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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Let's Swing


This morning I am working on my first paper of my second trimester at MHGS. This paper is to be my interpretation of Genesis chapters 1-3 in terms of gender and the goal of marriage. Before I wrote this paper, I took a look back at my final hermeneutics paper. Hermeneutics, the study of interpretation or reading, has been essential to my growth here at Mars Hill. I believe that it is vital that all of us acknowledge our tendencies and patterns as we read scripture…and really anything. I thought I would look back over this paper before I enaged scripture this morning. Anyways, I thought I would post the paper...

I stared at the page in frustration. I thought, “What do these questions have to do with me walking out of here with a masters degree?” I humored the professor, and I filled out the front side of the piece of paper. I answered a number of questions, but none stuck out more than the questions regarding my reading preferences. Who cares about what I have read recently? Why ask about what books of the Bible I spend the most time in? I looked at the questions, again frustrated (maybe the frustration was stemming from my first practicum meeting), and filled them out with a laissez-faire attitude. My actions strutted as if God himself had told me that these questions were irrelevant. I finished writing, dropped my pen in disgust, and waited for the papers to be collected. I then asked my neighbor, “What was the point of all that?”

As described, my first day of Hermeneutics was interesting. There was a large group discussion with no real conclusion, there was the “meaningless” survey, and then of course there was the graduate level syllabus overview. “What was the point of all of that?” Little did I know that that question would open the door to my hermeneutic journey this trimester.

A point. Everything I do must have a black and white, night and day, clear as can be, point. Whether it was Rick Warren or my mother, I spent many years of my life looking for this illusive purpose or point. I brought my desire for purpose into the way I encountered scripture. For me personally, I found this significant pattern through the “meaningless” questionnaire that began our first gathering together. For example, on this questionnaire, when asked what book of the Bible I most often read, I replied with Proverbs. I love Proverbs because it is more of a rule book than anything else. It provides simple guidelines for life and states both the behavior and the consequence of each behavior. It provides points for me to live by. I was then asked what I read for pleasure. I responded by saying that I love Good to Great, Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication, Five Essentials For Those Who Will Shape the Future, Tipping Point, Vital Friends, and Now Discover Your Strengths. All such books give clear guidelines and advice for living life. I enjoy reading books that provide algorithms to life. These texts provide me with simple lists of which I can construct me life around.

This reading pattern revealed in me not only a desire for a point or a purpose, but also a desire for predictability. Prior to Mars Hill, in my life, mystery, change, and confusion instantly meant pain. Why would I want to believe in a God full of mystery? Why would I want to read about a world that is still changing? Why would I want to trust a God that is changing? I was bringing my story, my soul, to the text in a way that limited my ability to see God as he truly is. This realization has challenged me to reassess and potentially reposition my hermeneutic.

So why do we even bother assessing our personal hermeneutic? Entering Mars Hill, I may have asked that very question. From where I stood I saw the reading of the Biblical text to be no different than the reading of any other text. If you can comprehend and pull meaning from a magazine, you can understand the Bible. If you gather information from a weekly podcast, you can gain information from the Bible. What I had overlooked is how many rules we use to interpret scripture that we may not use in engaging other texts. Whether it is our denomination, our political view, or our sociological position we bring rules to the sacred text and those rules guide our interpretations. This subjectivity often unnerves many followers of Christ and leads to a questions regarding the validity of scripture. The study of hermeneutics is often an attempt to put those nerves at rest.

N. T. Wright describes the hermeneutic study briefly in his book, The New Testament and the People of God. While reflecting on this battle, he says:

“What we need then is a theory of reading which, at the reader/text stage, will do justice both to the fact that the reader is a particular human being and to the fact that the text is an entity on its own, not a plastic substance to be molded to the reader’s whim. It must also do justice, at the text/author stage, both the fact that the author intended certain things, and that the text may well contain in addition other things – echoes, evocations, structures, and the like – which were not present in the author’s mind, and of course may not be present in the reader’s mind.”

It is these additional things, “echoes, evocations, and structures” that make it difficult for us to claim we understand the author’s intent. This is why we must acknowledge our humanity as we engage text. We must engage who we are and what we bring to each text that we engage. As I have acknowledged my humanity, I have come to see how my hermeneutic has changed over the course of this semester.

In a recent article, Hudson calls us to a ride in the rumble seat, which is a cute way of saying that we are to be at play with the text. I was particularly intrigued by the rumble seat analogy. Hudson says, “Postmodernism recognizes that mystery is not the death of truth but the playground where truth can swing.” As someone just breaking from his black and white modernist roots, I was thrilled by opportunity to just swing. I am now excited about bringing questions and imagination to the text, not to find truth or gain further understanding, but simply to enjoy the mystery and wonder of my Creator.

Although still uncomfortable at times, I now attempt to come to scripture with my imagination while honoring the historical context and the genre in which the text is written. A great example of this was found in one of our midrash group meetings. As was required, we read the Genesis text out loud together. As we read we stumbled into stories that were peculiar, difficult to understand, and unfamiliar. As we read these narratives my imagination took over. I began to laugh at the story of Noah’s drunkenness and I began to dream of different Garden of Eden scenes that I had never noticed before. Previously, I may have looked back over the text looking at each word, searching through commentaries, and calling fellow pastors in search of the one point to each of those stories. While I still consider a theme in each narrative, I do not come to the text to impose a specific point that would simplify my life or my God.

So what is the point of all of this? Have I found one? I think so. For me to effectively read scripture, I needed to at least consider a postmodern hermeneutic. As the trimester comes to a close, I am just beginning to bring myself to scripture in way that is open to self critique and ready to play. Today, as I read scripture, I allow my imagination to ponder before my scientific dissection begins. I believe that this hermeneutical shift is helpful in making me a little less dogmatic in my interpretations of scripture and a little more open to dialogue with the Other. I am also aware that this new hermeneutic may at times be dangerous. In the context of individual study, my imagination may lead me to belittle the authority of the text or to speak something into the text that is not present. It is in these moments that I must come to scripture with a community that engages honest conversation. It is through these conversations that I hope to gain a better understanding of my personal hermeneutic so that I may see myself and my Creator through truer eyes.

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