Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Quote for the day: Perriman

Happy Christmas to all of you!

Over my Christmas break I took the time read Andrew Perriman’s breathtaking Re:Mission. Biblical Mission for a post-biblical church which I shall review when I return to Germany. It either will be or already is available from Paternoster, in the ‘Faith in an Emerging Culture’ series.

Perriman is certainly one of my favourite authors. His thought is rich, eloquent, provocative, committed to scripture, and very often, and I mean this quite honestly, has the mark of genius. He is, at least for me, a reformer of the evangelical gospel. Perhaps it is for that reason that I feel he hangs too loosely to the canon-forming, interpretive and exegetical streams of church tradition - traditions, I dare to hope, which have been guided, albeit more or less, by the Holy Spirit.

Let me put it like this (without wanting to give the impression I am a closet Catholic!). It is church tradition (A) that has shaped the ‘canon’ of scripture (B), and this ‘canon’ is itself the backbone of our understandings of the scriptural narrative (C). Yet it is this narrative (C) that Perriman employs with such devastating and illuminating effect to (overly?) boldly critique … church traditions (A). This process (A-B-C-[critiques]->A) needs to be handled carefully, and I’m not sure Perriman is at his most nuanced at this point. I thus find myself backing away from some of Perriman’s conclusions, even though I find his method and results so exciting.

Am I just being a boring old stuffy traditionalist conservative, paying lip service to critical scholarship while ‘running to the hills’ when it starts to hurt? I’m not sure I can answer that yet. I admit that there is some he writes that I find myself disagreeing with, and I regularly find him unsettling. But it is precisely for this reason that I so enjoy reading his works!

So here is my quote of the day. I read the text below and had one of those ‘ah ha!’ moments. For a moment, I stopped feeling guilty for making the text of scripture appear so alien and distant in discussions with some friends.

“I would question the assumption that Scripture ought to be immediately accessible, easily intelligible, to the modern reader. The problem is that the Bible is not a modern text: it is an ancient text, written to address ancient circumstances, constructed out of the peculiar thought-forms of an ancient worldview, and it should seem strange and irrelevant to us” (Perriman, Otherways, p. 57)

An afterthought: If you are reading the bible with due consideration of its historical context, it should seem strange, and, in many ways, irrelevant. I hasten to add, it doesn’t work both ways. If the bible is strange and irrelevant to you, that is no proof that you are reading the bible with such due consideration!

19 Comments:

At 12/25/2007 10:01 PM, Anonymous Owen Weddle said...

Merry Christmas to you Chris! Hope everything is going well.

I understand the sentiment that the Bible may not be easily accessible. I even agree with it to a certain degree. However, we must keep in mind that while there are differences between us and the people of the Bible, we share more in common, the common human experience. Thus the average person is able to perceive a good portion of Scripture, because the circumstances they faced shared some similarities with our experiences. Yeah, the average person will makes more errors on average also. This is the cost of having the Bible as available and personal. And as I routinely say, the layman can do 80% of what the scholar does. It just that we do not notice similarities as much as differences.

But with that said, we can not hold to the notion that every one is equally qualified to interpret the Bible and that every part can and should be easily accessible to the general populace. The church needs interpreters of the message, which is nothing more than teachers. We have always had them for the very reason that there are things, whether it be in the Scriptures or otherwise, that the average person will not get on their own.

 
At 12/26/2007 8:10 PM, Anonymous ken said...

I would also propose the following argument: If the Bible is the true Word of God and if God is omniscient then has always known that we would be reading/interpreting the Bible today, thousands of years after it was written and thousands of years separated in culture, technology,and worldview from the writer and original audience. Furthermore, if the Bible is the true Word of God then it contains timeless truths which must be just as relevant to us today as they were to the original audience.

Therefore, I conclude that the Bible should not be (totally?) interpreted in terms of the original, ancient world-view exactly because it was "written to address ancient circumstances, constructed out of the peculiar thought-forms of an ancient worldview." Certainly, as Owen points out, we do share the human experience with the original audience but that experience is mediated by our current worldview and therefore is, as we interpret it and relate to it, extremely different. The "one-size fits all" approach does not work and, I think, that fact is obvious if you look at the world today.

I agree with what Bultmann wrote in Jesus Christ and Mythology (and I wrote a little bit about it here) --- that we need to "deny that the message of Scripture and of the Church is bound to an ancient world-view which is obsolete." And this means that we need to bind the Scripture to our current worldview which is by no means an easy task and is not the task of the "average person" but must be done. Otherwise, the irrelevance of the absolute truths in the Bible make them no longer absolute.

 
At 12/26/2007 8:21 PM, Anonymous Stephen (aka Q) said...

Chris:
What the implications of that quote for the translation of scripture, I wonder?

I'm thinking of a discussion I had with one of the "Better Bibles" bloggers (over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry). Wayne is utterly convinced of the superiority of "dynamic equivalence" translations, in part because he doesn't think the text should be phrased in terms that are alien to a modern reader.

Wayne would remove metaphors like "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news" and "sit in Moses' seat" (replacing the later with, "bear the authority of Moses").

In my view, there's no need to dumb down those two metaphors. The vocabulary is not an issue; it's just that the metaphors belong to an alien culture. And I think we should let the reader wrestle with that him/herself.

The alternative is to pretend that the Bible is not an alien book, but the ancient Hebrews expressed themselves in metaphors that are familiar to us in our culture.

I shouldn't ask you to weigh in on a dispute between me and a fellow biblioblogger. But that's where my mind went when I read the Perriman quote.

 
At 12/26/2007 10:05 PM, Anonymous Radical Atheist said...

Nonsense, the Bible is exceedingly simple.

It our desire to find so much extraneous meaning, through such deep over analysis, that has made it extremely convoluted.

I will grant that there is something difficult, in that we don't have the same world view, but the underlying message is very easy to extract.

However, we'd rather work very hard to find ways to ignore this one important and simple message, so that we can find ways to ensure religion supports our own views of the modern world.

Imagine how Christ would view those that twist his message thusly...

 
At 12/27/2007 4:52 AM, Anonymous Weekend Fisher said...

I think we have to be more subtle. Which writings?

Some writings did have a specific ancient-world audience; some of the prophecies about the fall of this or that ancient kingdom come to mind.

Other things were spoken with eternity in mind. The parable of the lost sheep is probably easier for many of us to understand than other things written by people who live with us in this era within our own cultures and languages.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

 
At 12/27/2007 5:19 AM, Anonymous byron smith said...

Ken - if God had us in mind, then does that mean we don't need to translate from Hebrew and Greek?

if the Bible is the true Word of God then it contains timeless truths which must be just as relevant to us today as they were to the original audience.
I'm not sure I understood why B followed logically from A. Why must the Word of God be timeless?

 
At 12/27/2007 5:55 AM, Anonymous Arni said...

What Radical Atheist says is typical for atheists who don't want to read the Bible, but want to construct a simple strawman of it which they can easily "refute". A very cheap trick which is both idiotic and tragic.

 
At 12/27/2007 6:21 PM, Anonymous Looney said...

As the Bible says, "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, but only when wielded by someone who understands the correct historical context." - Hebrews 4:12, KJV Scholars Edition.

 
At 12/28/2007 7:27 AM, Anonymous ken said...

Byron--

if God had us in mind, then does that mean we don't need to translate from Hebrew and Greek?

Well, my Hebrew is a tad rusty (and by rusty I mean nonexistent) so, yes, we do need translations. Not sure where you're going with the question. I meant that God knew, when the Bible was penned, that we would be reading the words we are reading today and so that must have influenced his decision on what was to be written. Now, I'm not trying to get into a "definition of inspired" discussion here.

I'm not sure I understood why B followed logically from A. Why must the Word of God be timeless?

If the Word of God is not timeless and relevant for us today, then why are we even having this discussion?

 
At 12/28/2007 7:28 AM, Anonymous ken said...

(forgot to click the "email follow-up comments" box)

 
At 12/28/2007 4:32 PM, Anonymous Owen Weddle said...

"If the Word of God is not timeless and relevant for us today, then why are we even having this discussion?"

Because not *everything* God says may be directly relevant for all people of all times. For some reason, when God speaks it must be directed towards every individual at all times, but if the average person speaks it can be focused only to a specific group and time. Is it impossible for God to be very specific in His audience?

We can certainly perceive some aspects of God's nature in how He deals with and speaks to certain individuals or group[s. However, what we are getting at best is an indirect relevancy. Furthermore, if God is speaking to a specific individual, it may be cloaked in the culture and so has the possibility of being near impossible for the average people to understand. For instance, why did God forbid boiling a goat in it's mothers milk? Unless we assume some symbolism behind it and assume that God is speaking to all ages, we are left to not know (even the best of the scholars from what I have seen don't really understand much behind that passage except for speculation).

To go back to answering your original question though, the reason we discuss is that there may be some relevancy for us (I don't mean "may" as in possible but not probable). We study to discern it, but we don't force the conclusion that it is relevant for us and understandable by us.

 
At 12/29/2007 1:36 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Owen, thanks for your comment.
“Thus the average person is able to perceive a good portion of Scripture, because the circumstances they faced shared some similarities with our experiences”

Just a thought, but I do wonder if precisely those situations produce more misunderstandings, because universality of experience is assumed, although the matter is complex. And I also wonder if the clarity of scripture should be located on ‘common’ human experience. I’m not sure that is enough. Perhaps the clarity of scripture should be located elsewhere. I’ll perhaps post on some thoughts that are brewing in me because of you helpful comments. Thanks.



Hi Ken,
Thanks for your well-put points.
“Furthermore, if the Bible is the true Word of God then it contains timeless truths which must be just as relevant to us today as they were to the original audience”

I am not sure that we need to say ‘timeless truths’ therefore relevant for us. In my liturgical reading today, I recited Pss 123 and 128. There was much that was time-bound, far from timeless. But it it is relevant for me in my reading - though not because it is ‘timeless’. I’m still thinking on this matter, but perhaps you can see my poorly put point.

“The "one-size fits all" approach does not work and, I think, that fact is obvious if you look at the world today”

Here, I couldn’t agree with you more. Good call.

As for the rest: certainly you have the churches interpretative tradition behind you!


Hi Stephen,
Interestingly, just before the citation in my post is a discussion about the appropriateness of modern translations that are, as you call it, assumed under a ‘dynamic equivalence’. Perriman argues that many modern translations, like the Message, seek to make the texts contemporary, but that this is problematic. There are not contemporary. He is more nuanced, but that is one of his points.



Radical Atheist,
“Nonsense, the Bible is exceedingly simple.”
I wonder if you are mirror-imaging Christian fundamentalism, as Dawkins does, with this statement.

“It our desire to find so much extraneous meaning, through such deep over analysis, that has made it extremely convoluted.”

The complexity is in the text too. It originates there. Indeed, Francis Watson makes the case that it is the tensions within biblical texts that Paul in fact exploited to develop his theology. Barth was once asked how he could be so sure that ‘such and such’ was at the centre of the message of scripture, while he also affirms the complexity of the text. He replies - at least as far as I can remember - by noting that the form is simple, but the content not. We may say ‘God is love’, but to know what this means involves prayerful and charitable debate.


RIGHT, I need to get to bed …. So I’ll respond to comments from Weekend Fisher onwards tomorrow!!

 
At 12/29/2007 6:17 AM, Anonymous ken said...

Owen and Chris- Ok, scratch "timeless." Well, maybe. I like what Owen said: "We study to discern it, but we don't force the conclusion that it is relevant for us and understandable by us." That makes a lot of sense to me.

But (and maybe it's the remnants of a Fundamentalist's inerrancy argument echoing in my head) if God had a hand in the Bible and knew that we'd be reading it today, why would he put something totally irrelevant to us in there? It seems dangerous to me (the echo again, perhaps) to say: "This verse and this verse have absolutely nothing to say to me today so we're going to cross them out and ignore them."

I realize that this leads to forced relevance and, therefore, to forced interpretations which could be totally bogus but ...

And I've actually written about and criticized this practice --- especially regarding some of the O.T. laws. Of course, it was in the context of someone saying this verse is relevant and the next verse is not so I think that's a little easier to defend.

It also seems to me that when the words, themselves, are not relevant but we seek to discern something from it that this is exactly what Bultmann is suggesting; it is taking the Scripture out of its ancient world-view and trying to apply it to our own. And so, is this not the correct way to approach all Scripture?

Of course, stepping away from the historical context does not automagically make the text not strange. It may be no easier to interpret or apply outside of context than within (the milk/meat text which Owen mentions, e.g.) but it does seem to me to be the reasonable way to approach it.

And I also wonder if the clarity of scripture should be located on ‘common’ human experience. I’m not sure that is enough. Perhaps the clarity of scripture should be located elsewhere.

Let me throw out something that I'm just starting to think and blog about (hence, concepts may be a bit vague and words a bit imprecise): Perhaps the "common ground" is myth. I think the common ground is that people of all times relate to God not directly but through religion or myth. This is why some people have such a difficult time with God --- they have no myth to use as a medium for talking about God.

(Now, by myth, I mean it in the way Carl Jung uses it when he said: “For it is not that ‘God’ is a myth, but that myth is the revelation of a divine life in man.”

Since it is almost impossible for someone to acquire someone else's myth, then the real task for the theologian/exegesis-ist is to translate into the current myth. Otherwise, it will never make sense.

BYO-grain-of-salt

 
At 12/29/2007 1:13 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Right, after a nights sleep …!

Anne, thanks for your comment. I wonder if it is enough to say that only those parts spoken with eternity in mind are eternally relevant. The parable you mentioned seems to have a very concrete historical oaring (cf. Wright, “Jesus and the Victory of God” on that). Nevertheless, that shouldn’t mean it cannot be relevant for us. I’m still thinking on this mater, as is perhaps obvious! God bless you too!



Looney,

Why do you think Hebrews 4:12 refers to the Christian canon of scriptures?

I do understand your feelings, though. However, I would argue that teachers are necessary in the church precisely because of the confusion generated by the popular ‘existentialist’ approaches. It doesn’t necessarily mean knowledge of form criticism, or rhetorical genres etc (at least not for all), but certainly appreciation of the wider scriptural narrative. This is something popular evangelicals tend to miss.


Owen quotes, I think Ken: “If the Word of God is not timeless and relevant for us today, then why are we even having this discussion?”

OK, but how is scripture relevant? How can contextual and ancient writings speak to us? They are th important questions, I suspect.

 
At 12/29/2007 5:21 PM, Anonymous Looney said...

Chris wrote:

"Why do you think Hebrews 4:12 refers to the Christian canon of scriptures?"

Context? Hebrews has plenty of interpretations of the Pentateuch, Psalms and prophets, so the old testament canon is probably a good bet. The new testament canon certainly isn't immediately required, but given the centrality of Christ, it isn't a stretch either.

Anyway, it is certainly good to stretch ones thinking and this can't be done by only reading commentators that you already agree with. A hope I have is to study, learn and improve myself - hopefully filtering out the dubious, while avoiding looking down at simpletons. Perhaps it is a fear that looking down at the simpletons is one of the greater heresies.

 
At 12/29/2007 6:43 PM, Anonymous Owen Weddle said...

Welcome back Chris. Hope your Christmas went well.

"
Just a thought, but I do wonder if precisely those situations produce more misunderstandings, because universality of experience is assumed, although the matter is complex. And I also wonder if the clarity of scripture should be located on ‘common’ human experience. I’m not sure that is enough. Perhaps the clarity of scripture should be located elsewhere. I’ll perhaps post on some thoughts that are brewing in me because of you helpful comments. Thanks."

I won't necessarily disagree there. I would say there are occasions where the perception of "common human experience" creates a problem. However, I don't think such instances are very frequent (though I haven't looked through the Bible for possible instances of that). Rather, the bigger problem in my opinion is assuming a common culture. This is a matter of semantics, I know, but important an one in my opinion.

Also, I think it is important to recognize Biblical understanding isn't an all or nothing situation. A person may not fully understand the context but they can still get a basic gist correct.

And in the end, I do think the "common human experience" is enough to hang that the Scripture has SOME clarity to it. The clarity is limited, but there is enough in my opinion that your average person has the potential to read the Bible without commentaries and other sources of interpretation and get a good, oh let's say, 70-80% of the main Biblical message.

But all this gave me an interesting thought. Going through different portions of the Bible and seeing how much could be understood by a basic reading of the text and how much would require further knowledge.

This has also got me thinking a bit and I may post some further thoughts on this, if the time allows me to.

Hope you have a great New Years

 
At 12/29/2007 6:53 PM, Anonymous Owen Weddle said...

"Context? Hebrews has plenty of interpretations of the Pentateuch, Psalms and prophets, so the old testament canon is probably a good bet. The new testament canon certainly isn't immediately required, but given the centrality of Christ, it isn't a stretch either."

Not to derail this topic, but I don't think the author of Hebrew is specifically referring to the Psalms and prophets. I think he is specifically referring to the commands God gave to the Israelites through Moses, which they then disobeyed and fell into God's wrath as a result.

"Anyway, it is certainly good to stretch ones thinking and this can't be done by only reading commentators that you already agree with. A hope I have is to study, learn and improve myself - hopefully filtering out the dubious, while avoiding looking down at simpletons. Perhaps it is a fear that looking down at the simpletons is one of the greater heresies."

Looking down at people is definitely an issue that we need to watch for. However, we have to avoid the other extreme of saying that there can not be any more qualified individuals in the interpretation of the Bible. If one interprets the Bible better than another, it doesn't necessarily make him a better Christian. The Christian call is to holiness, not knowledge and the majority of knowledge to be obtained by a deeper study does not influence holiness so much. Therefore, we should not be afraid to say that that Scripture may not be very clear in all areas to the average person, if indeed that is the case. We can't assume equality in abilities. But as you do, I too fear the idea of looking down upon the "simpletons"

 
At 1/10/2008 3:04 PM, Anonymous Eric W said...

Alice C. Linsley in her blogpost entitled Mount Moriah recalls an incident in a fashionable church Sunday School class where the strangeness and wildness of YHWH and the stories about Him had an interesting impact:

The silence was broken again, this time by a middle-aged man. "I'll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I've decided that I and my family are looking for another church."

"Why?" I asked in astonishment. "Why?"

"Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I'm near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham's god could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God."

 
At 3/14/2008 2:05 AM, Anonymous Alice C. Linsley said...

Eric, I didn't write that piece. It is a reprint of William H. Willimon's "On a Wild and Wildy Mountain," originally published as a Lenten meditation in The Christian Century. You can see the influence of the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard. Willimon was apparently impressed with his Fear and Trembling.

 

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