Whose Text Is It Anyway? The Bible and the Postmodern Critique

The past few posts in this series on the history of Bible interpretation have narrowed in on various Christian responses to modernity. Arising out of the Renaissance, modernity’s bold presuppositions, Big Ideas, and critical questions dismantled traditional European society. And, by the mid-nineteenth century, modernity had transformed the whole world in its own image. All of the different communities we’ve looked at recently arose, in one way or another, in response to these changes. Some Christians, like the historical critics, embraced modernity’s rationalism and openness to new learning; others, like the Fundamentalists, accepted its rationalism but closed ranks against the sciences and social sciences; and still others, like the Pentecostals, rejected modern rationalism, but manifested modernity’s impulses towards immediacy and the individual. No matter what path one took, modernity was still king. Yet despite the pervasive impact of its advances and achievements, the cracks in modernity began to show in twentieth century, first in the aftermath of the First World War, and on a wider scale after the trauma of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the looming threat of nuclear war and ecological disaster. What we call postmodernism arose as artists, philosophers, political theorists, and social scientists, along with women, People of Colour, and other marginalized groups began to question modernity’s attitudes. In some ways, it’s an anti-modernity, since it opposes much of the modern agenda; but in other ways, it’s a hyper-modernity, for it turns modernity’s own critical questions and tools against it. Today I’ll be exploring how this trend has impacted how Christians read the Bible.

An important movement that anticipated postmodernism proper was the critical theory of the interwar period, led by the so-called Frankfurt School. Critical theorists sought to be in their day what Socrates was in his: ‘gadflies’ who forced people to put their unexamined beliefs under the microscope. Modernity thought itself an age of enlightenment, progress, and freedom, but did it really achieve these aims? Were not the working classes being exploited through low wages and long hours? Was the assembly line not making them even more alienated from the joy of the ‘work of one’s hands’? The Second World War only heightened this questioning. To critical theorists, far from being an age of wonder and progress, “Enlightenment and modernity find their fulfillment in a concentration camp universe run by an unaccountable bureaucracy, fueled by an instrumental rationality run amok, and expressed in the unleashing of an unimaginable rage” (Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, chapter 4). While the Frankfurt School emerged out of German Marxism, in the end, none of the critical theorists identified with any particular system or ideology; their skepticism and interrogation of any and all of society’s unexamined presuppositions was the point of their work.

Critical theory set the tone for so much of what was to follow, as more and more, people began to find fault with the modern world. In the academy, Michel Foucault subjected dominant ideas about mental health, criminal justice, sexuality, and power to withering interrogation, and Jacques Derrida shook the foundations of philosophy and language itself, questioning the very possibility of genuine communication. In the arts, modernism’s focus on line, colour, and form was replaced by movements involving play, the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements, and shock value, turning the focus of art away from the artist and the creation of beauty and onto the viewer’s own processes of interpretation and standards of beauty. Boundaries were pushed (or bulldozed) to make no other point than that the boundaries exist and are, to some extent, arbitrary.

In the wider world, a variety of movements arose putting the status quo under intense scrutiny: feminism questioned the historical dominance of men and masculinity, the colonized world questioned the West’s racism and imperialism, environmentalism questioned the ‘objectivity’ of modern scientific inquiry, which sought to understand the world as a collection of parts to investigated rather than as a whole, and on and on.

What we see here is an abandonment of modernity’s Big Ideas, thought to be universally applicable for everyone and for all time (e.g., Marxism’s reduction of everything to class struggle, which subsumes questions of race, gender, etc. into its argument about class). These Big Ideas and their master narratives, or ‘metanarratives’, were now understood to hide behind their true motivations and unexamined presuppositions. In their place, we have voices advocating on behalf of particular communities and particular ideas. These may have consequences for the broader community, but there is no attempt to say everything on behalf of everyone. This is why Jean-Francois Lyotard defined the “postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.”

What does all this have to do with the Bible? Well, quite a bit. Christianity itself is a kind of metanarrative: Christians read the world through the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, it’s a metanarrative that had been used in recent history to support certain ideas of power and authority in the world, including large-scale European colonialism and imperialism. And so, like all metanarratives and Big Ideas, Christianity — and with it the Bible — has been put to the test by the whole range of particular critical schools and movements. This has had three major consequences for Christian hermeneutics: first, the dismantling of easy understandings of authorial intent; second, the critical appraisal of text through the lens of power and domination; and third, the emergence of intentionally alternative readings of the Bible.

Protestant hermeneutics has historically been focused on the idea of authorial intent: using linguistic, intertextual, historical, and cultural tools to access the meaning of the text as intended by the author. Derrida’s ideas about writing toss this out the window. He insists that once something is written down, the author disappears completely; the text is in the world and has a life of its own, like a child set loose in the world by an aloof parent: “The written marks are abandoned, cut off from the writer, yet they continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning” (from a talk at the Congres international des Societes de philosophie de langue francaise, Montreal, August 1971, quoted in Jeff Collins, Introducing Derrida). Just as we saw above about postmodern art, this shifts the attention of reading away from the author and onto the reader. In a funny way, this returns the relationship between the Church and the Bible to its pre-Reformation state: The Bible means what it means to the Church. But at the same time, it also demands a more critical reflection on why the Church has interpreted it as it has. Who has benefited from its interpretations and who has suffered from them? What other interpretations are possible? To return to the example in the previous paragraph, the New Testament was written by colonized people living under the thumb of an oppressive imperial government; yet it has been used to support imperial and colonizing endeavours. Postmodern criticism both points this out and asks why it might be, but also suggests this is par for the course: since the text has a life of its own apart from its authors, the Church was free to interpret it as it wanted, including ways that were self-serving. The Church’s complicity in colonialism therefore says more about Christians than it does about the Bible. It’s important to note here that postmodern criticism doesn’t offer any solutions to the problems it raises: again, the point is simply to critique, not to build. There’s a reason why Derrida’s legacy is known as “deconstruction.”

Once the text — and the Church’s readings of it — is opened up to these types of questions, the critiques come in from all types of communities and concerns that have historically been silent or ignored. Indigenous readers might question the Exodus story’s idea of a ‘Promised Land’ that was already inhabited. Feminist readers might challenge the New Testament’s simultaneous blowing up of gender differences (”in Christ there is no male or female”) and reinforcement of traditional Near Eastern gender norms (”Wives, submit to your husbands”). Gay readers might question why and how the story of Sodom and Gomorrah — in which an angelic visitor is forcibly taken from his host’s home and gang-raped (an event which the Scriptures themselves interpret as an excess of pride and a lack of mercy) — became equated with same-sex love. Ecologically-oriented readers might question the ways the command in Genesis to exercise “dominion over the earth” has been interpreted. All of these critiques essentially ask the same question: Whose story has been told? Whose story is hidden? Why? And who benefits and suffers from this?

At the same time, these critiques from particular communities are not only about deconstruction, for they also open up the doors for new readings of texts from within their specific perspectives. Indigenous readers pick up on the irony that traditional Indigenous values are in far greater harmony with the ways of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus than the Western values that were forced upon them are. Feminist readers bring to the Church’s attention all the feminine imagery for God in the Bible that has been ignored in the name of God’s Fatherhood. Gay and Lesbian readers offer up positive examples of same-sex friendship and kinship in the Scriptures (David and Jonathan or Naomi and Ruth, for example) as better comparables to contemporary same-sex relationships than the disturbing violence and violation of the Sodom story. And so on. The point is that while the Bible can — and has been and is — used to prop up inherited systems of power, it can equally be used to challenge the status quo. In this way, the question guiding postmodern readings of the Bible could be, “Whose text is it, anyway? (And why can’t it be mine?)” Postmodern hermeneutics, then, embraces the diversity of voices within the Scripture as well as the diversity of interpretations of it. Diversity becomes an essential value; alternative ways of interpreting the text are more interesting to a postmodern reader of the Bible than the attempt to find the ‘correct’ interpretation.

Postmodern hermeneutics is difficult to place on the integral grid because, in a sense, it renders interpretation writ large impossible. It is able to see and engage all of the quadrants, but does so with suspicion: It understands personal and cultural experiences, textual and critical studies, and the role of authority and systems of power, but it also questions the legitimacy and motives of all of them. On a big scale, this ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ as Paul Ricoeur has called it, makes making big claims about the Bible and its meaning difficult. This does not, however, render postmodern hermeneutics silent. It simply means that its interpretations, which tend to emerge from personal and community experience, are smaller in scope. They are offerings to the Church for consideration more than they are attempts at statements of fact.

Postmodernism has often come under fire for being an ‘attack on truth’, but such an assessment misses the mark. Postmodernism doesn’t deny that ultimate truth exists; it only denies our often too-easy assumptions about our ability to access it. Postmodernism insists that for everything we say about truth, we need to unsay it — or at least put it to the test. To my mind, this is both necessary and holy. It is necessary because there can be no doubt that Christians have abused the Scriptures in order to prop up unjust and unrighteous causes. A lot of evil has been done in the name of God and the Bible has often been a weapon used to carry that evil out. Anything that causes us to step back and question our interpretations and motivations is therefore a badly needed corrective. But, it is also holy. There’s a strong connection between the postmodern critique and the apophatic theological tradition that shared a skepticism about human capacities to truly know and understand God. Postmodernism has returned to hermeneutics the gift of humility, which has been something missing in Biblical interpretation for a long time. But it isn’t a humility that abdicates responsibility, as (at least a caricature of) the medieval synthesis did. For it is just as skeptical about the ability of the great heroes and saints of the past to properly understand God’s revelation as it is our own. If “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” then all means all. But again, this doesn’t mean the Scriptures don’t have value or that our own interpretations can’t be insightful. It just means that our aims and claims about our interpretations of the Bible are less grandiose than those of generations past. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

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