Rachel Evans on our Selectivity in Interpreting and Applying Scripture

Rachel Held Evans has been working through Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, and in her latest post she focuses on one of his “subsidiary problems with Biblicism” from chapter 4, “blatantly ignored teachings.” Her conclusion, “we are ALL selective in our interpretation and application of Scripture.” So what are we to do about this? She raises two questions we should be asking: 1) “why do we pick and choose the way that we do?”  and 2) “how should we pick and choose?” She continues:

The truth is, how we “pick and choose” from Scripture often says as much about us as it says about the Bible. So, in a sense, our selective habits can serve an important instructive function in the life of followers of Jesus. What do our selective readings say about ourselves and what we want to read into Scripture? Are we reading with what Peter Rollins calls a “prejudice of love” or are we reading with prejudices of judgment, power, hatred, and fear? What do our hermeneutial impulses say about ourselves? When we approach Scripture, what are we looking for?

We should not confidently assume that how we interpret and what we apply and don’t (and how we do or avoid doing so) is simply correct, and not influenced by our wants and fears (among other factors). I may be deceiving myself, and you may be deceiving yourself. [1] We are often quick to try to explain other people’s interpretations and applications as the result of their presuppositions, and right them off because of this (sadly we often see this in scholarship).  But what about the log in our own eye? The reading of Scripture requires self-awareness and a constant watch on the influence of our own presuppositions that Scripture may call into question, if we let it. This is what Rachel call’s us to in the paragraph cited above.

[1] See my post Self-Deception as Interpreters and Theologians.

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Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 3 – From theory to practice

The second chapter (“Two Experiments”) illustrates the reality of polyvalence and the influence of social location, reading strategy, empathy, and conceptions of meaning, by way of two experiments which Powell carried out.

For each experiment 100 participants were chosen, 50 clergy and 50 laity (one of each from each church), each were presented with a passage of scripture to read, reflect on briefly, and then answer the question provided. Participants were chosen so that “the distinguishing characteristic would be lay/clergy status.” (29) While the experiments did not prove anything, the results were very suggestive.

For the first experiment, the passage was Mark 7:1-8 and the question was “What does this story mean to you?” For the second, the passage was Luke 3:3-17 and the question was “What does this story mean?”

Powell provides the complete lists of responses for each, as well as detailed analysis and an exploration of possible reasons for the differences observed. Here I will only note a few of the many interesting observations.

Firstly, a vast number of different responses and interpretations were offered. Plurality was observed not only between clergy and laity responses but was very much the case within these groups. I found the number of different interpretation of the stories staggering.

Empathy: In the responses of the first experiment, “Most of the clergy responses indicate empathy with the character of Jesus, while most of the lay responses indicate reader empathy either with Jesus’ disciples or with his audience (the scribes and Pharisees).” (38) Among the clergy not a single participant empathized or identified with the disciples, and among the laity, not a single participant empathized or identified with Jesus.

Reading Strategy: In the responses of the second experiment, the change of question caused a change in the type of response given by the majority of clergy but not from the laity. Whether they were asked to respond with what the story meant to them or what the story simply meant, the laity consistently responded with self-reference. They consistently employed a reader-oriented hermeneutic, where the majority of the clergy employed an author-oriented hermeneutic if they thought it was called for. (53)

“The two words to you made a significant difference for clergy in determining how they responded to the story, but no for laity. The laity demonstrated a tendency to read stories as applicable to themselves with or without prompting; clergy demonstrated an ability to read stories as applicable to themselves when prompted to do so, but they often did not do this unless prompted.” (51-52)

Powell also categorizes the clergy responses in terms of those which understood the question in historical, redactional, and existential senses (52-53). All worth looking at (so get the book!).

Conceptions of meaning: Powell also notes how the laity communicated how the text effected them with a far greater frequency than the clergy. The clergy responses were far more cognitive in both experiments (54-55).

Powell concludes with some implications for preaching (55-56), but you will have to pick up a copy of the book to get the benefit of those.

Now for some comments. I would loved to have seen a third experiment in which, the laity at least, were given another story from a gospel and asked ‘what did this story mean to the author?’ I would be interested to see if some sort of self-reference and application persisted in their responses. It would also have been good to repeat the experiments with some non-narrative texts to see if these would a generate a lesser-degree of plurality in responses. Perhaps we will come accross such experiments in the upcoming chapters.

One conclusion that Powell draws from these findings is that the author-oriented hermeneutic may be the “less natural” of the two, and that it must be “taught and developed.” (56) I don’t think he is on the money with this one. I think that the reader-oriented hermeneutic has to be learnt as well, it does not come naturally, and its prevalence among the laity is due to a number of factors including the influence of popular Christian literature. I may be missing the point, but I can’t imagine how it would be natural to read an ancient letter (which was addressed to someone else and addresses the specifics of others lives) or descriptive narration of ancient history such as we find in the gospels, as speaking directly to oneself. [1] Such a reading strategy is certainly due to the presence of the document in the Bible and certain conceptions of the nature of the Bible and how God speaks to us through/in/by it. The first part of Christian Smith’s recent book The Bible Made Impossible is somewhat helpful here.

[1] The NT letters and the Gospels are more than ancient letters and historical narratives, but the fact that they are these makes the point.

Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 2 – Polyvalence

The first part of the book is entitled “Meaning” and is made up of three chapters, the first of these is “Polyvalence” in which Powell discusses the theory underpinning Reader-response criticism.

He offers the following definition of polyvalence: “In literary theory Polyvalence refers to the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” In other words, what history and daily experience teach us is that texts (of all kinds) “can mean different things to different people. They can even mean different things to the same person when they are read or experienced under diverse circumstances.” (17) It is a simple fact that people respond differently to movies, stories, jokes, songs, etc. Who is reading, when, where, and why, make all the difference.

He takes up Wolfgang Iser’s theory [1] that all stories have “gaps” that readers fill in the act of reading; imaginatively filling in un-narrated details, seeking clarity from what is left ambiguous, making connections not explicit in the narrative. (16) According to Powell “Polyvalent interpretations result from readers filling gaps in divergent ways.” (17) He then discusses “four factors that influence how readers fill gaps.” (17)

Social Location – One’s social location is constituted by such factors as age, gender, career, social class, income, education, personality, health, the list can go on and on. In other words, what makes you you, the particulars that influence our perceptions and experiences.

Reading Strategy – Powell describes reading strategy through a few examples, but to keep this post short I will note only the last. He gives the example of a women who each morning reads a passage of Scripture “expecting God to speak to her.” (19, the passage, Isaiah 55:1, is the first illustration so far employing a non-narrative text) The result is that she discerns that God wants her to carry out a very specific act that is only very loosely connected to the text. He contrasts this with his typical reading strategy which pays close attention to the literary and historical contexts of the text, with her reading which “looks for direct existential engagement.” (19)

Choice of Empathy – Readers typically “identify” with certain characters in a story and their “experience” of the narrative is determined by this. This usually occurs without thought or deliberation, influenced by such factors as social location and reading strategy. While this can result in the reader elevating minor points or even missing “what the author would have regarded as the “main point” of the tale,” for Powell this “does not constitute misinterpretation” because “readers are not constrained by authorial intent.” (22)

Conceptions of Meaning – Powell outlines and contrasts two conceptions of meaning:(23)

Meaning as message. The meaning of a text may be described in essentially cognitive terms. Understanding the meaning of a text entails identification of the point or points that are being made therein.

Meaning as effect. The meaning of a text may be described in emotive or affective terms. Understanding the meaning of a text involves recognition of its impact on those who receive it.

The former tends to be author oriented and the latter reader oriented. These are not mutually exclusive conceptions, but at least in terms of narratives, the former does not do justice to the genre. The parables of Jesus, for example, cannot be reduced to a message because it is in their form as a story that they function to impact the reader. “The narrative form of a story—it’s characters, plot, settings, and rhetoric—are as integral to its meaning as any message(s) its author may hope it conveys.” (27) The field of biblical studies has privileged meaning as message, Reader-response criticism “advocates” for meaning as effect.

Powell concludes the chapter by stressing the importance of this last factor for interpretation:

“The mere fact that people define meaning differently opens the door to polyvalence. And if meaning can (I would say should) sometimes be defined in terms of effect, that open door is thrown wide. Authors might intend to convey more than one point in a text, but there are limits to how many points can reasonably be attributed to such intention. Reader-oriented meaning-as-effect assumes a potentially unlimited range of meaning. Every individual reader may be effected differently.” (27)

Now for some comments. While Powell states that polyvalence occurs with all forms of communication, all but one of his examples/illustrations so far have been narratives, typically films. Something else needs to be said regarding different genres where Iser’s theory of “gaps” is not so fitting. I can easily see how social location, reading strategy, and conceptions of meaning would contribute to a plurality of interpretations of NT letters (or any writing actually), but not in terms of gap filling.

In terms of the one non-narrative example so far, Powell refers to the woman’s engagement with Isaiah 55:1 and the guidance she received as an interpretation of the passage. But I do not think this is an appropriate label, and am not sure that she would use the langauge of interpretation to describe what she was doing either.  But then perhaps this is because of my own understanding of what “interpretation” should signify. Powell’s use seems to be more inclusive of various reading strategies. The reason I note this is that diverse reading strategies come with diverse objectives/goals/aims which I would argue requires us to clearly place them in separate categories in order to avoid ambiguities which otherwise allow for overly general claims to be made, about polyvalence for example, that would otherwise clearly be untenable. [2] This brings me back to the previous comment on the application of Powell theory to non-narrative texts.

Finally, in regards to the two conceptions of meaning (meaning as message and meaning as effect), which of these  conceptions belongs to Powell’s definition of polyvalence as “the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” Are we talking about a multiplicity of messages or effects? I think that Powell would put the accent on the latter (while not excluding the former), [3] and that we need to recognize this when seeking to assess the theory.

[1] On Iser’s theory see Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zoncervan, 1992), 515-524

[2] Similar reservations could be made in regards to his use of meaning. However, Powell is being somewhat descriptive in his use of the term (especially in regards to the two conceptions), a term which is used to mean many different (though related) things. Powell is very inclusive in his use of this term to, and in the next two chapters will explore through two experiments that he carried out, how various conceptions of meaning (as well as the other factors that influence gap filling) work themeselves out in practice.

[3] His reference to communication as an “event” firmly includes the reader, whereas refering to communication as an act might cut off the reader by considering communication complete with the author’s production of a text.

 

Love as Interpretive Virtue

There is much in Paul’s description of ‘love’ in 1 Corinthians 13.4-12 that could be taken on in our work as interpreters. Attentiveness and thoroughness requires patience, our claims to know require humility for we know only in part, we should not become arrogant or insist that we have interpreted the text right. Have a read and see what you think.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Re-Interpreting Biblical Narratives

In Genesis 2 we learn that men were created first, and that women were then formed to be men’s helpers. Men, therefore, are in a position of leadership over women who were created to assist them in their tasks. In Genesis 3 we learn that it was a woman who took the fruit that had been forbidden by God, and who gave it to man. The fall, then, was the result of women taking the lead where man should have been. Man’s great sin was yielding his right and responsibility as leader, and the woman’s was seeking it for herself. Here, at the very beginning of the world’s story, we learn that the consequences of men failing to take leadership over women are grave! We must not continue this primal sin today.

I conjured this up this morning and while I haven’t personally heard this argument made before (it in all likelihood has been), I have heard quite a few preachers make the same sort of hermeneutical moves with biblical narratives that is made above.[1]

Whats actually happening in this argument is a re-narrating of the events or a re-telling of the story, partly based on their narration in Genesis, but now told so as to address the issue of male/female leadership. In doing so a message appears to be drawn out of the biblical narrative, but we would be right to question this, because the narratives in Genesis 2 & 3 do no make the connections made in the argument, the story there is not told to address the issue of male/female leadership.

All narratives are susceptible to a great degree of interpretive variety, which I think is because the events that they interpret by narrating them can themselves be interpreted differently. And the way they are narrated can still appear to mean something that the narration was not intended to.

This all raises an interesting question: if in any instance the Bible is narrating a real set of events from the past (as opposed to telling a fictional story), can we plumb these events for implications that the story as it is told in Scripture does not pick up on? Can we re-interpret these events? And what status would these have for our theology?

[1] Just in case the post has not made it clear, I do not think the above is a good argument. I am also not a proponent of male leadership although this could change.

Self-Deception as Interpreters and Theologians

This year I read an eminently helpful little book by Gregg A. Ten Elshof entitled I Told Me So: Self-Deception in the Christian Life.[1] In the book he explores the nature of self-deception, the strategies we use to deceive ourselves, and what can be done to avoid it when it is not good for us.[2] Drawing on his work but not limiting myself to his observations, I want to look at how an awareness of self-deception and its strategies may benefit us as interpreters of Scripture.[3]

The Nature of Self-deception

In an act of deception an attempt is made to lead someone to believe something for some reason other than concern for the truth.[4] Self-deception is essentially the same, it’s just that we are doing it to ourselves. So Ten Elshof describes self-deception in this way:

In self-deception, I am both the deceived and the deceiver. I am deceiving myself if I’m managing my beliefs with no regard for the truth. I’m trying to manage my beliefs, but I’m not trying to move myself along towards true belief.[5] 

Not many would admit to such an activity, least of all for their work as an interpreter of Scripture. Without challenging anyone’s sincerity when it comes to their intentions or capabilities, the thing we need to carefully note about self-deception is that when we are successful we are none the wiser. We are not conscious of our self-deceptive goals (at least not once they are achieved), we are genuinely deceived. So each of us can be (and probably are) deceived and self-deceived about all manner of things.

There are however degrees of deception. We can have the suspicion that we are being deceived by another; we may be “dimly conscious”[6] of deceiving ourselves; we may be aware that a certain presupposition or value strongly inclines us to take a particular interpretive stance (independently of reasoned supporting arguments and evidence) and yet allow it to do so with full force.

I am thankfully reaching a stage where I often recognize the influence of my presuppositions and values in my interpretive work. Sometimes I catch them at work, but not always.

Reasons we deceive ourselves

Why do we deceive ourselves? Because truth is not the only thing we value. Any of our commitments, beliefs, and features of our lifestyles can be valued over the truth. Self-deception is most likely to occur where “strong emotional attachments” to a belief are concerned, or where there is a “felt pressure associated with believing something.”[7] In other words, when there is some sort of emotional, practical, or social cost to believing something, the temptation to deceive oneself is high. This is the same when there is some sort of benefit to believing something, and self-deception can involve either changing ones beliefs or retaining them.

It’s not hard to think of situations where changing ones interpretive or theological stance would come with a great cost. The pastor, who inline with his denomination has long taught and ordered church according to the belief that women should not be allowed to teach or lead, would face great personal cost if he became convinced that the Scriptures do not in fact teach this. Similarly, for someone who is a practicing homosexual[8] and has now become a Christian, believing that the Scriptures forbid sex between people of the same gender would come with a great cost.

Both these characters have interpretive and theological options available to them that would not require repentance. In such situations the heart and mind are fertile soil for the seeds of self-deception to grow. What this all means is that our very sincere declarations of the intention to seek the truth are often hindered by our other commitments, values, and beliefs.

How we deceive ourselves

Ten Elshof explores 5 self-deceptive strategies: Attention management, procrastination, perspective switching, rationalization, resentiment, and groupthink where a group of people together maintain their own self-deception.[9]

In terms of interpretation and theology, many of us will be guilty of attention management. This involves avoiding or giving little attention to evidence and arguments that run contrary to our current beliefs.[10] But it can also involve giving inordinate attention to evidence or arguments in a one-sided critical spirit in order to discount them, and may involve interacting with only the weakest of such works. How many of us really give to works that we don’t agree with the time needed to really understand them in order to engage in honest and open interaction?

Procrastination can manifest itself in a similar way, with us convincing ourselves that one day we will look into things. The plurality and sometimes breadth and depth of the debate can provide the justification we need to put off looking into an issue that may prove costly, all the while continuing to live according to the option that suites us.

Rationalization is another scary reality, and I suspect that at its inception we are well aware of what we are doing, even if its insidious logic escapes us. “To rationalize is to construct a rational justification for a behavior, decision, or belief arrived at in some other way.”[11] Is this not what is happening when we construct new arguments for old positions when the past arguments have been refuted? What then is grounding the position other than the desire to carry on believing it?

And much could be said regarding groupthink and the scholarly community, wherein beliefs are mutually reinforced and questioning of treasured “critical results” has in the past proven to be a risky and sometimes fruitless business (so I hear).

Ourselves not just others

We’ve no doubt all suspected others of kidding themselves, of setting out to confirm what is already believed, of “axe-grinding”. But what about ourselves? How many of our exegetical judgments are unduly influenced by our theological traditions, our lifestyles, our personal preferences?

The purpose of examining these tendencies and strategies is not so we can identify others as self-deceived or call into question anyone’s sincerity in regard to the desire to discover and live by the truth. Rather it is to raise the necessity of becoming aware of the self-deceptive strategies that enable us to believe what we prefer to believe without realizing that we are doing so. We need to become aware of our own tendencies in order that we may work to ensure our freedom from harmful self-deception by discerning where we are self-deceived, and by catching ourselves in and before the act.

In summary, our desire to believe something (for what ever reason other than the pursuit of truth) can lead us to deceive ourselves into believing that it is in fact the case, and we can do so in such a way that we believe such belief is rational and justified. As interpreters of Scripture for whom our results have tremendous practical significance, we are not free from this. We need to become wise to our own self-deceptive strategies and cultivate habits, dispositions, virtues, and relationships that will aid us to avoid their snare.


[1] Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009. Ten Elshof is associate professor and department chair of philosophy at Biola University.

[2] The point that truth is not all-important, and as such self-deception is not always a bad thing but is in a significant way a gracious gift from God, is taken up in Chapter 6.

[3] At this address you can find an interview with him about the book which provides a good outline.

[4] It is important to note here that what Ten Elshof is describing as deception is any attempt to lead someone to believe something for some reason other than that it move them into true belief. Thus one can be deceived into believing something that is true. What makes the act deceptive and the condition deceived is the intention of the deceiver.

[5] P.25

[6] The language used by Dallas Willard in the Forward, x

[7] Pp.27, 22

[8] I have to admit to not being very happy with this description, but you know what I mean.

[9] See chapters 3-4.

[10] This is easy enough to do, even if not in the vein of self-deception. Having been in the workforce for five years since graduating with my degree and now having three kids to look after while I work on my masters, time for reading is rather limited. This has meant that I have had to be rather selective in what I read, and it has often meant reading the books I believe are ‘good’. I consider them good because they argue for or deepen perspectives I already hold, or because I have benefited from other books from the same authors. This affords little attention to reading against my interpretive and theological grain.

[11] Pp.54-5

Humility and Conviction

In kindly noting my post Why Character is as Important as Method, Tim Bulkeley puts forward the disposition of humility as the key characteristic of the reader. He suggests that it may be seen as summary of the four interpretive virtues discussed by Vanhoozer.

I’m sure he is correct, and in the final chapter of Is There A Meaning In This Text? Vanhoozer presents ‘A Hermeneutics of Humility and Conviction’.[1] In line with the nature of interpretation as human communication and in response to the dangers of overconfidence and extreme skepticism in regard to our interpretive efforts, Vanhoozer puts forward humility and conviction as prime interpretive virtues.

Humility is borne out of recognition that we do get it wrong, an acknowledgment of the partiality and limits of our knowledge, and as such a disposition that leads us into attentive reading and open dialogue. Humility must be balanced with conviction, because much can be known and knowledge mediated through the Scriptures requires obedience; ‘the uncommitted interpretation is not worth having.’[2]

Without humility we may fall to overconfident pride in our interpretations, without conviction we may fall to skepticism with regard to knowing the truth. Both of these lead to a failure to responsibly attend to the text.[3] Our knowledge must be tempered by humility and our skepticism countered by conviction.[4] And he cites Michael Polanyi’s (much cited) statement in this regard:

‘The principal purpose of this book [Personal Knowledge] is to achieve a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it may be concievably be false.’


[1] Is There A Meaning In This Text? The bible, the reader, and the morality of literary Knowledge. Leicester: Apollos, 1998. pp. 455-68

[2] Pg. 465

[3] Vanhoozer’s brief account of the ‘deadly sins’ of pride and sloth is well worth a read in regard to character. See pp. 462-3

[4] Pg. 462