A song for the weekend.
In the most recent additions to RBL Donald Hagner reviewed the book Horizons in Hermeneutics: A Festschrift in Honor of Anthony C. Thiselton,
He has the following summary paragraph of Stanley Porter’s chapter which is a critique of TIS. I have not read the chapter, but I wonder if it relates to the post just previous to this one by Roger Scruton.
Stanley E. Porter contributes the third essay in this section, under the title “What Exactly Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Is It Hermeneutically Robust Enough for the Task to Which It Has Been Appointed?” Porter makes his way through the subject by means of the comparison of four authors who have recently written on theological interpretation: Joel B. Green, Daniel J. Treier, Stephen E. Fowl, and J. Todd Billings. After a section in which he examines how these authors define theological interpretation, he provides a preliminary evaluation, then proceeds to the question of whether theological interpretation is a hermeneutic. This involves discussions of the relation to historical criticism, premodern interpretation and the rule of faith, the role of the interpretive community, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the relation between general and special hermeneutics. Porter’s answers to the questions in the title: there is no agreement about what theological interpretation is, other than “an undefined and varying set of tendencies or interests”; it is not hermeneutically robust enough to accomplish its task.
Roger Scruton has an excellent (although long) article in The New Atlantis about how scientism has crept into the arts and humanities.
He describes these fields as scrambling to find a “methodology” which makes their practice legitimate.
I could not help but think the field of biblical studies, especially hermeneutics, has turned scientistic more than they would like to admit. Scruton says:
Over the last several decades, therefore, we have witnessed a steady invasion of the humanities by scientific methodology. This invasion provides us with a useful illustration of the distinction between scientific and scientistic ways of thinking. The scientific thinker has a clear question, a body of data, and a theoretical answer to the question that can be tested against that data. The scientistic thinker borrows the apparatus of science, not in order to explain the phenomenon before him, but in order to create the appearance of a scientific question, the appearance of data, and the appearance of a method that will arrive at an answer.
Scruton goes onto describe what the sure sign of scientism.
This is the sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. But the difficulty of understanding art arises precisely because questions about the nature and meaning of art are not asking for an explanation of something, but for a description.
Why should there be such questions, and why is it that they lie beyond the reach of the empirical sciences? The simple answer is that they are questions that deal with the “spirit,” with Geist, and therefore with phenomena that lie outside the purview of experimental methods. But this is not an answer that would satisfy people today; putting it that way is likely to prompt a wry, skeptical smile.
Scruton then closes:
Like so many people wedded to a nineteenth-century view of science, which promised scientific explanations for social and cultural phenomena, Dawkins overlooks the nineteenth-century reaction that said: Wait a minute; science is not the only way to pursue knowledge. There is moral knowledge too, which is the province of practical reason; there is emotional knowledge, which is the province of art, literature, and music. And just possibly there is transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion. Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world? Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world, and so help us to be at home in it?
Surely human beings can do better than this — by the pursuit of genuine scientific explanation on the one hand, and by the study of high culture on the other. A culture does not comprise works of art only, nor is it directed solely to aesthetic interests. It is the sphere of intrinsically interesting artifacts, linked by the faculty of judgment to our aspirations and ideals. We appreciate works of art, arguments, works of history and literature, manners, dress, jokes, and forms of behavior. And all these things are shaped through judgment. But what kind of judgment, and to what does that judgment lead?
It is my belief that culture in this sense, which stems from the “I” perspective that is the root of the human condition, points always towards the transcendental — the point on the edge of space and time, which is the subjectivity of the world. And when we lose our sense of that thing, and of its eternal, tranquil watchfulness, all human life is cast into shadow. We approach the point at which even the St. Matthew Passion and the Rondanini Pietà have nothing more to say to us than a shark in formaldehyde. That is the direction we have taken. But it is a direction of drift, a refusal to adopt the posture that is inherent in the human condition, in which we strive to see events from outside and as a whole, as they are in the eyes of God.
The world of biblical scholars would do well to consider Scruton’s piece and do some self examination. Or even better, we could even do a scientific experiment and pick up five dissertations and give them a grade on how much scientistic thinking occurred.
Rafael Rodríguez has provided a brief introduction to the burgeoning field of oral tradition in T&T Clark’s Oral Tradition and the New Testament: A Guide for the Perplexed (2014).
He begins by acknowledging that the NT is a written text, but also affirms that the earliest Christians told stories about Jesus in a number of different media, both oral and written. Rodríguez argues that although the oral tradition may sound like a part of the modern critical approach called form criticism, form critics actually get started on the wrong foot. We need to ask fundamentally different questions. In fact, contemporary media criticism is, in many ways, a reaction against twentieth-century form criticism.
The most helpful chapter in the book is chapter four, the “how” of oral tradition in NT studies. Rodríguez rejects the typical morphological approach, where scholars look for orality’s shape (or its form) in written texts. They look for oral patterns some of which are described by Walter Ong (additive rather than subordinate, redundant, aggregative rather than analytic, etc).
His examples of those who use this approach are Joanna Dewey and James Dunn, although there are many more. The problem with this approach is that many of the observations work perfectly well in written narratives as well. The catch, as Rodríguez points out numerous times, is that we are always examining a written text because we do not have any remnants of the oral tradition.
The morphological approach fails because 1) it assumes an oral and not written psychodynamics produce certain features of linguistic style or certain narrative features, 2) it assumes that allegedly oral features of tradition survive the transfer from orality to writing. In short these are assumptions, but they stand on shaky ground and therefore the morphological approach fails to produce what it has promised. We cannot find the oral tradition in the NT in the sense the morphological approach desires to.
But this does not mean the oral tradition is not helpful for interpretation according to Rodríguez. The approach Rodríguez puts forward is the contextual approach. This approach does not look for the shape of the oral tradition in the written texts of the NT. Instead, it posits the oral expression of tradition as the context within which the written NT texts developed. What Rodríguez has done (following Foley) is broaden his focus from simply questions of media to consider “works of verbal art” which may have different dynamics than the texts without roots of verbal art. The contextual approach in sum provides the context in which the oral-derived texts developed and were experienced by their readers or audiences.
The book is a helpful little introduction, and chapter four alone makes the book worth buying. I was disappointed with the second chapter, where it simply listed a glossary of terms and their definitions. This seems like a better dictionary article than embedded in a book such as this. Additionally, I would point people to Eric Eve’s book as a better source for survey material than Rodríguez’s chapter three. This is not because Rodríguez’s chapter is lacking but because Eve’s summary and evaluations are so well done.
The second half of Rodríguez’s book is really where he sets himself apart from Eve. Chapter four is described above, and in the last chapter he deals with the “why” of orality studies. Here Rodríguez seeks to demonstrate the usefulness of media criticism within the NT. I think most people reading will be left wondering how media criticism offers a distinct contribution that literary criticism could not bring to light.
Rodríguez does differ from literary criticism in that he is not looking for certain texts being alluded to, but surrounding traditions. But are not texts part of the larger surrounding tradition? Very few literary critics would say they are looking for isolated texts, but are invoking the entire “contexts” or “traditions” that go along with that text. The tradition focus does highlight what he briefly hits upon earlier in the book, that words are not only denotative but connotative and the balance between conferred and inherent meaning. But again, good literary critics would affirm his statements about words and language in their analysis of how words work.
Admittedly, I was bred in gospels scholarship under the tutelage of literary criticism, so that is where my mind runs. But what excites me about this new turn in orality studies is that the literary and the historical streams seem to be merging in their conclusions. What previously raised my excitement about gospels scholarship was that it did not have to be purely a speculative “behind” the text study. But as Rodríguez points out, the new historical approaches are asking fundamentally different questions.
Because Christ is the totus Christus, His face is not unknown to us. We see His face in the face of His brothers, our brothers. And that means that we can depict Jesus with any of the faces that are in fact His face to us. And this justifies, too, the practice of depicting Jesus in culturally specific ways. Jesus can be depicted as a black man (or an Asian, or a South Sea Islander), because some of His brothers are black.
This is a fascinating video on a newer discipline called experimental philosophy. Josh Knobe asks questions about the true nature of the self. Although it is from a secular perspective it raises a lot of good questions for Christians.
I have a playlist on Spotify called “Best Studying Soundtrack Songs” that I regularly go to when I am writing. This song from the movie “Life of Pi” is a beautiful song. I encourage you to listen to it. If you know anything about the movie, then the Indian influences will make sense.
Nicholas Kristof had a provocative article in the NYT Op-ed section about how academicians have marginalized themselves by not appealing to the larger public.
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!
As Kristof points out some of this can be attributed to the prose they write in. For a good book trying to overturn this see Stylish Academic Writing.
Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”
As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published.
Kristof closes the article pointing out that we live in a day where academics have the opportunity to make an impact, but they are simply not doing so.
Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).
I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!
Although he may have painted with too broad of a brush, he is right that the aim of the professor should be to get the information out to the general public. One of the best ways to do this is on social media.
The younger generation of teachers, scholars, and leaders should be present on social media sites and work towards molding their research into understandable language for the general public.
Seminary professors have a special “in” to the general public if they are involved in their churches as they should be.
Many academicians disagreed with Kristof’s analysis and the NYT published some of the responses. Tim Iglesias, who was more favorable to the idea, had the following suggestion.
As an academic who struggles with the problem that Nicholas Kristof so carefully examines, I have a simple suggestion. Each worthy idea should have three incarnations: one directed to scholars, one directed to practitioners in the relevant field and one directed to the general public.
Performing this task requires appropriate translation of the insight for the three audiences and editing for three distinct publications or venues. It’s time-consuming but rewarding. It helps if one’s employer shares this vision. Some institutions even use “knowledge translators” to make this happen.
I think his three-fold division is helpful and something that professors should use.
Peter Leithart has an excellent article in Canon & Culture (a blog of the ERLC) arguing that according to the Scriptures, the martyrs wear the crown.
American Christians are often dismissive of symbolism in politics. We’re interested in substance, by which we mean the nuts and bolts of policy, law, political principle, message and governance. We’re tempted to dismiss political symbolism as an unfortunate feature of our media-saturated age, when people are too distracted by their ubiquitous glimmering screens to pay much mind to gritty and unglossy realities.
This perspective is deeply unhistorical. Politics always has been infused with symbols. Punishment is as substantial a political act as you can find, as Michel Foucault noted, until the eighteenth-century public executions were forms of drama as much as deterrents. Ancient Romans crucified rebellious slaves, saying in effect, “You want everyone to look up to you. We can arrange that.” Later Romans flayed Christians alive, poured salt and oil in their wounds and burned them at the stake, in a quasi-sacrificial procedure. Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperor and claimed to be “living sacrifices” to Christ, so the Romans designed executions of Christians to parody Christian beliefs.
Leithart goes onto say:
Arguments won’t turn the tide. We need to fight symbols with symbols, stories with better stories, encouraged by the recollection that injustices and tyrannies have been toppled more often by symbols than by swords or bombs.
Above all, we need to grasp the political potency of courageous testimony or, to use the biblical term, martyria.
Anyone who witnesses against this tyranny risks paying a heavy price. Speak out against sodomy, and you’ll lose your cooking show and never be a reality star on A&E. You’ll risk being labeled a bigot and having your reputation and life shredded. The GOP will buckle; if you pay close attention, you can hear it buckling as you read. Pastors and other Christian leaders will be tempted to hedge and accommodate to the new sexual orthodoxy. Christians who hold to biblical sexual standards will be mighty lonely.
But faithful witnesses will speak, and they will speak knowing that lasting political effects go to those who are willing to sacrifice reputation and stature and even their lives to tell the truth to and about power. Ultimately, the martyrs will wear the crowns.