Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly I

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by Henk Hart

Greek Manuscript of the New Testament

In this blog and the next I share my reading of John 3:16 in the context of John’s gospel and against the background of Psalm 121, the psalm that celebrates the Creator as Helper and thus throws light on the opening verses of John's gospel. Bible reading exposes us to a message, so I have shaped my reading as a meditation with a message. So this is in every way a subjective reading, but I hope also a responsible reading. One of many possible responsible readings.

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly I

"For God so loved the world...." John 3:16. Likely the best known verse in the Bible. Or the most ill treated verse, torn from the gospel as a naked fragment brazenly broadcast on bulky billboards. Let’s take it off the billboard and place it in the context of John's gospel and the setting of Psalm 121. Will we recognize it there?

Psalm 121, with its moving language for God as helper, deliverer, rescuer, savior, has a strong relation to both Lent and historical Christian worship. For the great celebration of the exodus from slavery, Passover, Israel's primal event of deliverance, pilgrims sang songs of ascent, climbing Mount Zion while singing. Psalm 121, one of these 15 songs of ascent, celebrates the creator God as helper:
"I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth."
For ages Christian worship started with these very words: "Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

For God so loved the world. God’s love is cosmic.

During their Lenten pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples would sing these words. For God so loved the world—

God, the maker of heaven and earth. God almighty.

God as our helper first appears in the creation story, when God realizes that Adam is alone and needs help. The creator is savior from the very beginning, a helper for the helpless Adam, our helper.[1]

For God so loved the world.

It was an arch confession for Israel to sing: "Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth." This God protects us from all danger, whether we are coming or going, by day or by night:
"The sun shall not strike you by day,
       nor the moon by night. ...
The Lord will keep
       your going out and your coming in...."
God Almighty, maker of all that is made, so loved the world. How sensible that John begins his gospel of redeeming love with the Word of God through whom all things were made:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... All things came into being through him, ... What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[2] John tells Good News starting with God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, our helper.

For God so loved the world.

But listen: "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."

What is this? Is John writing about the Jews? Not likely. Recognizing God's presence is not a Jewish but a human challenge. When we read this today we need to hear its echo in Romans: God is visible in all of creation, but human foolishness makes us blind. So when love for the world makes God appear in our flesh, that's a problem. Suppose Hillary Clinton became pregnant (don't laugh, remember Sarah!) and became convinced her baby would be Immanu-el, God with us? Hillary's baby? If that's a problem, why isn’t Jesus a problem? He came from Nazareth, son of carpenter Joseph and his wife Mary. Why would anyone recognize the maker of heaven and earth in a wood worker's child? Would we? Is that how God helps? Whether we're coming or going, by day or by night?

John helps with a story. If we do not recognize Jesus as creator, have we not heard of the wedding in Cana? Where the wine ran out? Great need for help, a wedding without wine. God's creation is for celebration, cosmic joy. In Cana there is only water, six huge vats for washing off the world's misery, six vats for ritual cleansing. Then the Word, through whom all things were made, present in the flesh (for God so loved the world), speaks to these vats. And the party can go on: there is wine. John tells this story of glory as the miracle of miracles.[3] Now the disciples realize this Word-of-God come-in-the-flesh deserves their trust, the way you trust God, whether you're coming or going, by day or by night. The wedding goes on with wine, for God so loved the world.[4]


[1] The Hebrew word for the helper God makes for Adam, ezer, is not used often in the Bible and when it is, it (mostly) refers to God as helper.

[2] The packed and charged language John uses is open to different readings. Reading a number of translations helps to get the depth of these words. Here I have used the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] The Greek has various ways of saying “first.” One of those is “arch” as in archangel or archbishop, which is the word John uses. So given Jesus as the Word of creation, I read John as saying: this was the arch sign, the sign of signs, the original sign, the sign that names all signs, the sign that says: I make all things new. God’s love made manifest in the Word incarnate is cosmic in scope, too much for a billboard.

[4] Next week, on the first day of Lent, I continue this reading of John 3:16 with a look at the story of Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus at night.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: P. Bodmer II, Papyrus 66 (Gregory-Aland) in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably IV

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by Henk Hart

Reading Responsibly

When we characterize readings as responsibilities, we can continue to assess them as valid or invalid, so long as we realize that the validity just is not objective, in the sense of bypassing subjective responsibility. Readings by authors such as Tom Wright, Richard Hays, Walter Brueggeman, or Phyllis Trible are often regarded as authoritative and compelling, but different readings are not for that reason rejected. And once we have accepted the need to read responsibly, we will also come to see that there are no pre-given norms for what is responsible. As our subjectivity evolves, so will our responsibility. Reading texts always requires critical responsibility, vigilance, guarding against closing the text. We need to articulate our responsibilities self-critically and become self-conscious about and articulate our assumptions: what is the Bible, who is God, what is a responsible reading, etc.

Scripture plausibly gives us indications that this self-critical engagement of our subjectivity was known, exercised, and accepted in the communities in which the texts arose. I have mentioned examples in earlier blogs. The development in thinking about eunuchs in Deuteronomy, via Isaiah 56, to Acts 8 is helpful. So is Peter’s acceptance of dealing with non-Jews in Acts 9 or the early church’s leaders recommending, in Acts 15, that the Greek church find its own way in the Spirit. Jeremiah 7, too, arguably reads previous texts critically in terms of their spiritual depth. So I take it that Scripture itself encourages us to be more self-critical, for example, in reading Romans 1 or insisting on the predominantly male language for God.

Responsible text reading requires readers and the recipients of their readings to rely to a large degree on trust. Once it has become accepted that objectivity and guarantees are illusory, believers can no longer rely on a single authoritative and true meaning taught by church councils. We all need to learn how to recognize and trust responsible readings. Such trust makes us vulnerable. For that reason the marks of our responsibility need to be made as clear as possible, especially where readings are controversial or create victims. Whoever accepts a reading, bears responsibility for that acceptance. We cannot responsibly pass off our reading as the objective truth or say we had to submit to councils.

Trusting responsible readings in part means trusting that we ourselves have acted responsibly in our reading. Such trust becomes real in our preparedness to embody the guidance the text provides. A crucial test of responsible reading is what happens in our lives as a result of reading the sacred texts. Failure to act on the text, leaving it as merely grasped in our heads, assented to, and perhaps discussed, fails to trust the text. For the text is intended as guide for our lives. Failure to embody its meaning is a form of failing to read the text properly. People may fear the vulnerability this trust bring along, especially when it undermines structures of power and authority that bypass responsibility. They may feel safer in submitting to these structures or feel more responsible in maintaining them. But is there safety in accepting a power which absolves us from responsibility? Or do we then abdicate our responsibility in favour of a false sense of security?

If reading is to be responsible; if, in addition, objectivity is an impossible ideal which easily entraps us in distortions, and if, as well, responsibility itself has no objectively fixed meaning, we would be helped by an indication in Scripture that this kind of reading honors Scripture itself. I think such help is available. In Acts 15, as mentioned above, the council of Jerusalem gives Greek Christians exactly the kind of responsibility I have argued for, namely to interpret for themselves what they take God to be asking of them, without the benefit of an objective reading of a revered text. In Ephesians 1:23 we see the church living in love characterized as the fullness of God. If we combine Acts 15 and Ephesians 1:23, we get a sense of a church that comes in many shapes, and of an invitation to let that plurality come through in deciding, with the Spirit’s help, how to read our own situation in the light of Scripture. The role of a critic in this situation is to show how a reading has not been responsible, more than showing how a reading is wrong. If readings differ from ours, but seem responsible, respect for the leading of the Spirit seems an appropriate response.

A reading can still be widely compelling and acquire authority. If widespread peer adjudication supports one reading over others, that will speak in its favor. In the reading of confessional texts a superior reading will always be possible, because readings of these texts are by their very nature offered to others for their critical reception. A hermeneutics of trust depends on our ability to recognize people’s honesty, integrity, and competence, as well as on our trust of truth and reality. Hence such a hermeneutic requires respectful vigilance toward our own readings and those of others. Hermeneutics of responsibility means giving up text readings as an exercise of power and authority which is manipulatively controlling, which does not acknowledge in practice the integrity of other responsible readers who come with a different result.

In the end, we are better off respecting the subjectivity of text readings. With access to highly reliable ancient manuscripts, with a plethora of contemporary translations in many languages and from different perspectives, with ever increasing numbers of commentaries using the latest information from Bible scholarship, and with much relevant information available via Google, most serious readers have direct access to sources that help them become informed about how reliable a translation or interpretation is likely to be. Trusting a reading as reliable requires a decision on our part, usually made in a communal setting. Most of us will be capable to nourish such trust and to use it responsibly. That makes reading Scripture what it should always be, an act of faith, based on diligence in understanding what we read.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably III

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by Henk Hart

Responsible readings

I begin this segment with sharing (if you wish) the most fascinating difference in interpretation known to me. It concerns a concert by Glen Gould conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in New York, playing a Brahms piano concerto. Below is a video of Bernstein’s speech to the audience before the concert (you can skip the concert), and here is Bernstein’s later recollection of the event. They vividly illustrate the enrichment and excitement of interpretations when they go beyond objectivity.

If objective readings have too many problems, is there an alternative? I propose to substitute “responsible” for “objective.” Some may protest that “responsible readings” suffers from different interpretations of responsibility, putting it in the same boat as objectivity. However, different responsible readings would be normal, while objective readings aim to eliminate alternatives. Objective readings lean toward just one right reading, making a variety of readings problematic. But a responsible reading of a sacred text is like a responsible rendition of a piece of music. No one would suggest that there’s just one way to perform Brahms’s piano concerto. The only reason we have such suggestions in relation to the Bible is the tradition that the Bible gives us theology, that is, a systematic account of Biblical teaching. But the Bible as theology undermines reading it as, for example, narrative, which has many more levels of meaning than a scholarly account.

The legitimacy of a number of responsible readings is not, however, compatible with arbitrary readings. Bernstein rejected as well as admired Gould’s interpretation of Brahms. But no valid reading of Isaiah 40 can claim that Isaiah’s promise to those who hope in God –that they will run and not grow weary–is prophetic advice to joggers. Responsible readings acknowledge a reading’s subjectivity. But responsible subjectivity is not the subjectivity of the autonomous rational subject. Responsibility belongs to the responsible and accountable subject. Bernstein regarded Gould as outrageous as well as responsible. Responsible reading excludes arbitrary subjectivism or relativism. Responsible readings, for example, assume a vast fund of shared meaning in translations, concordances, commentaries, dictionaries, and lexica. Within any responsible reading community of people in conversation about the same text, much is already settled beyond dispute. Large areas of agreement exist even between different traditions. Since such agreement is never cast in stone, it would be misleading to refer to it as objective. But it usually functions that way. Further, arbitrariness is precluded by the existence of a basic text which serves as shared orientation in discussing different meanings. Brahms’s concerto does have a score and not just any rendition will be satisfactory. A valid reading must be open to criticism and is subject to acceptance of that reading by competent readers of the same text in the same community. The meaning of texts is not unrestrained, but only not restrained to one and the same meaning.

A helpful analogy for reading texts as a relationship between text and reader may be hearing sounds. Sounds are relationships between physical waves and eardrums. Without eardrums no sounds. Air currents pass through trees whether heard or not. But a wind howls only to hearers. Textual meanings are similar. They are neither inherent in the text by itself, nor made up by the interpreter. Rather, they are relationships between interpreters and texts. Just as people can describe what they hear very differently, so can people describe what they interpret very differently. If texts in this way are outcomes of subjectivities, their meanings cannot be simply objective.

The relationship between text and reader develops over time. Themes and meanings grow. Sacred texts are intertextual. Earlier texts re-occur in later ones, translated, transformed, and developed. The Bible shows movement: Israel’s God first dwells in tents and resists living in a temple. Later the temple becomes a dwelling place after all, but is abandoned in favor of human embodiment still later. The process of development continues in our own lives. All of this makes for legitimately different readings that can all be responsible though it does not eliminate the real possibility of irresponsible readings.

Central metaphors also contribute to multiple meanings. We cannot read texts without the relative weighting of certain meanings. When different communities have weighted different themes, for example, God’s sovereignty in Calvinism or human freedom among Lutherans, we can expect significant differences in reading important texts. Traditions with different central metaphors will have different slants on many of their significant readings, because shifts in central metaphors have a kaleidoscopic effect. When in the reading of a text primacy is given to certain themes, these primacies will pass on their coloring to other texts. All this is very much a matter of subjective interpretation. The Bible itself does not select and recommend its own choice of metaphors as central.

When we talk about responsible reading, we have no objective definition of responsibility. Responsibility will be defined in an ongoing way in the developing practices of a community, say a scholarly community, a community of faith, or some other community. By participating in the reading of the community we discover what it accepts as responsible and whether we are able to function within those confines. Examples of this abound. Virtually all Christian communities today consider themselves responsible in worshipping with women who are hatless and have short hair. But specific texts could be read and have been read to forbid this. Churches are still (re-)reading Scripture on the role of LGBT people in the church. These are not so much examples of past interpretations having been wrong, but more of seeing our responsibility vis a vis these texts differently than in the past. The “sin lists” in the New Testament are obviously local and historical. Their authority is limited for us today. That we accept this is demonstrated in our lives.

At the same time we see churches selectively using Biblical sin lists to single out some currently disapproved behavior. Churches often do not accept their contemporary responsibility in reading texts like Romans 1 with respect to controversial discussions. They would not easily read the Bible as open to (gender) inclusive language for God. These churches simply say that the texts are clear and that, however much we might want to have it differently, Scripture does not allow a different reading. Perhaps it is fair to say that people in the pew can in this way be bullied by higher councils. A shift here from objective readings to responsible readings would change the discussion, because it would introduce the legitimate possibility of different readings that could all be responsible, thus placing the so-called objective reading in a more vulnerable position.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably II

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by Henk Hart

Delusions of Objectivity

“Objective” as term of approval means more than: job well done. In that case, conflicting explanations could all be objective. Instead, “objective” minimally means: this is the meaning of the text, to dispute this is wrong. So why hope for objective textual meaning? Perhaps because it may remove some of our responsibility. If a text objectively means such and so, even if some don’t like this meaning, we can say: sorry, there’s little we can do, this is just what it means. It’s like opening our eyes and seeing the moon. There’s little we can do except close our eyes again. Even then, saying “Look, the moon!” is a subjective behavior. Objectively, so to speak, saying you see the moon is subjective. Objectivity, as characteristic of what a subject does, is never without subjectivity. This certainly is true in giving a reading of what reading is. Already the text we read is a subjectivity. Reading is also always a subjectivity. So a reading of reading deeply immerses us in subjectivity. Views of reading that claim objectivity are nevertheless subjective views of objectivity. They are not necessarily subjectivistic, but if their subjectivity is not acknowledged, subjectivism seems unavoidable.

The degree to which all of this applies to reading the Bible emerges in the comparison of reading the phone book and reading the Bible. These differ radically, not just in degree. We bring our contemporary lives and hopes for redemptive redirection to reading the Bible in ways we seldom if ever do to the phone book. Many contemporary issues at stake for us in reading the Bible (real and subjective concerns) are explicit in its text. And when we bring abortion or homosexuality to the Bible, they become part of its meaning. Who can read Joshua today without struggling with a God who appears to command genocide? The more objective we claim to be in these situations, the more we ignore contemporary subjectivities.

The Bible is inconceivable without human responsibility, both in its being written and in its being read, which becomes part of what is written. A sacred text, like a blotter, soaks up meanings we have read in it. When we back off from this responsibility and claim readings as objective as seeing the moon, we close off discussion and hide our responsibility for what happens to LGBT people or abortion as a consequence of reading the Bible. Once we claim objective meanings, we risk abuse of power by those who read the text without admitting subjective responsibility. Officially sanctioned readings easily prop up regimes of power and authorized readings facilitate violence to an open text by hiding the responsibility of those in power. They take away the responsibility of others for reading and interpreting the text anew.

The notion of a closed canon has these dangers and lends itself to barring access to the Spirit of the open text. Authorized readings can function as though they were God’s own infallible reading of an infallible text. Our subjective responsibility is then effectively denied and the nature of reading distorted. To read the Bible as fundamentally referring to God as a male person may seem objective. But to regard this reading as the Bible’s own is a reading which not only does not occur in the Bible, but hides an agenda-driven reading captive to a contemporary male subjectivity. To avoid this we need to acknowledge human subjectivity in all the meanings and readings of the text.

Claims about objective text readings support the illusion of there being, ideally, just one true reading which, once uncovered, is beyond change. People may fantasize that God would so read the text. Given the role of human responsibility in reading, however, no significant reading of a sacred text can ever be objective in that way. Significant readings facilitate reading the Bible to address us here and now by articulating a relationship between reader and text, rather than a meaning the text has in and by itself. Even if a community of readers accepts a single reading, that community is usually too small and its reading too short-lived to allow us to speak of real objective meaning. We have authorized translations, but no authorized readings of these translations. And the translations are themselves, of course, readings, interpretations. Any particular reading would be improperly used as a norm for other readings that challenge the so-called normative reading. At most we have a tradition of reading so shaping a faith tradition that it can become difficult to distinguish its reading from the text being so read.

If a church decides to speak authoritatively about a teaching of Scripture, and if reading Scripture is a relationship, the church needs to acknowledge its responsibility in what it is saying, which is probably not simply what Scripture in fact teaches, but more likely what that church, having read Scripture in faith, has decided needs to be said. The church’s decision to speak at all may well be a consequence of the experience that Scripture is far from clear on a decisive point and that clarity is now needed.

A responsible church acknowledges that different readings are legitimate. Our common and accepted practices in reading Scripture demonstrate that we routinely consider the text multi-interpretable. We expect a scholar’s reading of a text to differ from a preacher’s sermon on that text. A Jewish commentator is likely to comment on a story by telling another one. Christians generally do it differently. Even when we think only of preaching on a text, it would be remarkable to hear two sermons on the same text that were virtually identical. Or think of tracing the readings of certain texts throughout history. Among them may be readings that were once authoritative in our own tradition but that have been superceded by other readings.

If we take just one step away from reading a specific text to look at defining what the whole Bible’s authority is, the problem of objectivity becomes quite visible. Accounts of Biblical authority have a long history. At any given time there can be more than one account. What sense would it make to proclaim one of them as objective? Such accounts at best formulate one community’s understanding of a matter which in the Bible itself is never explicitly treated. So when we speak of a Reformed understanding of Biblical authority, this would be better regarded as a humble admission of the limitations of a tradition than as an advertisement of the one true understanding. Yet this need not discourage us from embracing a limited tradition as enriching.

Can the original manuscripts lay claim to objectivity? Since we do not have original manuscripts, we can at best appeal to copies that are, in the judgment of official church councils and competent scholars, as authentic as we can now hope to have. We do not expect better versions to become available and we allow them to settle disputes without questioning their authenticity. But they are not objective.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.