…and being suspicious
The other day, one of our international students asked if he could come and talk to me about sending his daughter to the preschool that is part of the local Presbyterian Ladies College. I had no idea why he wanted to talk to me about this, but said to come on over.
He has a Muslim name, but he offered to shake my hand, which is not normal for Muslim men when they meet a woman. He comes from India, and almost all our Indian students are Hindu or Sikh. He wanted to send his daughter to a Christian school, so he could also have been Christian. I decided that, rather than try to put him in a box, I had better just listen and find out where he fitted.
It turns out that his name was my best clue – he is actually Muslim, but wants to send his daughter to a school where she will be taught moral values that are similar to those of his own faith tradition. He wanted to talk to someone who is familiar with the local school system and one of his colleagues (another Muslim student) speaks very highly of me, so he chose me.
I try to use the same method when I am approaching my texts. When they present me with a number of contradictory clues to how I might understand them, I try to keep an open mind as I dig deeper, rather than jumping to conclusions that may cause me to treat it inappropriately because I’ve been blinded by my assumptions to other information.
Of course, with text, I can’t just ask a direct question to settle my dilemma, so I need to find or develop some criteria for choosing between the contradictory clues. Listening to what others say about it is often helpful, but working out which others to pay attention to is sometimes challenging. As I said on the Gospel of Thomas email list (perhaps a little more forcefully than is really tactful 🙂 ), I am at least as interested in the reasons given for opinions as I am in who is giving the opinion. Of course, there are some people whose opinions I respect more readily than others and I started thinking what criteria I use when I evaluate the opinions of others. Here’s my working list:
- does the person who is expressing the opinion have a track record in the particular area? if so, what is it like?
- does the opinion being offered take the text seriously ie
- does it look at the whole text rather than just picking up a few keywords and running with them?
- does it look at the text in its context, rather than treating it in isolation?
- does the person expressing the opinion make explicit his/her underlying assumptions about the text? eg is s/he assuming it is Christian, gnostic, early, late etc?
- does the opinion being offered provide evidence from the text itself and/or from other sources or at least reasons to back up the opinion or does it just rely on the audience’s willingness to trust the authority of the person expressing the opinion?
- where relevant, does the opinion being expressed make sense in other contexts? eg if the interpretation being offered relies on a particular translation of one or two key words, does this interpretation make sense in similar contexts? If not, does the author acknowledge this and provide a justification of using this particular meaning in this particular context?
There may be more, but I can’t think of any just at the moment. You may have some you’d like to add.
So, I’ve come to the conclusion that good textual interpretation is about finding the right balance between keeping an open mind about what is being said – both by the text and its interpreters – and being suspicious. You don’t knock back an idea just because it’s new, but you don’t accept ideas uncritically just because they’re new, either. And you treat tradition in the same way. You don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in the field; you certainly don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in a related field; but at the same time, you recognise that people don’t normally become big names for no reason. 🙂