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Thursday, November 09, 2006

How To Read A Text

The question: Should we teach people how to interpret the Bible?

Is interpretation something that we teach? I would like to suggest here that it is more a matter of practice: something that is learned.

The question that this introduces, of course, is whether or not there is one, right method for interpreting the Bible. That is, do we posses The Biblical Interpretation Method that is the key to unlocking all of the good stuff in the Bible.

Many would say that they do, in fact, have such a method or at least that they've got something really close that just may need a little tweaking here and there. As such, in certain circles (particularly in seminaries) we develop a "How to Read the Bible" manual. This may include an emphasis on "historical-grammatical" interpretation, or a focus on discerning the "intent of the author," or even methods for determining the "literal" meaning of the text over and above "figurative" senses.

In regards to the literal rendering we might determine certain ways in which metaphors operate: if the text indicates metaphorical or figurative language then the interpretation should be metaphorical. However, in the absence of such an indication all Scripture should be read literally.

This happens not merely in regards to Scriptural interpretation, either. There are many articles and books written on metaphors: how to detect a metaphor, how to classify a metaphor, and how to determine what classification of metaphor we are dealing with. An example is the distinction between a "dead" or a "live" metaphor. A dead metaphor is one that is used so often that its metaphorical value is virtually zero. It functions more literally than metaphorically. In English an example would be "as dead as a doornail." This is a figure of speech that, although it acts metaphorically, it is so familiar that it functions in a literal sense. A live metaphor is one that captures a sense of ambiguity while still generating a description....

The point is that we ponder language and develop methods for interpretation. The same thing holds true of Scripture. We ponder the text and develop methods of interpretation.

No argument at this point. This is a good thing. We all develop interpretive frameworks, that is, we all naturally develop methods for discerning meaning. This is true of speaking as well as writing. When we are children we learn language, and when we go to another country with a foreign language we must learn that language. So, our minds naturally learn what people mean when they say words and/or when they say them in a certain way and when they use certain body language. We have build-in mechanisms that help us learn how to understand each other. The same thing holds true in interpreting a text. Let us call this our interpretive framework: The method we use to interpret a text.

But our interpretive framework is not always something we are conscious of. Most of us just naturally learn how to interpret a language by interacting with people. Or we just learn how to interpret a text as we engage in reading. Consider that it may take years to learn a language in a classroom, but only months to pick up the same understanding by plunging one's self into a culture and engaging people in conversation.
Interpretive frameworks evolve and change. This is not to advocate "relativism" or any such boogeyman it is simply to note how we operate. For example, when we interact with different people and encounter different language our frameworks of interpretation change. Our minds naturally react to changes we encounter in our language. Not only this, but as we interact with the same people who use the same types of language that they have always used we learn to interpret them better. We might notice subtle moves that they make and over time we learn that these subtle things mean something: A husband, for example, might shift his weight right to make himself comfortable before telling a lie to his wife, and the wife learns to determine this meaning over time.
So, our frameworks evolve and change. Same thing when we interpret texts. Our frameworks naturally evolve and change as we encounter texts. We study the same texts and get a better feel for what they are all about. We study new texts and our frameworks continue to change.
Here is the point: It is a danger to solidify the framework and set it in stone. And yet this is often what happens in hermeneutics classes across the country in conservative seminaries. There is a "one way" to look at the text. This stunts the personal growth of your own interpretive framework and suspends the ability to see a text from a different angle or from a new perspective. Not that growth is impossible - as I say, it is simply stunted and slowed.
One of the keys for truly engaging the word of God in a local church community is dialogue. As we engage the Word from varying perspectives it accelerates and expands our frameworks. We see the text from a different side or from a different angle. This diversity challenges preconceived notions, while also simultaneously reinforcing orthodoxy and interpretations that are essential for defining the faith. Ultimately, dialogue amongst the faithful works as a mechanism of safeguard as well as a process for personal and community growth.

One might charge that opening up dialogue is dangerous because it risks a relativistic free-fall: A process where everyone's perspective is equally valid and hence the truth of the text is compromised by the multiplicity of perspectives. Ultimately, it is this line of thinking that has led to many conservatives "fixing" forever and ever a "How To Read The Bible" manual. But surely this is an overreaction. Perhaps in some contexts this is necessary, but certainly not on a widespread scale. The church should never create a hermeneutic that is motivated by fear. This is a purely defensive posture that weakens the mind and heart of the church. In fact, I believe it is the hermeneutic of fear that has led to anti-intellectualism in the church in a far greater way than relativism, Liberalism, or any external threat to the church. A body of believers that is motivated to question their faith internally stands the strongest chance of rebutting the threats to orthodoxy that come externally.

In regards to a hermeneutics of fear we might also ask, "From whence comes your How-To-Read-A-Text manual?" In other words, how did we come about with this correct body of interpretive guidelines and rules? Was it dropped from the sky? Did God inspire an interpretive method? No at all. Rather, it was developed by people like you and I. They may have been much smarter than you and I, but they remain fallible. Furthermore, they came about by these rules inductively: They studies many texts and looked for patterns of similarity. And they, like the rest of us, got a sense of "How To Read A Text". But if this is the case, then the sacred methods that we declare infallible are really only the product of scholars who thought they were a good idea. This is not to say that they should not be take seriously - because we must respect the efforts of the wise. Rather, it is simply to say that no method is infallible. No method escapes the finite touch of mere mortals who are subject to error.

In the end interpretation is a lively exchange, a dynamic dialogue that sharpens the faithful and transforms the community. For this reason it may not even be advisable to teach methods of interpretation - except amongst those who are really interested in it. Better to simply allow people to engage the text. As they engage their interpretative frameworks will evolve and grow and they will, quite naturally, apply their learning to other areas of Scripture. It is in this context that the church can renew a dynamic study of the Word and revitalize an appreciation for the authority of the canonical text. True dialogue will accomplish more in this regard than a thousand sermons because preaching tells us what we should be, but personal encounters make us new.


ktismatics said...

Not to belabor a point that hasn't really been made yet, but...

People naturally see representations as referring to the real things. Here's an experiment: Show an 18-month-old a picture of a whisk -- an object the kid has never seen before. "This is a whisk," you tell him. Take the picture away. Then show the kid 2 objects: the picture he saw before and was told is a whisk, and a real whisk. "Show me the whisk," you tell the kid. Almost invariably the kid points to the real whisk. Humans intuitively understand from a very young age that visual representations refer to real objects.

I talked about language acquisition on my blog. Point to a thing, use a word to describe the thing, and the 1-year-old kid understands that the word refers to that thing.

I suspect that the "natural" way for humans to read texts is to assume that the text refers to something in the real world. In other words, people naturally employ a "literalist" hermeneutic. Any other way of understanding language demands enough intellectual sophistication to suppress the literalist hermeneutic. You might never learn to read poetry as poetry, for example, if you weren't explicitly taught how to do it.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I agree with your general point about a connection between text (whether written or spoken) and reality. And I think this is important in helping to demonstrate that realism is somewhat of a "common sense" notion, which should be handled appropriately.

However, I'm not sure where you are coming from when you say,
Any other way of understanding language demands enough intellectual sophistication to suppress the literalist hermeneutic. You might never learn to read poetry as poetry, for example, if you weren't explicitly taught how to do it.

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein begins by citing Augustine's "literal" hermeneutic - point to something in the real world and give it a name: point to a table and say "table," point to a whisk and say "whisk." But Witt. then proceeding to demonstrate that this is not the only way we use language. We use language to do things - more than simply referring to objects or needing a reference in the real world.

I also wonder about the statement you made about poetry.....are you saying we have to be taught to read poetry above and beyond just learning language?

kenzie said...

I agree with Wittgetnstein's position in this regard. Even pointing at a thing and saying its name is a pragmatic use of language: "Look at that chair," or "We call that thing a chair." Even learning the meaning of the words typically takes place in pragmatic contexts: "Bring me that chair," "Go sit down in that chair," "Where can I get a chair like that one?" etc. Words themselves are tools, more like verbal fingers pointing at things than representational descriptors of those things. Presumably language evolved as a pragmatic tool to orient one another toward the same things so that mutual action could be accomplished, information and skills taught to one another, etc. So I think the pragmatic use of language is foundational.

Poetry isn't pragmatic, at least not in the ordinary sense of the term. The words point to things in the world, but in poetry the words also point to themselves: beauty of expression, evoking emotional tone, not just what is being described but the way it's being described. There's a self-conscious artistry to poetry. To read a text as poetry you have to attune to the text with aesthetic sensibility.

Here's another psych study. A little kid watches experimenter 1 sits with easel and paint and brush, looks at some object, paints a little, looks, paints, finishes, says "good." Somebody shows what's presumably the painting the experimenter just finished: it looks like a yellow blob. "What is this," the kid is asked. "It's the sun." Experimenterr 2 sits with easel etc., "accidentally" spills paint on canvas, acts disgusted. Show the kid the painting: a yellow blob identical to the first one. "What is this?" "Paint," says the kid. Inference: the kid orients himself aesthetically to the painting based on the artist's intention.

Now does that imply that kids spontaneously develop an artistic/aesthetic sensibility without being taught? Or does a kid spontaneously see a blob of paint but has to learn to see a painted representation of an object? I don't know; I'll get back to you on that. Certainly kids play with verbalization in a way that could grow into poetry.

It's possible to read poetry as literal prose, and it's possible to read prose poetically. A photograph captures an image, and you can either pay attention to the subject of the image or to the lighting, the framing, the angle, and so on -- the artistry of the image itself.

Is there value in going to art school to learn how to paint, or in taking art appreciation to learn how to see aesthetically? Probably there is: this is part of what civilization bequeaths to us. But if people didn't have natural abilities to do these things the teaching probably wouldn't stick. And teaching can certainly lock you into an inflexible paradigm that limits your freedom and creativity as a reader.

Presumably that's where you are now: a naturally good reader who's learned the standard tools of the craft, sensing the need to unlearn some things in order to move beyond.

samlcarr said...

From the heights of philosophy one might conclude that teaching interpretation is wrong. I don't know. If some who had gug into a text had not helped me to see what they were seeing, more importantly, by what process they were able to discover meaning, then i may never have got started.

What certainly needs to be taught is the value of asking questions, finding the variety of questions that one can ask and then the art of weighing the answers.

The process need not be dogmatic, though many have approached it so.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I agree with you 100% Sam. Good thought!

My only point (for all rambling!) is that people tend to learn more than they realize simply by the "digging" process - getting into the text, itself. But you are right, there is certainly something significant that is gained by having someone share various tips, suggestions, etc. for interpretation. I've had similar experiences as you, and I have gained immensely from people who have given advice on interpretation - perhaps more than I realize, eh???

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