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Locating the Readers and the Reading Context
Beginning the Journey at Home
The journey of biblical interpretation begins at home, with attention to the immediate contemporary environment in which the biblical text is encountered. This might seem like an odd place to begin a process of biblical study. Would it not make more sense to begin with the biblical text and information about the biblical world, which is to say the world within which the text originated? Is that not the world the interpreters want to explore and understand? Why start with the world of the readers of the biblical text?
One reason for the decision to begin at home is that every journey into and with the biblical texts will be new, principally because each community of interpreters at every moment of its life is unique. Even if a person or group returns to a text studied earlier, that return trip will not be exactly like any previous ones. Each person will have changed, the composition of the group may have varied, and the wider historical and social context will be different. Because of those changes and the uniqueness of each particular moment of interpretation, each encounter with the text will be a distinct and distinctive adventure. Thus, to start with the readers' circumstances affirms this diversity and this dynamic of change in the study of biblical texts.
The decision to begin at home also grows out of the conviction that the world in which we all live is God's creation, and that God is present through and active within that world. In and through this world God reveals God's self. This was true in biblical times; it is true today. Thus the world is a primary "text" within which one can discern God's word. The Bible is also God's "text" or word—a record given a place of privilege by historic decisions of the church, and a record that itself represents the discernment of God's presence and action in the world by a number of particular communities at specific moments in history. The church affirms, and the experience of many people confirms, that reading this record guides efforts to discern and interpret God's more immediate word received through the text of the present world.
A third factor in the decision to begin the journey at home is a consideration of the nature of texts that have been recorded in writing or other media. It is the very nature of any recorded text that it does not remain confined to its original context. Once recorded, any text takes on a life of its own, such that its meaning or significance is no longer defined by or limited to the context of recording. It certainly is not limited by the historical facts about the event which it purports to describe or record.
Even oral communications function in this sense as recorded texts. A conversation between two people is context-specific, and meaning occurs principally at the moment when the communication takes place. Despite that primary meaning, later reflections on the event and on what was said and heard can lead to new perceptions. These understandings are derived from the memory of the communication (in a sense from the recording of that communication event on the memory of participants), more than from the original communication itself.
Even in such a context-specific communication as an oral message, the transmitting and receiving of meaning are complex functions. There is the intended meaning of the speaker, signer, singer, or writer, and there is the message received by each person or group present in that moment. Experience teaches how perplexing the process of communication is. Even in situations where the participants are relatively homogeneous and share common cultural assumptions, primary language, general history, and similar expectations, what the speaker intends and what the audience receives may differ substantially. Words have particular associations in the minds of each person, and those associations influence what is perceived in the communication. A word that is commonly assumed to convey happiness—the word "picnic," for example—may trigger memories of a tragic accident or other event, or years of buried sadness at the picnics one was not able to attend. In other words, the word may have no positive meaning at all for someone, or it may suggest media pictures portraying a fun thing that other people do. Similarly, the word "family" may conjure images of good times and security for many, while for others it evokes feelings of pain and abuse. Meaning thus occurs not in isolated words or signs, but in the relationships of those words with each other and in the interaction of those words within and between the worlds of experience of the communicator and the receivers.
It is important, therefore, even in the immediacy of face-to-face exchanges, for the communicator to seek to understand as fully as possible the experiences of the receivers. The receivers, in turn, will want to understand where the communicator is coming from. What is common in their experiences? What values or understandings are assumed? What are presumed to be shared perceptions of a given situation? Where and in what ways are their experiences and perceptions different?
Communications that are recorded in more lasting forms, such as a written document, an audio recording, a video recording, or some other medium of preservation and transmission, are even more complex. These records—or, in general terms, "texts"—can and will be transported into new settings, each of which gives rise to a new communication event. Though the words (and in the case of a voice recording, even the tones and inflections of the speech) are transmitted faithfully from one context to another, the changed contexts within which a text is received affect the meaning of the communication in such a way that it is as if the text itself has become new. Since meaning occurs in the interaction between the text and those who receive it, and is not defined or delimited by the text alone, each new occasion with a text will create new meanings. A common experience of this shift of meanings comes when one reads a novel or sees a movie for a second time, and finds in it meanings, delights, or disappointments that were not apparent in the first encounter. A more dramatic instance of new meanings comes when one rereads a book like Winnie the Pooh as an adult after having loved it as a child, or when one rereads the moving Diary of Anne Frank after visiting the Franks' home in Amsterdam or after a pilgrimage to one of the concentration camps where Jews and others were imprisoned and killed. Examples such as these make it clear that a recorded text, though fixed in form, is not a static entity.
"Contexts" of Biblical Interpretation
An important aspect of beginning the journey of biblical interpretation "at home," with attention to the identity and circumstances of the interpreters, is the role of various contexts in biblical interpretation. As a recorded text, any passage in the Bible has been interpreted and granted meanings in many and widely varied contexts. At least three basic types of context can be distinguished, each of which plays a distinct role in biblical studies. One of these types (which will be explored in chapter 4) consists of the contexts within and for which the biblical texts themselves were developed. A second is the specific context of the current interpreters—your context and ours. Finally there are all those other contexts within which individuals and communities, both past and contemporary, engage in interpreting that same text. Each of these contexts is important, and information gleaned about each type of context, and from each of them about the text itself, has an impact on any effort to understand a biblical text. It is important to distinguish among these types, even while recognizing that none stands in isolation from the others. In particular, it is important to remember that perceptions of and responses to all contexts are filtered through the perspectives and experiences of each immediate interpreter.
Speaking of the world of the immediate interpreter as one context of the biblical texts does not thereby separate the interpreter from the text. On the contrary, to begin at this place is to recognize that the text itself forms a part of the interpreter's immediate world. This is not to deny the obvious fact that biblical texts were written at particular times and places in history, and that they were written out of and for particular communities. Contemporary interpreters do not belong to that same world of understanding. This is one reason that biblical texts often appear strange. References are made to foreign places, names, customs and practices. The biblical languages themselves are foreign. Even in translation, particular phrases, literary allusions, or symbols are often obscure.
On the other hand, though contemporary readers are not part of the social worlds of the Bible, the Bible does belong to the social worlds of any and all interpreters. Its specific role and function in particular communities, however, will vary considerably. Some individuals and groups belong to those religious traditions in which the Bible has been preserved, and in which it functions as sacred scripture. In such communities biblical texts are often read as a regular part of worship. The language of ritual and prayer is shaped by the language of Bible translations, oftentimes from the language of a "classic" translation, such as the King James Version in English, the Reina Valera in Spanish, or Luther's German translation. Sermons expound on the reading from a biblical text recognized as "sacred." Selected Bible stories are recounted for and sometimes re-enacted by children. Various groups gather to study the scriptures. In all of these, and still other ways, the Bible lives in the world of such persons.
Some of these religious communities also exist in a culture that has shared in a long history of contact with the Bible. The influence of the Bible can be seen in virtually all aspects of the culture, whether literature, art, social structures, holidays, festivals, philosophy, or law. In fact, these cultures cannot be understood apart from some knowledge of the biblical traditions. In such a setting one simply absorbs certain biblical stories and images through the culture itself. Even persons who do not belong to a religious community shaped by particular biblical traditions will still know some of these traditions by way of the larger cultural context.
Indeed, the apparent familiarity of the Bible becomes a roadblock to interpretation among the members of those communities whose religion and culture have been so thoroughly infused with the biblical tradition. In such contexts, the Bible becomes so identified with the particular cultural or religious tradition that the Bible tends to be assumed to express that culture's values. Conversely, the culture is assumed to express biblical norms, and only those religious and cultural expressions that have arisen from the dominant culture or system of beliefs are recognized as "biblical"—and hence legitimate.
Awareness of and concern about these dynamics of cultural and confessional captivity have sometimes prompted interpreters to react by insisting on reading the Bible in its own context—that is, in the context of the origin, transmission, or editing of a particular book or other identifiable section. Such an approach does have merit. The "historical-critical method" that is still the basis of many university and seminary courses in Bible sought initially to offer an alternative to readings that were doctrinally and culturally shaped. It reminds the student that the Bible is a collection of foreign documents, as well as being a familiar book. That method, however, like any method, is a product of its own social setting of origin, and any effort to reconstruct the world of the Bible is shaped by the social location of the scholar. The historical-critical method in particular has been shaped by the values and norms of post-Enlightenment western Europe and North America. This approach is in danger of perpetuating an even more subtle form of cultural captivity than those that openly promote the doctrines or values of a "Christian"—or, more broadly, a "biblical"—culture. Scholars who use the historical-critical method have always been aware that they hold presuppositions, and they might even have identified them. But these presuppositions have usually been identified as a problem to be compensated for or overcome, rather than as an important aspect of the interpretive process that generates meaning in the encounter between text and interpreter. When they are viewed as a problem, the interpreter's goal has been to bracket these assumptions in such a way that they would contaminate as little as possible the results of the historical study. In contrast, the approach proposed here is to honor such presuppositions by taking them seriously as a dynamic in the process of interpretation. This does not mean that they are accepted without question. Instead, they are examined critically as, in a real sense, part of the interpreter's interaction with the text of God's creation, and hence also with the biblical text.
Other individuals and groups engage the Bible from a context in which the Bible is a recent addition to a culture already shaped by religious traditions based on other sacred texts or traditions. In such a context, readers are often struck initially by a sense of the foreignness of the Bible and the biblical world as it has been conveyed to them. What is less clear to them is how the Bible can have a positive role in their self-understanding and in the life of their communities.
In some such cases, the world of the interpreter may actually have considerable congruence with the worlds of the Bible in terms of their assumptions about technology, economic models, and social values and institutions. However, the fact that the Bible was carried into their world by representatives of Western civilization, who brought it to them wrapped in the packaging of their own cultures, has obscured these similarities. For example, some African and African American scholars note the geographic relationship of Africa and the lands of the Bible. They also find positive correlation between practices and values reflected in the biblical records and those of African traditions. Some missionaries from the Western world were also aware of some of these similarities. For cultural reasons, such observations were valued negatively and used as an excuse to impede people's access to the biblical text—for example, by a reluctance to translate the Old Testament into African languages. The values and ideology expressed in such decisions also influenced the selections of texts for public reading, and the interpretation of those texts in the missionaries' preaching and teaching.
Contexts Within Contexts: Readings and Counter-Readings
Understanding a community's historical experience with the biblical tradition thus includes exploring the role of the Bible within that context, and in particular examining the social and political role that the Bible has played. It is also important to recognize a diversity of contexts and roles within that community, along with their social implications and conflicts. For example, plantation owners in the southern United States read and interpreted the Bible (or had the Bible read and interpreted to them and to those persons they held as slaves) to convey the message that slaves must obey their masters, and to enforce the notion of the masters' own racial superiority. In these hands the Bible functioned to construct and reinforce a particular social order that encompassed plantation owners and their families, those employed or supported by the owners, and those enslaved by the owners. At the same time, and in the same plantations, however, communities of enslaved persons, acting against the rules of plantation society, gathered secretly for worship in the forest, creating an alternative church structure that has been called "the Invisible Institution." There the biblical story of an enslaved people whose cry was heard by God was recognized as a commentary on the readers' own experience. For them the Bible also became a resource for hope and a stimulus to action.
Excerpted from Biblical Interpretation by Frederick C. Tiffany, Sharon H. Ringe. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted September 14, 2010
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