the Bible like that!” (p17).
Martin’s broad response is that students need to be taught critical theory, and the array of questions people ask about the nature of a text, how it is read and how and where meaning is created or communicated. Students and teachers alike are in his view often unsophisticated and uninformed about the theory of interpretation. This means exposure to literary and post-modern criticism (chapter 2), but it also means a good dose of reception history and seeing the ways in which the premodern generations of Christians read these same texts and learning from them that allegorical and other readings could be disciplined and sophisticated (chapter 3). He follows this up with asking for more theological reflection on the nature of scripture and the models with which we approach it (chapter 4).
Arguing for the existence of multiple methods and varied readings held side by side, he ponders how we might then ask what bad Christian theological interpretations might be of any particular text and conversely what “truly Christian” ones might be (p90). His views on a plurality of interpretations held together in the community of faith draws on AKM Adam’s Faithful Interpretation .
Finally, he dreams of a Scripture-centred curriculum that is taught by an interdisciplinary team which locates the texts and their readings within the history of their readings in doctrine, spirituality, art, pastoral and practical theology and so on, as well as within the contexts within which they were written and edited. So the historical-critical method becomes one tool among many equally valid readings, and if there is a dominant framework it is not the text in the past, but the text in the present, and provided by a form of lectio divina in a worshipping community.
The integration of curricular content and varied interpretative methods, and the suggestion of a framework of communal lectio divina quite appeal to me. However, I can’t quite make up my mind what I think of the proposals about dethroning the historical critical method. I think some people will find them intensely threatening, especially those who have invested both their academic lives in the method they teach, as well as their souls in the conviction that the text as written in its original context is the authoritative basis for interpreting, proclaiming and obeying the voice of God through that original meaning.
I have some sympathy, myself, with both views. I think it’s far too easy for people to say “the Bible says …” as though that absolved them from their own intellectual and moral responsibility for their reading, and as though the text was simply a discrete container of meaning independent of the prejudices, presuppositions and community traditions with which the reader approaches it. On the other hand (and despite the way the canon of Scripture sometimes looks as if it were conceived to be a poster child for Derridan deconstruction) I am not convinced by the idea of giving privilege to writing rather than speech in interpretation.
Yes, the texts may now exist side by side in a complex conversation, but they were once specific intentional utterances and communications (however edited and collected into remediated communications) in original and often later forms. At its best, historical criticism insists on trying to reconstruct something of the voices of the “author” and the “audience” in a way which gives their conversation (at least the author’s one-sided contribution to it) a generative role for our conversation.
Authorial intention is a very tricky, even “unorthodox”, concept, and of course, never more than an interpretation, reconstruction or implication in itself. Nonetheless, I believe some kind of chastened notion of it is needed to honour the text as communication from someone in some place at some time (you can make those plurals as you wish) and not just communications to someone. Yes, many other readings need to sit at the same table, but why should the author not be allowed a chance, in however a halting, barely audible or stuttering voice, to say: “But what I think I meant was …”?
I don’t think we can ever go back behind the time when we became aware that the past was a foreign country where they did things differently. Historical relativism is perhaps the ultimate bequest of modernity, and all the reception history in the world combined with all the latest reader-response theories won’t make us premodern again.