Saturday, 30 July 2011

Engaging the “Other” in Reading

In response to an email from our friend Joseph McAuley back in June, I began to write a post on hermeneutics and authorial intention. However, I soon realised that I was opening Pandora's Box, and that a single blog post could not adequately address all the issues at stake in this conversation. So I began to do a little reading and thinking, and Michael Frost and I have had some helpful discussions around this topic as well. So what follows is my first attempt, among many to come, to articulate my position regarding hermeneutics and authorial intentions. I realise this is a technical discussion but I'm hoping to translate most of the technical discussion so that others can join in the conversation... So please feel free to ask questions, raise issues and concerns or flat out object. This is a work in progress...

attempt 1: begin...

Alan Jacobs in his book, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, argues that genuine reading and interpretation of someone’s writing, is an act of love or it is an act of abuse.[1] What this means is that either we, (intentionally or not), treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart that we can then trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a treacherous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power. Tom Wright has elaborated a similar view with regards to an epistemology/hermeneutic of love which is a helpful aid to the act of reading.

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself… When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understanding it, of living with it and continuing to listen… Each stage of this process becomes a conversation, in which misunderstanding is likely, perhaps even inevitable, but in which, through patient listening, real understanding (and real access to external reality) is actually possible and attainable.[2]

Texts must thus be viewed as “an extension of one’s self into the world, through communicative action.”[3] Therefore, through textual interpretation we are engaging with the voice of another, and that voice must be respected in the interpretive process. As Wolterstorff has noted, reading is therefore an act of “engagement with a person that is mediated by the artefact.”[4] Because we are engaging with the voice of another through a text, there is an ethical dimension to our reading and interpretation.[5]

This ethic of interpretation is necessary “to guard the otherness of the text: to preserve its ability to say something to and affect the reader, thus creating the possibility of self-transcendence.”[6] We must be aware that interpretation does not become “a hostile act in which [the] interpreter victimises [a] text.”[7] Reading therefore requires a careful and patient listening and discerning process as we grapple to understand the voice of another. This requires that we pay attention to the concerns and convictions in the voice and message of another, and not dominate their offering and contribution with our own concerns and convictions, however valid those may be. “The interpreter has an ethical responsibility to allow the communicative aim of the text to guide the reader to its intended meaning.”[8] This provides the necessary foundation for a responsible hermeneutic that seeks to understand and represent faithfully the communication of the other, in various texts.[9]

Does that make sense? Clear as mud?


[1] Alan Jacobs, A Theology Of Reading: The Hermeneutics Of Love. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001).

[2] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. (London: SPCK, 1992), 64. This theory of reading is set within the context of Wright’s critical realist epistemology which provides the necessary framework for such a view.

[3] K. J. Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge. (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 229.

[4] See Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Resuscitating the Author” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K. A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson. (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2006), 35-50. This point is also well made by Theologians such as Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 465.

[5] Vanhoozer, 376, notes that only a realist hermeneutic can “respect” the voice of the other, because the “non-realist does not believe that there is anything to be respected.” K. J. Vanhoozer, “A Lamp in the Labyrinth: The Hermeneutics of ‘Aesthetic’ Theology,” Trinity Journal 88 (1987): 25-56, introduces Speech-Act Theory to show how we engage with authors through texts. See John Searle, Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. (London: Cambridge University, 1969) and how this is developed in Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text? In telling section, Vanhoozer, 55, notes that “If the text is a speech act, it seems as far-fetched to separate an author from his language and literature as it does an agent from his action. The author “belongs” to his text. He is responsible for his illocutionary acts… [T]o misinterpret a text is akin to attributing an action to the author that he did not commit.”

[6] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 383.

[7] Mark C. Taylor, “Text as Victim,” in Thomas Altizer and Carl Raschke, Deconstruction and Theology. (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 65. Vanhoozer, “A Lamp in the Labyrinth,” 53 uses stronger language to note that, “wilful misunderstanding of texts is somehow guilty of doing violence to the author. Purposely to misinterpret an author seems akin to disrespect, a kind of semantic rape.”

[8] G. R. Osborne, “Hermeneutics,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments. eds. Ralph P. Martin, Peter H. Davids, (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press) 2000, c1998, [Online] Available: Logos Library System.

[9] Vanhoozer, “A Lamp in the Labyrinth,” 55, “In combining intention and convention, speaker meaning and sentence meaning, speech act theory is able to preserve the emphasis on the present form of a text while at the same time preserving a normative role for the author and his author-ity. With speech act theory, the author has begun to rediscover his voice.”

Friday, 15 July 2011

Hardly Aware

If there is an overarching metanarrative that purports to explain reality in the late 20th century (early 21st century), it is surely the metanarrative of the free-market economy. In the beginning of this narrative is the self-made, self-sufficient human being. At the end of this narrative is the big house, big car, and the expensive clothes. In the middle is the struggle for success, the greed, the getting-and-spending in a world in which there is no such thing as a free lunch. Most of us have made this so thoroughly "our story" that we are hardly aware of its influence.

Susan White - New Story to Live By?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Bursting Bubbles of Individualism

God created humankind as social beings. This is not an accident, a mistake, or a result of the fall. We are created in the image of the triune God who is relational to the core, existing in a loving and ever deferring dance of community; Father, Son, and Spirit.

Western individualism is an expression of humanities broken, marred, sinful nature. Ultimately it is rooted in selfishness but it also finds momentum as people shy away from relationship as a result of offense, abuse, and the negative experiences everybody goes through in relationships. When brokenness encounters brokenness, as people come together in relationship, there is always the potential for fireworks that are not always positive and life giving.

One of the incredible attractions of individualism is its ability to create an island or a bubble of self-existence. An individual who lives a self focussed life (or at best, a nuclear family focussed life), can set up a fence, a wall, a boundary that keeps whatever is happening in the rest of the world out. It also makes it possible to live unaware of what is happening in the rest of the world. When the wall or the fence is higher enough, it is possible in our western context to truly live the 'good life.' One can eat, drink and be merry with little and even no consideration for others.

The relational triune God created and invited humanity into relationship with God and each other. Sin stuffed it all up. The relational triune God came in the flesh, incarnate, in order to make relationship with God and each other possible again. The gospel, the cross, Jesus Christ bursts bubbles of individualism. The gospel challenges us to think communally and live communally. It challenges us to live in loving, deferring, generous relationship with each other and the rest of the created order, out of our restored and loving relationship with God. The bubble is burst. The island has been bridged. The fence and the wall have been torn down.

This changes everything. 

One can no-longer hide from the pain, heartache, injustice, needs and challenges that face our neighbours, our workmates, and our global community. One cannot ignore the reality of the brokenness in the world, hide away from it, or deny it. Escapism is not an option. Rather one is invited to partner with the Spirit’s work in the world to bring healing, restoration and life! The challenge is enormous, the adventure life long, the reward incredible. 

With the help of the Spirit when brokenness encounters brokenness, as people come together in relationship, there is the potential for healing, love and true life to be found.

Resist the pull to build walls of individualism and isolation around your life. The sense of protection is false. The bliss of ignorance a deception. 

Embrace life relationally and communally, be the kind of person you were created to be. Help restore that which is broken.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Resources - Philippians

I often get asked about books and commentaries on the New Testament, as that's my focus. So here's a selection of commentaries on Philippians that I believe actually helps people to understand and thus implement Paul's letter to the Philippians.

M. Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians. BNTC Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998.

This is not a technical commentary, but it is attentive to historical details that illuminate the world in which this letter was written. This is my first "go to" commentary on Philippians as Bockmuehl is a fantastic scholar who writes clearly and carefully. There are many superb insights and interpretations that naturally lead to thoughts of significance and application.

G. D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. NICNT Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Regarded as a hero amongst both Pentecostals and Evangelicals alike, this is a trustworthy commentary with careful attention to the details of Philippians and its message to Christians. Fee is brilliant on Philippians and although a bit detailed for many busy people, it more than repays the time devoted to it.

S. E. Fowl, Philippians. THNTC Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

This commentary attempts to bridge the divide between systematic theology and biblical studies. It's a theological commentary, which focusses on key ideas and themes running through Philippians. This is probably my favourite commentary on Philippians. Fowl helpfully relies on Bockmuehl, Fee, and the other more technical commentaries but also thinks through the theological and practical implications of the message of Philippians for contemporary Western Christians.

These are not the technical commentaries, but these are one's that I have found helpful in grappling with Paul's message in this letter, and thinking through how to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus in community. They are excellent commentaries for preaching and teaching, and may even work in group setting where people read sections and then gather to discuss the sections read.

I hope this helpful... If you have any requests for comments and resources on other writings in the New Testament, let me know. If you have any further recommendations on Philippians, drop me a comment with a suggestion.