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Friday, January 05, 2007

Bruce Ellis Benson "The Improvisation of Hermeneutics"

I would like to begin by way of a personal example. I have over the past few years began to seriously question whether or not “biblical interpretation” should be taught. I have a small Bible study discussion group that meets on Sunday mornings at our church. I have thought, on several occasions, that it would be good to teach a class on interpretation. And yet as I contemplated this I realized that each time we opened our Bibles on Sunday morning to study we were conducting a biblical interpretations class – and we were doing it quite well! Without even realizing it we were all becoming better interpreters of the Bible because we were all doing interpretation. Furthermore, upon reflecting upon Benson’s piece I believe it may be possible to stifle the process of biblical interpretation by putting in place rules and regulations, which unnecessarily burden the sincere seeker. There must be room for imagination in interpretation. Or, as Benson puts it, “improvisation.”

Benson’s essay, "The Improvisation of Hermeneutics" is the opening act in Part 4 of Hermeneutics at the Crossroads. He specifically addresses some of the ethical concerns of hermeneutics. Benson states in the conclusion: “My concern here is a deeply ethical one. If the author should not die so that the reader may live, then neither should the reader have to die so that the author may live…As interpreters, we owe much to authors and their texts. But authors and texts are – if not equally – at least clearly dependent upon interpreters and interpretive communities.” (205) This quote echoes Benson’s refusal to give a privilege to either author, text, or interpreter in the hermeneutical process. Rather, what interpretation is is the result of an improvisational moment similar to that of a jazz performance: “The typical way in which jazz pieces are performed is that the “head” or melody is stated, then succeeding choruses improvise upon it, and then the performance concludes with a restatement of that melody…The further one can go – and still remain in touch with the piece’s structure – the better the improviser one is.” (206)

An improvisational model of hermeneutics, as Benson develops it, would seek to do justice to both the author, the text, and the interpretive community. (194) This is not merely a license for play on the part of the reader. For example, Benson comments on a Scriptural hermeneutic: “A pastor is not allowed to ‘improvise’ on 1 Corinthians for a sermon in the same way that Paul was ‘allowed’ to improvise on Old Testament and early Christian texts in composing 1 Corinthians. There are ways in which an improvisation can be deemed ‘faithful’ to a text and ways in which it can be deemed ‘unfaithful.’” (205) As such, it is improvisation “all the way down” including on the part of the author. Benson puts the author and reader alike in a process of improvisation. In fact, “It is safe to say that in jazz the roles of composer and performer are so clearly interwoven that a clear distinction between the two is significantly complicated – even though there is still a distinction.” (197) Hence in jazz improvisation is actually the intention of the composer. (198) In my view these thoughts of Benson’s go to an essential hermeneutical point: Interpretation can never be strictly defined in advance. Interpretation must always make room for revision. This goes back to my point in the opening paragraph regarding the learning of hermeneutics. Rules are helpful for learning hermeneutics, but they must always be held with an open hand. This is true even in the case of Scriptural interpretation. One might think that after all of these years of interpretation we would finally have the correct interpretation, and many in Christian circles would make this claim, but each community and even each individual must make an interpretive decision, and this is a decision that can only be relevant if it is actually made in a moment of decision and not simply a moment of rote repetition. And this only become a conscious and relevant decision if it is one that an individual has learned to make by the actual doing of interpretation.

Regarding these last few thoughts Benson actually echoes this on pages 202-03 and brings in Derrida (and then Hirsch): “Attempting to determine what ‘the piece has to say’ or ‘the text has to say’ is not merely a matter of playing the ‘right’ notes or reading the words…Earlier we mentioned Derrida’s conception of a ‘doubling commentary’ that acts as a ‘guardrail’ for the text. While Derrida clearly thinks such a commentary is important, he also thinks that this ‘doubling’ is possible only to a limited extent. For even in doubling there is already an improvisatory moment.” (202) So, improvisation is required even if we want to be most true to the author and the text: “Even when we try to be mere ‘imitators’ or provide ‘literal’ translations of texts, those imitations and translations invariably go beyond the text.” (203)

Finally, I would like to highlight a question that Benson raises regarding the relationship between “improvisation” and the text itself. For Benson the relationship is not one that is simply stated. His view seems to be the last of three options: “Performance practice actually affects the very identity of the piece, not in the weak sense of bringing out possibilities but in the strong sens of actually ‘creating’ (or, rather, improvising) them.” (204) Admittedly, this “complicates” things a bit. Specifically, it complicates the identity of the piece/text. “The piece becomes in effect a historical entity that is affected by subsequent interpretations. On this account, the identity of the piece may subtly change over time, even though its identity would still be continuous. In such a case, its identity would be similar to many other historical entities, such as human persons, who retain their identity despite mental and physical changes.” (204) Benson points to a dramatic example of this in the composition of Round Midnight, which was composed and altered by several performers, including Thelonious Monk, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. (204, 196-97)

For many of us talk about a text changing over time causes us to cringe a bit. However, this is a good cringe, I think. It goes to the importance of preserving the integrity of the text and of the responsibility readers have to the text and the author. However, what I appreciate about Benson’s perspective is the refusal to oversimplify the interpretive process. Benson’s insightful essay effectively utilizes analogies from the improvisation in jazz to provide a very general model and goal for hermeneutics – a process of creativity that continually re-evaluates itself in order to carefully preserve the rights of the author, text, and reader and act in an ethical and just way to all of those who are shareholders in the hermeneutical moment.

Citation: Bruce Ellis Benson, “The Improvisation of Hermeneutics” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Other essays reviewed in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads:
Bruce Ellis Benson "The Improvisation of Hermeneutics"
James K.A. Smith "Limited Inc/arnation"
Kevin Vanhoozer "Discourse on Matter"
Nicholas Wolterstorff "Resuscitating the Author"


ktismatics said...

The blurred distinction between interpreting and creating music is certainly a hallmark of jazz. Is it your proposal similarly to blur the distinction between interpreting and creating texts? Between interpreting and creating revelation?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Blurring the distinction between interpreting and creating is the proposal of Benson, and I think that I agree with him - to a point. I believe that whether there is a clear distinction between interpreting/creating a text depends a great deal on the text itself. Benson does not expand this thought too much in his essay, but I think that his proposal suggests it.

An example: The parables of Jesus continually confounded those who heard them. It seems that even Jesus' own disciples were frustrated by their meaning. I imagine they were even more irritated by the fact that of anyone listening to Jesus they of all people - Jesus' very own followers - they should know what Jesus was talking about. But they were stumped!

Now I'm not an expert on parables, nor have I studied them in depth, however, it seems rather clear that the reason these parables were difficult to understand is that the meaning of the parables lies in the reaction and response of the hearer. Parables were not given by Jesus for the hearer to understand their meaning - that's the wrong approach - we shouldn't look for the meaning and then try to appropriate the meaning. This was the approach of the disciples, and they missed the point. The meaning simply is the appropriation. The parables were given to be taken personally. They were given to hit us in the gut and to convict and change behavior. To find a "meaning" is simply not necessary. At least not in the sense the disciples were looking for.

So, in the case of the parables it is the intention of the author that the hearer of the story be a participant in constructing meaning by appropriating and situating the parable in a personal sense. I can find a "meaning" in any of Jesus' parables, but if the parable does not move me in some way then the parable fails. I must actively construct the meaning of the parable as it applies to my life and my context. If I fail to do this then I have not become an active participant in constructing meaning. This is very similar to how jazz musicians compose the piece by performing it. The music sends them in a direction and they must appropriate that piece according to their own abilities to improvise. Similarly, the parables of Jesus send us in a direction and we must appropriate them in a very personal and practical sense according to our context and our ability to hear.

This example, however, is just for one particular type of text. The type of "improvisation" required will vary according to the text. It can't be determined in advance. And this seems to me to be Benson's point.

ktismatics said...

Thanks for the clarifications. A couple more questions:

(1) In the parable of the sower, Jesus said he spoke in parables so that people would hear but not understand. Then he proceeded to explain what the parables meant. Were the meanings Jesus saw in his own parables inherent in the parables themselves? Or did Jesus's interpretations emerge as his personal, subjective, idiosyncratic response in listening to his own parables?

(2) If someone writes a text and no one ever reads it, does that text exist?

ktismatics said...

Not to distract you from thinking about the questions in my preceding comment, but I just remembered something else about the parable of the sower. Jesus explains that the different soils are metaphors for different ways in which people respond to the gospel. So here Jesus distinguishes three things: the parable, the meaning of the parable, and the hearer's response to the meaning of the parable. Three separate things.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think your thoughts in the most recent comment go to what I am thinking. It also goes back to the locution distinctions. Here they are in summary fashion...

Locution: The communication itself (the telling of the parable)
Illocution: The thing communicated (the "meaning" of the parable as explained to the disciples by Jesus)
Perlocution: The effect of the communication on the hearer (how the disciples/crowds responded to the parables)

As far as I can see...for the parables to have a significant meaning for the disciples/crowds there needed to be a significant response. In the parable of the sower Jesus cites Isaiah chapter 6. In Matthew 13:15-15 and Mark 4:12 there is a specific reference to and understanding that leads to "healing." This follows the Isaiah 6 passage where "understanding" seems to be equated with "repentance". To understand is to act accordingly. The action of repentance results in healing.

To truly understand Jesus' parables is to construct a personal meaning - it is to personally appropriate them to one's own spiritual situation. Hence the "perlocution" or reader response seems to be tied to the meaning of the text. We don't understand unless we act/respond. It's like a jazz musician on the saxophone: How does he/she respond to the piece being played? The meaning of the piece emerges as he/she responds to it and plays.

Cynthia Nielsen said...

Nice job, Jonathan. I was planning on blogging Benson's article, but you beat me to it. Perhaps, I will still do it and then link your review as well.

I also tend to agree with Benson's take and have attempted to develop thoughts along this line:



ktismatics said...

Have you thought about the relationship between jazz and pentecostalism? As a former practitioner of the gift of tongues, I can testify to the implicit hermeneutic of glossolalia: It's a direct, spontaneous, improvised revelation from God that circumvents rational understanding but that "bears fruit" anyway. It's a way for the believer to pray God's will without a consciously being aware of what God's will is. It also imparts to both tongues-speaker and listeners the emotion God would like people to feel at that moment. And of course sometimes tongues is a revelation of God's truth as interpreted (but not translated!) by someone having that gift.

Pentecostal instrumental music likewise is improvisational. There's also "singing in the spirit," an improv that's sometimes just the music, sometimes a simple praise lyric, sometimes in tongues -- kind of like skat.

Jazz has an affinity with pentecostalism, I think. They began about the same time in American history, in black churches especially. And Pentecostal theology of revelation isn't far off from what you're talking about in this post.

By the way, I can still speak in tongues even though I'm no longer a believer. Kind of like riding a bike, I guess.

ktismatics said...

So I just went from this blog to Church and Postmodern Culture where there's a new post by Cynthia Nielsen on the Benson essay. Looks like it's mostly a synopsis rather than a commentary -- true to the score without a lot of improv.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I raise the theoretical possibility of meanings beyond the universal meaning of the text: Meanings that are more subjective. I blur the lines between "meaning" and "significance" and say that in some (and perhaps many/all!) instances the hearer must "finish" the meaning themselves. That sometimes the meaning just is in the significance...

This raises the issue of Charismatic/Pentacostal groups that build massive movements centered on just this concept. Almost to the point where an so-called universal meaning is minimalized completely. This leads to problems of relativism. It also creates other problems that you have alluded to: It is possible for a non-believer to work up the excitment and feeling associated with God but not actually have God. It becomes an non-God, emotional experience.

Reacting to this were (and still are) a significant group of conservatives who bypass the problem all together by locating meaning solely in a universal concept that applies to all. Hence the Parable of the Sower has no "meaning for me" - rather, the one and only "meaning" is just as Jesus had spelled out to the disciples. And anything else is simply my response to meaning. My response to meaning is simply the personal significance or application of the text. (This is the background in which I have been raised and it is still the place where I spend most of my time.)

Obviously I diverge from the strict, conservative position on hermeneutical ground explained above. So, how do I avoid Charismatic extremes?

In theory I agree with Charismatics: God can speak directly and bypass any conscious knowledge of the "universal meaning." That is, the parable of the sower can hit me in the heart without my conscious knowledge of the meaning. My disagreement with Charistmatics/Pentacostals (not all, but most) is that they go about their business as though the universal meaning is of minimal significance. In other words, it is a matter of extremes that i have a problem. Conservatives favor universal meaning and cheapen personal meaning while Charismatics/Pentacostal types favor personal meaning and cheapen universal meaning. Furthermore, they often create a sharp dichotomy between the two, whereas in reality the distinction is more difficult to see.

In essence I react against those who want simple and clear cut answers to a complex interpretive issue of revelation. Someone cans a simplistic solution and the community runs with it, canonizes it, and suddenly no one can question it. Granted, we need to be slow and serious when we question traditions, but they can't remain untouchable. We absolutely must question our theory or interpreting Scripture in the very name of our most sacred creeds - Sola Scriptura!!!

Aaaahhhhhhh....you got me to preachin'!!

ktismatics said...

For those of you coming to this post from Amazon, I highly recommend this blog. In fact, I'd give it 5 stars! Jon, the host, has interesting observations (except perhaps on politics), engages the commenters, and has true enthusiasm for all things hermeneutical. This might not be the blog with the biggest following, but it's top-notch. Stick around -- you'll be glad you did.

Jonathan Erdman said...

The following was a paid political ad..."I am Jonathan Erdman, and I approve this message."

ktismatics said...

In light of these discussions about jazz, I recommend that you read today's (1/30) post on my blog about the origins of Western classical music in the centuries prior to the Reformation.