Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Getting Played

My brother George, a gift-giving uncle extraordinaire, gave my daughter a book for her birthday. The book is about middle-school reading level, which is still a wee bit above my seven-year-old's abilities. But she'll get there soon.

So as to keep the book from languishing unattended on the shelf, I picked up Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game (1978, reprinted 2003). And I had trouble putting it down.

Thrilling, confusing, hilarious, strange, silly, and utterly compelling.

I actually pulled out pen and paper at one point, in an attempt to solve the puzzle at the center of this Clue-like mystery. I got one part, only to discover--like all of Raskin's characters along the way--that I had missed the point.

And when the point finally appeared, I was so intrigued that I went back and read the whole book again. And still:

Thrilling, confusing, hilarious, strange, and utterly compelling.

And through her strange style Raskin masterfully achieves the great goal of all novelists: I was so attached to the characters that I wept at our parting.

The Westing Game.

~ emrys

Friday, May 06, 2016

Renewing Biblical Interpretation

Renewing Biblical Interpretation (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, Volume 1, 2000) was a challenging read. This collection of essays by academic theologians presents a great variety of material that was at times enlightening, obscure, and wandering, but consistently thoughtful. The unifying force of these authors' work was a sense of crisis in the world of biblical interpretation.

An academic text published in 2000 is old. Nonetheless, reading it in 2016 gave me a renewed appreciation for the bind of contemporary Western Christianity. 18th- and 19th- century historical-critical scholarship, and its sibling changes in philosophy, have together left the Western Church wondering how to interpret our 66 ancient texts. I knew about this difficulty, but Renewing Biblical Interpretation deepened my thought about how the Church handles her scriptures.

A few highlights of the book for me:

Al Wolters offered not only a theoretical 10,000-foot view of the crisis but also a process of interpretation (complete with example case) that included lexigraphical analysis, historical analysis, and "confessional discernment." From the stratospheric soaring of Cambridge academia Wolters' essay provided a refreshing visit to the earth and sea in which most faithful Christians live.

Karl Moller offers a helpful reminder that historical-critical scholarship can carry with it its own theological views and preferences. Rather than throw away historical-critical scholarship, Moller suggests (in harmony with several other contributors to this volume) that we "cultivate an awareness of our own subjectivity and cultural rootedness." He says that Christians need to allow "the text to criticize these and, by so doing, to contribute to . . . the reshaping of our own selves" (p157). My own understanding is that the Spirit through the text shapes and reshapes us, but Moller's point about the biases we bring to scripture is well taken.

Colin Greene's chapter (with the daunting title "'In the Arms of Angels': Biblical Interpretation, Christology and the Philosophy of History") provides an excellent overview of the rise and influence of historical-critical scholarship, and hence the rise of the crisis at hand. For any reader trying to grasp the sweeping historical moves in biblical scholarship, Greene's article is just the thing.

Stephen Wright draws a helpful distinction between the logos of the bible (what the words say), and the poiema of the bible (what the text does). He asserts that historical-critical work can benefit our listening to what the text does in the lives of believers and the Church.

I am intrigued by the references to (and short response by) Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff seems to be a Christian philosopher focused on the import and effect of words, divine and human. Sometime I hope to get his kindle edition of Divine Discourse . . . .

Walter Brueggemann offers a reflection on the entire consultation (the gathering which gave rise to this book). A key insight from his piece is that though biblical interpretation has certainly been changing over time, the "crisis" has really come from the bible's place in society. For about 1500 years in Western society everyone was Christian and assumed that the bible was somehow the basis for our society. The ubiquity of assent to the bible is no longer true. Christians are no longer "preaching to the choir," but instead find they need to do "street preaching" (Brueggemann's term) with its concomitant heckling, disbelief, and challenges. I'm on board with his assessment.

The tap root to which this book delivered me was expressed in Brian Ingraffia's article, as he reflected on the work of Baruch Spinoza. From the latter's work Tractatus (15), Ingraffia quotes: "Revelation has obedience for its sole object, and therefore, in purpose no less than in foundation and method, stands entirely aloof from ordinary knowledge; each has its separate province, neither an be called the handmaid of the other" (p290). In my experience, this is still--and might always be--the cutting edge of biblical interpretation. As long as Christians believe that the most basic act of faith is to obey the bible, then they will be in conflict with all the other gods clamoring for obedience: reason, logic, and experience. We cannot serve two masters. If the bible, reason, logic, and experience (all refined by critical study) stand equally ready to serve God, the only master, then we have a hope of using all four in service to God.

I was disappointed to see only one female name in the grand list of authors for this volume. I was also disappointed in the silence of reflection from Latin American, African, and Asian theological perspectives. Perhaps the "crises" of those regions of Christianity would be very different from the reflections in this text; on the other hand, perhaps their crises and insights would be instructive to us Western European-derived traditions.

~ emrys