Posted by: gcarkner | August 26, 2012

Scripture & the Postmodern Self

Dualling Texts: the Postmodern Self & Judeo-Christian Scripture

This is not a simple or straightforward reflection; it proceeds more by way of an upward spiral. It draws on the school of thought that looks at the self as text, beginning with Wilhelm Dilthey. Nietzsche also loved the language of text; perhaps to an extreme, he claimed that interpretation goes all the way down—there are no facts, only interpretations. There is a sense in which we humans are a text, that is, open for interpretation. We are not reducible to mere factuality. How do we read our life experience, we the self-interpreting creatures who are obsessed with making sense of our lives? Do we not interpret ourselves as we tell our story even as we share with a colleague or a friend?Journaling is one vital way to grapple with our lives as text; amazing lessons and patterns emerge from this writing one’s life and thoughts. One PhD student filled ten large journals with his thoughts and ruminations during his program. One might challenge one’s colleagues that the un-interpreted life is not worth living (allusion to Socrates).

Drawing his line of thought from Dilthey, the brilliant English New Testament scholar and hermeneutics philosopher, Anthony Thiselton (Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, pp. 63f), shows how the written text of Scripture interprets and shapes us. The objective pole or backdrop against which the self is interpreted, for Dilthey, is the text that is the public domain or institutions and patterns within society. For Thiselton, the Bible offers a text to mirror and encounter the text of the self. Both recognize the uniqueness of each individual self and the need for a larger context by which to illuminate the self and build one’s identity. Thiselton mentions five ways in which selfhood and self-identity reaches understanding through encounter with biblical Scripture, the interface where meaning comes alive. It is not totally under our control. We are drawn into the awe and the epiphany (discovery) of this experience through a dialectic.

A) Firstly, there is illumination of the life and selfhood (theology, perspectives, experience, character and context) of the biblical author as one attempts to interpret the text. There is indeed a genuine authorial encounter, which is a form of inter-subjectivity. We are privileged to have fellowship/dialogue with the ancients; the Apostle Paul is to some degree our interlocutor, our mentor. The horizon of the biblical author offers us a challenge to our identity; we don’t know it all nor are we necessarily the wisest people who ever lived; the ancients can teach us through dialogue from the horizon of their life context and experience of the Living Word. I am aware that Foucault and Barthes announced the death of the author, but I want to resuscitate  the importance of the author. I find their views too cynical as does Kevin Vanhoozer at Wheaton College. Yes there is mediation, but the whole weight of ancient scholarship is connected to the author. It makes all the difference that we are in dialogue with Plato or Virgil, Cicero or Moses; we want to lean in and see what they have to say to us.

B) Secondly, as Word of God, the biblical text potentially has the ability to give identity and significance to the self through connecting it to the voice of the divine, the voice of its Creator. The self is animated and invigorated by being addressed by a loving God who is presence, one who approaches us and invites us to reason or dialogue. What occurs here is a naming of the self, a calling into meaningful existence in some sense; this borrows from John Searle’s speech-act theory. The Word of God through the biblical text refuses to leave us alone, to our own devices; it addresses, confronts, and challenges the reader’s and the reading community’s selfhood. The attentive, humble reader cannot get away with mere empiricist scrutiny of text as object of inquiry. The text of the self is confronted by a Transcendent Text or real presence of the divine. We have much to grapple with here; we begin by entering into a study of Scripture and suddenly the tables are turned on us and the Word of God begins to interrogate us: we do not come out of this encounter unscathed, resting in the comfort of our self-perspective.

C) Thirdly, the encounter with text is necessary to reveal (put in relief) what would otherwise remain opague or hidden in the self, including those deceptive sub-texts, or twisted motives, the shadows of the false self which theologians identify as sin. We are called out on our deceit, our games, our lack of authenticity. Thiselton employs French intellectual Paul Ricoeur with his interpretation of Freud, and Roland Barthes with his critique of mass culture and its double-layered meaning at this point. Ricoeur, while realizing a level of deception and the existence of sub-text, urges that we work with a hermeneutic of suspicion alongside a more constructive hermeneutic of retrieval (Thiselton, p. 68). It need not all be negative, but there is a definite mirror-effect. The biblical text has a way of exposing the falseness of self in ways that are often uncomfortable, however healing.Thiselton shows how this approach is compatible with the biblical vision of the deceitful heart in Jeremiah. The possibility here is to recover responsibility together with freedom under a restored relationship to norms, virtues and goods. This does the effective work of redemptive exposure of the false self with a view to liberating robust living in one’s true self for the common good.

D) Therefore, the ways in which different people interpret the Bible can reveal much more about them than the texts they interpret (their manipulative purposes or blind biases, refusal to hear). Think of how texts were manipulated by Apartheid ideology or racist superiority in some corners of the world. This is sensitive to the insights gained from reader-response theories of hermeneutics. The state of the reading or interpreting community has a lot to do with the way text is allowed to engage it, and therefore the fruitfulness of such a reading. In their midst, a lone reformer/dissident might be able to point out their reading brokenness and introduce a healthy self-critical attitude (e.g. a Mandella or Martin Luther King Jr.). One thing that happens in an interdisciplinary community like GCU is that people ask you tough questions from another discipline that you have never before imagined. As part of an interpreting community or sometimes communities plural, we need to choose our fellow readers carefully, so we don’t get in a loop of self-fulfilled, one-sided or self-deceptive interpretation.

E) Finally, most significant for Thiselton is that encounter with biblical text has the effect of transformation. This is also a major theme in his book, New Horizons in Hermeneutics. “Transforming purpose entails a hermeneutics of the self, a new understanding of self’s identity, responsibility, and future possibilities of change and growth” (Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, p. 66). He also records the David Kelsey and Frances Young comment that “when biblical writings function as ‘Scripture’, they shape the identities of persons and transform them”. Transformation offers a much superior answer to the problems of today’s  fragmented, deconstructed or de-centered, protean self. There can be the newness of self without mere radical self-determination approaches to freedom (Jean Bethke Elshtain agrees). Biblical text has a way of rethinking us, healing our false perceptions and renewing our narrative self. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in his Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Chapter: “Bible as Universal History”), encourages us to find our home in Scripture, to so indwell the biblical story and text that it shapes our whole outlook on life, fires our imagination, and gives us fresh eyes to see the world, fresh motivation to live out its promise for life—to shape our very lifestyle within a richer textured  horizon of meaning.

This ought to give some fresh perspective on home Bible studies.


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