Biblical Study Helps Me Develop Critical Consciousness (Personal Reflections Pt. XII)

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Biblical Criticism

Here are the first dozen of the twenty-four conclusions I’ve drawn after my years of biblical study. As the cartoon above indicates, what I gained from Eamonn O’Doherty at St. Columban’s  Major Seminary in Milton, MA was an introduction to the historical/critical approach to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It provided a foundation that was deepened and developed by the scholars I mentioned in my last posting.in this series.

The historical/critical approach acts as a corrective to misreadings that emerge from the naive literary/confessional approach that had previously been mine. I learned that the latter is too open to ideological manipulation at the hands of the dominant culture anxious to secure divine support for a status quo favoring the rich and powerful ruling classes..

Accordingly, those more conventional approaches must be treated, I realized, with “ideological suspicion” which methodically doubts the veracity of conventional interpretations.

Such doubt made me suspect of any interpretation issuing from the United States and Europe. There analysis tended to remain largely apolitical and by that very fact ended up supporting the socio-economic status quo.

That was not the case in the underdeveloped world. (I use that term deliberately. Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, I found, have been deliberately under-developed –robbed of their resources by over-developed nations.)

Scholars in the Global South saw clearly and articulated connections between the biblical texts and imperial exploitation. The texts of both the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart are unique in the ancient world in that they were largely produced by victims of imperialism at the hands of Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. To ignore that fact and to interpret them apolitically is to impoverish them and rob them of their critical power vis-a-vis contemporary imperialist situations.

I’m sure such remarks make it clear how the biblical studies I’ve pursued have sensitized me to the dark realities of empires and the intolerable situations they have produced in the past and continue to produce in the present.

In any case, the twelve conclusions I share here unveil my gradual progression towards critical consciousness engendered by biblical studies. As you’ll see, they inexorably become less general and more sharply political. Judge for yourself:

  1. For the Christian Bible reading is extremely important. In some sense, the Bible is the word of God. However its many separate texts were produced by very human authors concerned with addressing highly politicized situations.
  1. But living is more important still. After all, even in the Bible itself, life and history constitute the primary vehicle of God’s revelation. In fact, it was out of reflection on these basic elements that the sacred texts themselves arose.  In other words, the main purpose of the Bible is not preservation or study of tradition for its own sake, but to help believers make faith-full sense out of the lives they are actually living.
  1. Therefore, as important as it is, Bible reading for the believer is a secondary activity, carried on “after the sun goes down.” It illumines life’s primary activity and vocation, living itself.

      4. But reading the Bible like the task of discovering life’s    meaning, is not simple; for  the Bible’s exact import is usually not self-evident or given; texts are often ambiguous and thus open to a variety of good-faith readings In other words, like all knowledge, Biblical interpretation is a problem about whose solution sincere people may disagree. And solving the problem of the text’s meaning takes tolerance, good will, openness,  thought, effort, study, community cooperation and prayer. But all these things notwithstanding, biblical meaning will still often remain obscure.  It will be open to question, disagreement, debate and error.

  1. A special Bible-reading difficulty is that of distinguishing between what the Bible teaches as such and what it simply assumes as part of its historical context. This is most clear in the biblical stories of creation.  These texts seem to assume a flat earth, covered by a blue bowl and undergirded by an abode of the dead, sheol.  The stories also say that the universe was created in a relatively short time.  But do such assertions constitute the teaching of the biblical stories, and do they thus necessitate rejection of modern astronomy and of evolutionary theory?  Or do the assertions merely reflect the cultural assumptions of the author?  Could other assumptions have been used as vehicles for whatever the text intends to teach?  And just what is that teaching?  —   Such questions  are not so easy to answer.  For instance, is it biblical teaching that women should remain silent in church and that they should keep their heads covered?  Or is that part of Paul’s cultural baggage?  Is it biblical teaching that lending money for profit is a deadly sin?   Or is that too cultural assumption?  What about homosexuality?
  1. Moreover, the task of biblical interpretation is rendered all the more difficult, since the Bible represents contested terrain. Inevitably various warring groups use its text to advance their own group projects and to discredit interpretations which do not favor such endeavors. Historically, of course, the Bible has functioned to maintain the male privileges of the well-to-do dominant class, and to discredit interpretations which challenge such privileges.
  1. More generally still, the Bible may be read to support various and even directly opposed approaches to life and its meaning. It can and is read to support a quietist attitude towards the world that separates faith from concern for social change.  Here the Bible is understood as promising escape from a world about whose political, social and economic structures God is unconcerned.   Or on the other hand, the Bible may be interpreted to support an activist attitude which understands faith as a ferment for social change, and which envisions God as deeply concerned with justice for the impoverished and oppressed of this world.
  1. Such differences in interpretation are to a great extent explained by differences in experience and commitment on the part of interpreters; for we bring the lives we lead to our reading of the Bible. That is, our experience of life, our life’s projects and the various commitments expressed in our daily activity precede and influence Bible reading.  All of these elements enable us to discover some of the Bible’s levels of meaning, while making it extremely difficult or (humanly speaking) impossible to perceive others.
  1. Those whose practice and analysis make them basically accepting of the world as somehow “normal” or inevitable tend to read the Bible as solely concerned with a realm above history.  Another way of putting this is to say that the God worshipped by those who basically accept the world is a supporter of the status quo.  
  1. Those whose experience and understanding make them committed to social change tend to read the Bible in terms of a vocation to community justice. In other words, the God worshipped in this case is the judge of the status quo.  
  1. As the class of people for whom and largely by whom the Biblical traditions were preserved, poor and persecuted people who practice resistance to the dominant culture often have a better insight into answering such questions than do the well-off. This is because the Bible is for the most part the “memory of the poor in history.”  In fact, because of their similarity to the Bible’s originally intended audience, today’s poor and persecuted enjoy a kind of interpretational advantage  in relation to the Bible in general.  This “hermeneutical privilege” does not stem from greater virtue or intelligence on the part of the poor.  Rather, it originates precisely from the persecuted and poor’s similarity in standpoint to the situations of the original adressees of the Biblical traditions.
  1. Increasingly today, the poor and persecuted who are engaged in the struggle for social change instruct us that the quietist God is the God of the oppressors. He is the supporter of the political, social and economic status quo , decreeing that it is unimportant or inevitable, and that the poor should be content with their lot.  This persecutor God is an idol, and must be the object of a kind of atheism.

From these twelve assertions, I’m sure you can see the origin of my “crazy ideas” (as my children put it). Basically they come from the Bible — but also, as we’ll eventually see, from supporting experience of the world and extra-biblical studies. Next week, I’ll share twelve more conclusions about the Bible.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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