I started writing this post several days ago in response to Christopher Skinner’s interesting post on his PEJE IESOUS blog. It’s part of a conversation with April DeConick about perspectives – here and here. In his post, he talks about the fact that we all bring biases and presuppositions to our interpretation of texts so that it is impossible to be totally objective in our interpretations. Wade Greiner, April’s husband, has a post that suggests that while everyone has biases, not all biases are equal. Since then, April has added two more posts. The first, entitled “Choosing your method” outlines her operating principles and is particularly helpful. The second expresses her frustration at the way the medium allows for misinterpretation. Skinner has posted twice more on the general subject. James McGrath also has a helpful post. I have previously touched on this issue, but want to explore it further, looking at a different way of thinking about it that I find helpful.
The reader response theory of literary criticism tries to take the differing perspectives of different readers/interpreters seriously, although it is open to serious abuse if taken too far. In part, it sees readers of a text as belonging to particular “interpretive communities” (a term which I think was coined by Stanley Fish), which influence the way in which they interpret particular texts. I think that another way of saying this is that the interpretive community to which one belongs influences the questions one asks of the text and the assumptions one makes about the text. Most of us belong to multiple interpretive communities, which sometimes results in interesting approaches to texts.
When I look at texts from early Christianity for the purposes of my doctoral studies, I ask different questions of them to those that I ask when I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study. For my doctoral work which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of academic scholars of studies in religion, I ask “what does this tell me about early Christian communities – how they lived, what they believed, etc?” If I were working on something different I might also be asking “what does this tell me about the historical Jesus?”, but whatever I ask, I am using the historical-critical method as an end in itself and if I don’t use it properly, I’m in big trouble.
When I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study, which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of Christian biblical scholars, I ask “what does this tell me about how early Christians related to/understood God?” and “what does this tell me about how I should live as a faithful Christian in the twenty-first century?” I have to be aware of the historical context in order to answer the preaching/teaching questions or I could come up with some very weird answers, so I still have to use the historical-critical method properly. Knowing the historical context is not the purpose of my questioning, though, it’s a stepping stone to developing a credible theology.
As a practising Christian, I am aware that I make different assumptions about GosThom to the ones I make about the Synoptics, even when I am not wearing my “minister” hat. I am getting better and better at catching myself at it, though. Although I don’t actually believe that there are questions one may not ask about those texts that the church calls Scripture, I know that there are some questions that it just doesn’t occur to me to ask because I “know” the answers so well. Atheist scholars have different blind spots as a result of belonging to that particular interpretive community. For example, I think they are prone to writing off the unusual as superstition more quickly than is always warranted. James Crossley and Mike Bird’s How Did Christianity Begin?, which I have reviewed, provides a good illustration about the differing assumptions that an atheist and Christian scholar might bring to the texts of early Christianity.
Feminist scholars, womanist scholars, people of colour etc all bring different foundational assumptions to the text from their interpretive communities. I don’t see that there is anything preventing people from all these interpretive communities from doing good historical-critical work or good theology as long as they are aware that they are bringing these biases.
I don’t see that belonging to a confessional interpretive community necessarily prevents one from doing good historical-critical work, either. It depends on the particular confessional community. Things become problematic when the interpreters come from confessional interpretive communities that make strong faith claims such as “God dictated every word of Scripture, so it cannot contradict itself” – which requires some incredible gymnastics of the text or “The Spirit speaks to me and tells me how to interpret Scripture in today’s world” – which may result in interpretations that have no real basis in the text in its context.
I think I need to finish here in the interests of getting this posted before this topic becomes totally passe. 🙂