Objectivity and interpretation of texts

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. 🙂

Women and worship

This is my third post on the general subject of why there are so few women bibliobloggers – as opposed to Christian women who blog – of whom there are many, many. My general thesis is that women are less inclined to blog on the Bible because the culture of the Christian church, especially the more “conservative” expressions of it, inculcates in them a feeling that their gender means that they have nothing worthwhile to say about biblical studies.

What we do in our worship also shapes how women view their roles. Marjorie Proctor Smith (I think she is a Methodist laywoman – teaches liturgy and worship at Perkins) in In Her Own Rite talks about the way we use language and space and the effect this has. In the more mainstream denominations, it is tradition for the minister to be up the front, raised up and often dressed differently.  When the one raised up is always male, this gives a particular message to women. It is interesting that in many of the denominations that still do not ordain women, the minister is referred to as Father.  A number of male clergy from other denominations (who know I am ordained) have suggested that I might like to call them Fr John (or whatever their name might be).  Sometimes I just ignore this and call them by their given names, like the male ministers do.  Other times, I suggest that they might like to call me Rev Judy. They never do. 🙂 However, if the person who is raised up is always male and it is expected that he will be addressed as “Father”, it adds an extra layer of authority to men that isn’t available to women. I never suggest that one of my male clergy calls me “Mother Judy” – only an idiot would invite the kind of response that that would evoke!

Elizabeth J Smith, an Australian Anglican priest who (amongst other things) writes contemporary words to traditional hymn tunes, talks about the power of hymns to shape our theology:

The theology I sing will be the theology I remember. Even the reasons I give myself for praying, believing, serving in the name of Christ are rehearsed in the words of the songs I sing. How much more, when a stranger puts me on the spot about what I believe, will the most fluent phrases I have for my faith be the words I have sung a dozen or a hundred times…

The language we sing will shape the church we belong to… the Australian English of public discourse uses gender-inclusive pronouns and plurals for lawyers, doctors, nurses, sales representatives and book keepers.

…So the church needs songs where believers are not simply ‘brothers’ and where (despite widespread reluctance to change the words of existing songs) it is not only good Christian ‘men’ who rejoice with heart and soul and voice in Christmas carols.  The church needs songs that will celebrate not only the particularity of the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a Jewish man born two thousand years ago, but the revelation of the living God not merely as He Who Should be Obeyed but als as She Who Must be Enjoyed. (Elizabeth J Smith. “Crafting and Singing Hymns in Australia” in Stephen Burns and Anita Monro (eds) Christian Worship in Australia.  Strathfield, St Pauls Publications, 2009. 183-4)

She goes on to say that the Bible passages that come most readily to mind are those that we sing, but that the passages of Scripture that have been set to music are traditionally quite limited. My observation is that music that comes from the more conservative churches also uses exclusive language for both human beings and God – often the male triumphalist God language that Brian Wren (English, Anglican) critiques in What Language Shall I Borrow?

All this goes to reinforce the unconscious sexism and misogyny highlighted by Colin in his response to my last post. Regarding women’s theological input as unacceptable, irrelevant, is seen as quite normal in some/many churches by both men and women.

Experiencing women’s ministry on a regular basis helps overcome some of this, but lots of people haven’t. Although my denomination has been ordaining women for a long time, I still meet people who have never met a woman minister before. I still lead worship and have people say that they have never experienced a woman minister leading worship before. I will never forget doing the eulogy for an international student who had been found dead of a drug overdose in a park some two hours’ drive from the campus. The funeral director (aka undertaker for those in North America), an Anglican, had made it quite clear that he thought that the priest presiding at the funeral was stark staring bonkers to have invited me to take part (I actually knew the girl and he didn’t, but the parents wanted a Catholic funeral). As I left the crematorium chapel, the funeral director said to me in a tone of utter amazement “You actually know what you’re doing, don’t you? You did a good job!” At least he was honest enough to admit that he’d been wrong, albeit somewhat tactlessly. Lots of women just get the hostility, not the apology, and one of the characteristics of the blogosphere is that many people feel free to express opinions and ideas electronically that they would never dream of saying to someone in person, so being a female biblioblogger is risky.

There is a discussion going on at the moment about April’s plan to link to as many women bibliobloggers as she can in order to draw attention to their work. There is some feeling among (male) biblibloggers that they link to people whose blog interest them and gender plays no part. However, I would suggest that in this world of information overload, we have to find some method of limiting what we read and personal bias plays an important part. Men (and women) who have had significant experience of the kinds of things I’ve posted about recently are likely to disregard women bloggers more often than men bloggers because they have inbuilt biases that say that women don’t know about bible and blogging with no evidence that your work is being read is rather discouraging.  Which is probably another reason why there are so few women bibliobloggers – and this is something that a linking program might help.

Women and the Bible

Yesterday, I said I’d try to talk about the Bible and its effect on how women function in the church. I think I want to broaden this post a little, but I’ll see how I go.

I think it’s true that when pushed to justify their behaviour, most people will defer to some sort of higher authority. For Christians, this higher authority is usually  God’s will as revealed in Scripture, with or without reference to the tradition of the church. People who believe that they have a divine mandate for their behaviour are less likely to change it than those who appeal to a less powerful authority for justification for their behaviour.

The Bible in its Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts is seriously androcentric. Most English translations make it even more androcentric. Phylis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality provides an impressive set of examples of how this is so – how female images in the Hebrew text are “degendered” in English translations.  Her Texts of Terror gives some chilling examples of how Christian Scripture is not just androcentric but also misogynist.

How a particular church views the status of Scripture has some significant consequences for the place of women in their communities today and, as I suggested yesterday, I think that the place of women in a particular church community will influence how likely she is to become a biblioblogger. A church that believes that the stories in Scripture are socially located and a reflection of the culture in which they were written will have a very different approach to one that believes that Scripture is literally word-for-word Gods’ word and true in that form for all time. I don’t think that anyone actually takes the Bible word for word literally, but many people say they do.  There are quite a few commandments in the Hebrew Scripture that Christians cheerfully ignore. Like the one in Leviticus 19: 19

You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. (NRSV)

Even when we still want to stand by some of the Levitical laws, we tend not to think that death by stoning is an appropriate punishment for breaking them, although that’s what the Bible often suggests. And I don’t think that many Christians think that it is OK to offer to throw their virgin daughters out to be raped by a crowd of rowdy blokes in order to protect visitors, as Lot did in Genesis 19.

Nevertheless, if you see Scripture as being socially located etc, you will be more inclined to look at what it meant in the context of the time in which it was written in trying to work out how to apply it today, and thus to critique the androcentricity and misogyny. If you consider it to be literally true, you are less likely to think about the fact that Scripture in general seems to say that it is OK to treat women badly and ask what that means for how you live today.  This is not to say that all members of all conservative churches are misogynist. Scot McKnight is an example of someone from a reasonably conservative branch of the Christian church who has gone into print (in The Blue Parakeet) to argue for a more egalitarian treatment of women and as a professor teaching at a university level tries to instill confidence in his female students.

It was certainly important to me that the professors where I studied theology evaluated our contributions on the basis of their academic worth, not on the basis of whether we were male or female. They also challenged students who made sexist comments, didn’t use inclusive language and so on. This was also important in my formation as a minister and as a biblical scholar.

I indicated at the top that I thought I wanted to talk about more than the Bible. I think what happens in worship also has an important role in forming women who are confident to have their biblical scholarship voices heard in the blogosphere and I will look at that tomorrow (or the next day).

Creating Jesus

As readers may be able to tell from the sudden flurry of posts, life around my place has become significantly less hectic.  The first of the end of semester exams begin today, so the students basically all have their heads down working and the things that have been taking up much of my creative headspace are beginning to settle.

I have been meaning for some time to call attention to a series of posts on April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels Blog around the topic Creating Jesus – How a Jewish Rabbi became God. In her first post (there are 19 so far, written over a two month period) she says:

This has always been the central question to studies of Christology and there have been many scholarly models which have varying amounts of success taking into account the vast amount of written evidence. What is certain is that Jesus was not being worshiped as a god by his disciples during his life. This came later after his death. The question is how long it took to happen, and how it happened that a “monotheistic” Jewish sect took on the worship of a second god.

If you click on the link above, it will take you to all the posts on the issue archived together and you can begin at the bottom and read up. It’s created a huge amount of discussion on the blogsite, most of which I haven’t had time to read, but just reading the postings gives a great insight into how studying early christian documents from a “secular” academic perspective happens.  This is quite different to devotional or confessional biblical studies in which the student is asking different questions and therefore using different methodologies and coming up with different answers.

History is not science

Over at The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick has a very interesting post entitled Theology is not History.  In it, she says (among other things):

I am reminded that in Europe, historians like myself characterize their research and writing as “scientific”. I have stayed away from this characterization myself, feeling that “science” is the field of biology and physics.

As someone who was trained as a research scientist, I agree with her.  The scientific method requires that the researcher looks at what is happening in the real world, develops a(n) hypothesis or a set of hypotheses about why it is happening and sets up controlled experiments to test whether or not the hypotheses are correct.   There is no way that historians can do this.  They can’t say “we think the causes of WWII were X, Y and Z” and then go back to the 1930s and change the conditions to see if WWII still happens without X or without Y.  Much psychological and sociological research also follows the scientific method, although it is sometimes difficult to control as many of the circumstances as researchers would like because research ethics committees won’t allow some things to be done or not done on human beings (and with good reason).

Good historians are careful, methodical investigators, but they are not scientists because they have no way of controlling the circumstances they are investigating in order to test their hypotheses.  The more contemporary the history being written, the better able the historian is to take into consideration context and various biases in their analysis of the material available to them, but they still can’t change the events of the past.  Historians of early Christianity and the various other things that come under the heading “Ancient History” can only work with the texts available, knowing that in some situations this gives them access to incredibly skewed data. Their analysis can still tell us some very valuable things, but it is not science.

Backgrounds of biblical scholars

I have been amazingly busy over the past week or two and only yesterday got around to reading James Crossley’s post from 27 August entitled Doubting Stephen.  In it he interacts with Stephen Law’s posts doubting the existence of Jesus (just go to his blog and scroll down from about here – there’s lots).  In concluding his comments, James says:

Well, just one aside that doesn’t have so much to do with Law’s arguments…My background in pre-university education was extremely a-Christian and a-religious (and even though I did a theology degrees and PhD I didn’t really think of it as being an overly Christianised context, though that may be more to do with my associations and things have certainly swung in the Christianising direction since those days). The past few years has made me think that this could be quite unusual for biblical studies, at least in British biblical studies. Would it be fair to say that most, many, some or few have been educated in contexts where the dominant Christian culture is evident? Just idle thoughts…

The very energetic discussion on his blog has largely been about his arguments with Law’s conclusions, so I decided to respond to this question here.

I think that in Australia a significant proportion of biblical studies is done from within a Christian context.  We have very few universities offering Studies in Religion/Religious Studies courses and the majority of people doing biblical studies are studying through an institution which has as its primary purpose preparing its students for some form of Christian ministry.  Even the theological faculties that are situated in universities rather than denominational colleges tend to be affiliated with one or more denominations and often some of the academic staff are funded by the denominations with which they are affiliated.  Some call themselves “Bible colleges” and others “faculties of theology”.  Bible Colleges tend to be theologically more conservative and more wary of more recent methods of biblical criticism, and both tend to offer qualifications in theology or divinity.  Most of the academic staff in these institutions are ordained, although quite a few have done very little in the way of pastoral ministry. When I did my bachelor’s degree, all the academic staff in my institution were ordained but there have been several non-ordained people employed there over the last decade or so – people who knew before they started their studies that they weren’t interested in being ministers.  These people are nevertheless practising Christians, not people who are studying Christianity “from the outside”.

I am sure this has implications for how people do biblical studies.  If the affiliated denomination understands the notion of the Bible as the inspired word of God to mean that it is God’s actual words, they will approach the text differently to those who do not believe this.  My own denomination says that Jesus is the Word of God and that the Bible bears witness to the Word.  In at least one of our Sydney churches, the affirmation that goes with the readings in worship is “in this is the Word of God”. I nevertheless approach the text from the perspective that what it says is relevant to the way I live my life.  I have been taught that when I look at it, I should be asking questions like “what does this say to me and to other Christians?” I have also been taught that I need to look at what the text was saying to its original audience, because that’s the key to what it might be saying to us, but my training said that this was a means rather than an end in itself.  The former is not a question that a scholar of Christian origins/early Christianity brings to the study of the text.  I’m not sure whether this means that they will come up with a “better” or “worse” understanding of the text, or just a different one.  I like to think that coming at the text from a faith perspective stops one from following some of the wilder flights of fantasy that I’ve seen indulged in by some “secular” scholars, but I suspect that they say the same about scholars who are practising Christians. 🙂

Easter Reflections

If we go by the secular calendar, this time last year, I was making final preparations to fly to Houston to spend five weeks at Rice University with April DeConick. If we go by the church calendar, this time last year, I had been in Houston five days and attended Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship at the Rice Catholic Student Centre with my wonderful hosts, Judy and David Schubert.

I reflected on this as I sat in the Good Friday service in my home church this morning. There, I was surrounded by people I knew, even though my husband was home nursing a cold. The liturgy, although not actually predictable, was familiar, as was the venue. In Houston, I had been among strangers and the liturgy was in some aspects probably more predictable than the Uniting Church one and in others quite alien. Kissing the crucifix is not a part of the Uniting Church Good Friday ritual! 🙂

Christmas is a part of the church calendar that stays the same each year and fits quite nicely into the secular calendar of “Christian” countries. Although the story of Jesus birth is a bit odd, it doesn’t cause major problems for the average secular member of society.

Easter moves around – doesn’t fit neatly into the secular calendar at all. This year it is so early that the uni isn’t starting the mid-semester non-teaching period with Easter as it usually does – we’re just having four days off and then it’s business as usual for several more weeks before the break. The Easter message is also much more difficult for those who don’t practise Christianity to deal with. An interesting parallel, I think.

As our pastor led us in an affirmation of faith based on 1 Cor 1: 18-25 (the foolishness to the Gentiles and scandal to the Jews bit) and talked about the coming celebration of the resurrection, I thought about the Gospel of Thomas. If ⲡⲉⲩⲁⲅⲅⲉⲗⲓⲟⲛ ⲡⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲑⲱⲙⲁⲥ (ie the gospel according to Thomas) is an early title for the text, the Thomas community must surely have had a very different theology of what constitutes ‘good news’ to that of the more orthodox Christian communities of the time.

A gospel that doesn’t contain an account of the (crucifixion and) resurrection must consider some other thing than Christ’s triumph over the power of death to be the important part of the gospel message, because the resurrection doesn’t get a guernsey in Thomas. It has, however, been extremely important in the understanding of “mainstream” Christians for nearly two thousand years, if the creeds of the early church are anything to go on.

Deciding exactly what was the heart of the gospel for Thomas Christians is beyond me at the moment. Maybe I’ll think about it later, but just at the moment I am trying to get to the end of my reading on eyewitness testimony in the psychological literature.

A little later

Bother.  Now I’m confused.  On Good Friday last year, I went with David to a marvellous, justice-focussed Stations of the Cross in the Exxon Plaza in downtown Houston, followed by a lunch at a restaurant on the way home.  That wasn’t an alien liturgy.  I’ve done Stations many times before, beginning at Theological Hall (seminary).  I know I went to a Maundy Thursday service at the Student Centre, but I’m pretty sure I went to a Good Friday one, as well.  Maybe in the evening?  Or maybe not?

I do know that on Easter Day, I was very pleased to be at a United Methodist service at St Paul’s, also near Rice, with Judy’s brother and his wife.  The very large church was very, very full and the liturgy was in some ways very like a Catholic one, except that we didn’t kneel (Judy’s brother, who had grown up Catholic, commented on this).  In many other ways, though, it wasn’t and I felt much more at home.

However, my lack of clarity twelve months on about exactly what I did last Easter lines up very closely with the reading I’m doing about eyewitness memory.   I just checked the two emails I sent home on Good Friday and Easter Day and discovered that I did go to church at the Catholic Student Centre on Good Friday – in the evening.  The gist of my recollections was correct, but the detail was a bit fuzzy and without the emails, I really wouldn’t have been sure.  I was very much inclined to think that maybe we’d been offered the option of kissing the crucifix on Maundy Thursday, even though that didn’t make sense liturgically.

This is actually very interesting.  Might be useful for my Auckland SBL paper.