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On Backseats

January 24, 2012

There are some things in life that I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how Kim Kardashian figured out how to monetize being famous just for being famous. Perhaps I need to get some tips on how to monetize being unfamous. Not infamous, mind you, just unfamous, thank you very much. I also don’t understand why people talk about how college sports are being played at a higher level than their professional counterparts. That’s patently ridiculous. It’s fine to like them better, but to say that they are played better is just laughable. I don’t understand why someone would eat a healthfood cookie. If you want healthy food, go ahead and eat some. If you want a cookie, eat a tasty and delicious one, not a birdseed and organic spelt flour concoction. I don’t understand why Sweet Home Alabama isn’t America’s number one reality show. I know there’s a movie and a song by the same name, but the show on CMT is amazazing. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

There’s also some things that matter that I don’t understand. For one, why do people decide they want to be Christians if they don’t want to do anything resembling a life of discipleship? I know several people who call themselves committed Christians who don’t ever read their Bible, pray, go to church, or even allow their understanding of their faith to impact their actions at all. In short, they do whatever they want, whenever they want, and somehow they think that’s an OK way to live their life.

Let me draw a distinction here–I know WHY people do that stuff, but I sure don’t know why they think it’s OK. I guess it goes back to how we derive what a Christian life is all about. There are many people running around out there who base their doctrine on “what I think.” Someone in this camp might, for example, talk about how they think that Jesus would do something because they think that he was generally just loving. If you ask them why they think that, they respond with something along the lines of “because that’s what I think he was all about.” Thinking about Jesus has been reduced to a mental exercise in which people decide what they want Jesus to be and then ascribe those things to Him.

In the old days (I hesitate to call them the good old days), people looked for clues as to Jesus’ personality in the Biblical text.* Nowadays, most whippersnappers don’t place any value on examining the text and, if they do end up perusing it, they interpret it so widely off the mark so as to render it meaningless. I don’t really know why this trend is occurring, but it certainly is happening in spades. People who think that there is one meaning located within the Bible are firmly in the minority.

*”Biblical text” is a fancy name for “the Bible.”

One of my staunchest critics steadfast supporters took issue with my quick and dirty definition of “reader-response criticism” in an earlier blog post. Well: ta-da! The time has come to revisit the issue and hopefully help people feel better about the information that I am giving to the masses. NB: The following sort of became long and drawn out, but if you slog through it I guarantee you will learn something and it will be worth it in the end. If not, triple your money back.

In reader-response criticism, the person who reads the Bible becomes a part of an interpretive unit alongside the author and the text. In other words, there’s a chain: the author writes the text –> the text is read by the reader. In traditional ways of looking at the Bible, it’s the reader’s job to find out what the author is really trying to say, and he or she does this by looking at the words on the page, the history surrounding the issue, other related Biblical passages, perhaps study tools and commentaries–all in the hope of recovering the original message. In this view, the reader is mostly a passive consumer of the text. He or she doesn’t bring any meaning to it; they seek to uncover what is already there.

Reader-response looks at the Bible place the role of the reader in somewhat higher esteem. That’s why readers get the title role! This way of thinking argues that the reader comes to the text with pre-understandings and background beliefs that shape how the reader understands the text. The author can’t do anything about it….the text is fixed. As the reader peruses and studies the Scripture, he or she projects some of his or her own understanding back on to the text. They ask questions of the text, but then realize that the text is asking questions back at them. There is a give-and-take dialogue between the text as written and the reader. This is the so-called “New Hermeneutic” or the “Hermeneutical Spiral” referred to by Grant Osborne. The text and reader go around and around, eventually drifting towards a fixed center of meaning.

There are a multiplicity of fine points debated by these critics, mainly having to do with the ability to recover the author’s central meaning. Some are very pessimistic, kindof like Eeyore, while others hold out more optimism, sort of like a cheerleader on Red Bull. Osborne is in this later camp. He actually refers to a “trialogue” rather than a dialogue, speaking of an interrelationship between what the author meant to say (authoral intent), what he did say (the text) and the reader’s understanding (shaped by preunderstanding and background beliefs). Reader-response Eeyores, like Stanley Fish, don’t think that you can recover meaning in the text at all. This is the type of thinking that I was pejorative towards earlier. As this discussion hopefully makes clear, Fish’s style of reader-response isn’t the only thing on the menu.

So, even though you’re a loyal Hotdog Theologue, well-versed in The Issues beyond those vexing a mere layperson, you have probably never heard of reader-response criticism.* Why do I bring it up? And why do I title it “On Backseats?” Well, I bring it up because pretty much every Christian I know makes reader-response their only way of looking at the Bible. You are probably guilty as well. When you read your Bible devotionally, as I know you do every day early in the morning before the sun comes up, do you look for a special message for your day? Maybe you pray that God would speak to you through your reading, or maybe you hope to find special guidance for your situation in life. All of these are totally fine and legitimate uses of the Bible, but they cross into reader-response: you, the reader, are hoping to find a meaning that meets with your pre-understanding. I dare say that the original authors did not have you in mind when they wrote the Bible down on paper for the first time. Sorry to burst your bubble.

*Unless you’re that guy I referred to earlier. You know who you are. Or maybe you’re a classmate reading this over my shoulder. Hmm.

You might be aware of a guy that I like to call Rob Bell. I like to call him that because that’s his name. Bell is a famous pastor and author (I guess he is more accurately a former pastor) who has gained rampant popularity by compelling reader-responsive interpretations of the Bible. Let’s look at a test case from his writings. In Velvet Elvis, Bell talks about the passage in Matthew where Jesus tells his disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose will be loosed in heaven. Bell looks at some Rabbinic sources and sees that they talk about binding and loosing as “interpreting Scripture.” Bell then extrapolates this idea onto Jesus’ words and finds that Jesus is saying that we can re-interpret Scripture and that heaven will sign off on the transaction.* This is all very reader-response, and very enticing. It’s great to say that God agrees with every interpretive choice that we make, but, to quote Seth Myers, REALLY? REALLY? We can make the Bible say whatever we want and Jesus is cool with that? REALLY?

*To be fair, Bell doesn’t say that Jesus is cool with making the text say anything, only that binding and loosing is a continuous process undertaken by faith communities. He also doesn’t, however, place any limits on that interpretation. So maybe he opens the door more than he walks through it, but I have to generally disagree with the conclusions. He also bases his conclusions on 7th century Jewish Rabbis and reads their thoughts back on to Jesus as if he shared them, even though there is no evidence of this. So take Bell with a grain of salt, and take me with two or three.
But that’s the stance taken by so many people who deny that what the Bible says is fixed or that what it says is binding for Christians today. They act like whatever they do is co-signed off by God himself, because well-you-know-what God is love and that’s really all that matters. This is the downside of reader-centric interpretation: the Bible becomes a mere mirror of one’s own self. Like my boy Augustine said, “If we believe only what we like about the Gospel, it is not the Gospel that we believe, but ourselves.”

Now hold the phone for just one hot second. Am I saying that the Bible has only one interpretation, one application, for everyone in every time in every place? Of course not. As someone influenced by Pentecostal thought, I can’t deny that God uses the Bible to speak to people differently all the time. I think that the Holy Spirit is just as present in the reading of Scripture as he was during the writing of it. Reader-response isn’t bad; it’s just that it has ran off the rails in popular Christianity.

So how has it run off the rails? Well, it’s just exactly how I described it above. People pretty much think it’s OK to do pretty much anything they want. The Bible can’t really tell them otherwise; they just interpret what the Bible says in light of what they think and call it good. Assuming, of course, that they read it at all. And that’s why I called this looooong post On Backseats. Why, oh, why would any Christian think it’s OK to crawl in the backseat of a car with someone and do what people do in backseats? I have honestly no idea. But to hear my sources tell it, almost everyone aged 19-22, whether or not they are in a committed dating relationship, is doing these things. Relevant magazine recently published an article arguing that upwards of 80% of Christians are having extra-marital sex of some kind. 80%? 80% of people don’t do ANYTHING! 80% of dentists can’t agree to recommend an anti-cavity toothpaste, but 80% of Christians think that something blatantly anti-Scriptural, blantantly anti-church-teaching, something obviously wrong is OK to do? And not only do they think it, they DO it? And that’s what I don’t understand. Why don’t kids these days believe that the Bible has anything to teach them? Why don’t they act like it doesn’t have any authority in itself?

I have no idea. Perhaps someone can tell me in the comments below.
11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2012 9:34 pm

    I’m not sure that the whole issue is hermeneutics, though the current trends in that field tend to be looser than a goose on prune juice. The real issue is authority. Interpreters with any integrity whatsoever will deal with the text honestly, following the interpreter’s traditional pattern of: original meaning, followed by bridging the contexts, to applying the truth here and now. Any other approach lacks integrity and can neither be sustained with logic or viewed with trust. It is at the end of this interpretive process that the issue of authority comes into view: do I believe this is God’s Word “to me”…and will I perform or reject it. That’s why 80% are in the backseat, proverbially and literally.

    By the way, regarding the guy you like to call Rob Bell, Eugene Peterson (the Pastor of Pastors around here) says that Bell never was the pastor of the church in Michigan. He never knew his people or acted as their shepherd. He was a speaker, a hired gun if you will, not a pastor. That, Peterson suggests, is why he drifted away from the orthodox view of hell. Instead of caring for disciples in the context of a congregation, he lectured students looking for information that would either excite them or agree with them. He, too, has fallen into the “authority trap.”

    Good piece.

    • January 25, 2012 1:22 pm

      I hesitate to comment on Bell’s situation as a pastor, since I have no frame of reference for what he did while there, and I feel bad picking on him as a representative example of new popular hermeneutics, but I do think that his looseness towards the text insofar as interpretive method does give the impression that it is less authoritative than perhaps traditional understanding finds.
      The basic question is: does the Bible have a central message to teach to us, and, if so, do we have to obey it.
      I vote for yes on both counts.

  2. Mark permalink
    January 25, 2012 12:07 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Can’t agree more. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    • January 25, 2012 1:23 pm

      You’re welcome Mark. Just remember me when we pass the plate down your row.

  3. January 25, 2012 12:32 pm

    Buzz – I really enjoyed reading this. I think you are pushing an important critique.

    Still I wonder, could it be that reader-response is an important addition to the discipline of hermeneutics because it reminds us that we all bring our own ideas, history, influences, culture, etc., to any specific text? In order to be a good reader, we must acknowledge this. But, the check and balance to “no limits” reader-response should be the text itself. We cannot make the text say whatever we want it to say, because in the end the text itself places limits on what we can “make it say.” To ignore the mechanics of reading (Wittgenstein & the French linguists), and the reality of what happens when a reader interacts with a word which allows that word to “speak,” would be a step back – SBL/AAR have already sort of decided that issue for hermeneutics.

    Maybe where we ought to land is to say the authority on hermeneutical questions is shared between the text and the interpretive community which gave rise to those texts, (i.e., the church). Yes, no?

    I’m glad to have found your blog!

    • January 25, 2012 1:28 pm

      I wrote this right before reading your newest on your blog (paperback theology, for those who wish to know) and I think we might be on similar ground with differing emphases.

      Writers like Wittgenstein and others do find some boundaries for meaning in the text, but there’s a slew of others who, for linguistic reasons and non-linguistic reasons, shave away at the edges of Biblical authority. An author like William Webb, for example, wouldn’t quibble with you on linguistics but he would perhaps in terms of how important the receptor culture is to interpretation. Maybe more correctly, he quibbles with me.

      Derridas and those Eeyores who find a nihilistic aspect to language are in the minority, and the SBL is right to correct them. However, I don’t think that SBL is a good thermometer for interpretation with respect to Christian faith and practice. Maybe ETS would be closer?

      As to your question: is meaning shared by text and community? I would say yes, to an extent. I find authorial intent and the text’s original meaning to be the primary meaning, the text to have a changing meaning as receptor cultures and different readers contact it, and readers to have a powerful role to play under the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

      One of the issues I am exploring over the next month is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation and whether his role in revelation to the reader allows one to see polyvalence in the meaning of the text or in its application. Should be interesting.

  4. January 25, 2012 8:51 pm

    That’s cool. what are you going to be writing on (Ph.D.) – or do you know yet?

    • January 26, 2012 2:00 am

      My general plan is to write on Solomon’s accession, taking a look at contemporary king narratives to see how his differs. 1 Kings seems very cloak and dagger, especially compared to Chronicles. Then, I’d like to examine how Chronicles interprets Kings. Maybe the Chronicler was into reader-response Old Testament criticism?

  5. January 26, 2012 8:53 am

    We all are… its inevitable!

  6. Kyle G. H. permalink
    February 5, 2012 1:13 am

    So how would YOU interpret Matt 16:19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And Matt 18:18: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (NKJV)

    I was sitting in a class either before or just after you posted this, and the professor was actually leaning towards the opinion of religious leaders making community based decisions, but ones that were not against the Bible-although one could only wonder how Jesus interpreted captial punishment in the area of Adultery and remain Torah observant, although I do not doubt that he was not observant of the entire Torah.

    Thank you in advance for responding to this.

    • February 7, 2012 11:46 pm

      Maybe one way you could think about this is that it’s not so much that God is rubber stamping everything that believers do, but rather an encouragement that as believers operate within God’s will, things will be worked out for them through the powers of heaven.

      This is certainly one of the trickiest passages in Matthew, so take everything above with a grain of salt. Who knows; maybe Rob Bell is even right on this one!

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