Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably III

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.

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