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HYPERACTIVE HERMENEUTICS: IS THE BIBLE BEING OVERINTERPRETED?
What are we doing when we read the Bible? Are there right (and wrong) ways to read? Can we look to the experts, to the commentators, for direction? If we do, we are apt to be confused, for the Bible is today being read in many ways. Some commentators present an account of what authors probably meant by their texts, others explain the text’s structure or formal features, others search for the events behind the text that led to its production, others explore the way the text works as a story, while still others disregard questions concerning the background and author and proceed to read the Bible in light of the present socio-political situation. Regardless of the specific aim, most readers would probably say they were trying to “lead the meaning out of” (=exegete) the text.
If we try to press beyond the various practices to the theories which fund them, we enter the realm of hermeneutics, the study of the methods and principles of interpretation. At least, that used to be the definition. Textbooks on hermeneutics used to include lists of steps or rules which, if you would only follow them, would lead you straight to a large, juicy, objective meaning, ripe for the plucking. Today, however, many would question the extent to which hermeneutics is a science with a definite object. Several theorists deny that meaning is really “there” in texts; even more would deny that interpretation can be objective. The text is not some inert object full of meaning to which the reading subject applies tools and techniques, but a dynamic object which is incomplete without the participation of the reader.
Literary theorists are divided, however, as to the role of the reader with regard to interpretation. Umberto Eco recently gave a series of lectures at Cambridge University on “overinterpretation” in which he suggested that the right of readers have recently eclipsed the right of texts, to the point where the text cannot “talk back” but must meekly submit to whatever interpretation is foisted upon it by the enthusiastic interpreter. What are the limits to what readers should be doing with texts? The following typology distinguishes various approaches to interpretation on the basis of the degree, and nature, of the reader’s interpretive activity.
Explanation without Understanding
Quite another kind of inactive reading short-circuits the process of interpretation by remaining on the level of explanation rather than attaining understanding. Paul Ricoeur reproaches structuralist readings that explain the way a textual work is put together but fail to interact with its subject matter on an existential level. This is comparable to a musician explaining the structure of a Bach invention but not playing or actualizing it. For Ricoeur, reading is like the execution of a musical score; it marks the realization of a text’s structural possibilities. Explaining the text as a structured work is one thing, but appropriating and engaging with its imaginative world is another. Historical-critics similarly risk appropriating the world or message of the text in their zeal to explain where the various bits come from. Instead of appreciating the text in its imaginative wholeness as would the literary critics, the historical critic is more interested in what lay behind the text. Thus K. Barth could reproach the historical-critics of his day for not being critical enough: they did not grasp the matter of the text.
Interpretation as Ideology Critique
The 1970s and 1980s, for example, saw not only the rise of Women’s Studies in universities, but also the rise of feminist literary theory and interpretation. Feminists insisted that what pretended to be neutral academic reading was actually highly biased, the product of a hidden patriarchal ideology. Language itself, especially the ubiquitous third person singular masculine pronoun, was deemed to be a dangerous political instrument. Politically correct reading thus came to involve overturning one ideological perspective and replacing it with another.
Texts and readers alike, the reactionaries claim, have vested interests. When readers disagree, chances are the disagreement is a political one, with one ideological interpretation pitted against another. How are we to arbitrate this conflict of interpretations? If there is no non-ideological perspective, the danger is that media might—effective marketing— makes right. Reactionary readers function as lobbyists to the Academy, clairr~ing that certain kinds of reading are being repressed by some form of institutionalized authority—a State, a School, or a Church—demanding more rights for marginalized points of view.
Reactive reading requires us to read against the text and against the history of its interpretation. Reactive readers seek to expose the way the text served the power of some class, gender, or other institution. The problem with this strategy is that it deprives the text of any claim to authority. Texts thereby become subject to the play of interpretive interests and lose the ability to “kick back,” that is, to question or change their readers.
Interpretation without Frontiers?
As opposed to reactive readers who uncover the hidden aims and interests of texts, pragmatists deny that texts have either aims or interests. For R. Rorty, interpreting the text is not so much a matter of describing its true nature as it is of using it for a specific purpose. Indeed, the pragmatist is happy to abandon the term “meaning” altogether and speak instead of what readers wish to do with texts. Readers have a variety of interests in texts: in its author’s intentions, its formal structure, the way it was put together and achieves its rhetorical effects, the way it reveals attitudes about women or about the power structures of its day, or even in the way in which it provides an opportunity for creativity. The pragmatists’ point is that none of these interests should be equated with “the meaning” of the text. For the pragmatist, the meaning of a text is something I make by asking certain questions in which I have a special interest. Instead of being preoccupied with getting it right, the pragmatist wants to make it useful.
The second group of pluralists also favors overinterpreting (=giving multiple interpretation of) texts. Poststructuralism is a catch-all term for a number of positions which are united in their rejection of the idea that there is some absolute structure or explanatory scheme which would correspond to the one true meaning of a text. Meaning is not a matter of a sign’s correspondence to some thing; rather, signs mean what they do only in contrast to other signs. The problem is that signs can always drift into new contexts which change their meaning. The same is true of texts. The poststructuralist maintains that texts are free-floating sign-systems that have as many contexts, codes, and structures as they have readers. The meaning of a text is unlimited because the number of contexts through which it drifts is unlimited. Readers have no alternative but to recontextualize or decode the text. But when they do so they have not recovered its original voice or message, for no Logos dwells among us. Indeed, for the poststructuralist or “deconstructionist,” the goal of interpretation is to show how all claims to have attained “the” structure or meaning of a text only do so at the cost of repressing other parts or aspects of the text. Deconstruction tries to undo any attempt that aims at bringing interpretation to rest; deconstruction seeks endlessly to defer any such interpretive sabbath.
How Then Should We Read?
Our responsibility to the text is two-fold: we are to seek its meaning (=understanding) and ascertain its significance (=overstanding). Understanding means grasping the sense-potential of the text as opposed to our readerly interests. The initial aim of understanding is to recover the text’s primary communicative intention, its implied meaning. What is the text trying to do and how is it doing it? Honestly to answer this question requires both justice and competence on the part of the reader. Justice means giving something its due. To treat a text justly is to respect it for the kind of thing it is: to listen to its questions, to entertain its perspective, to respect its intent. A text is treated unjustly if it is purposely misread, if its intentions are willfully ignored. While a text may be doing more than one thing (e.g., telling a story and making a theological point), it cannot be doing just anything. Some interpretations can be false. It is the responsibility of the reader to test the coherence of a given interpretation over against the text taken as a whole.
Secondly, “overstanding.” Because readers inhabit their own contexts, their questions and interests may not always coincide with those of the text. Now it is only proper that readers inquire about the continued ability of a text to speak to new situations. When I impose my questions on a text, I am trying to “overstand” it. But, and this is crucial, readers can only ascertain the continuing significance of a text (i.e., its ability to respond to our aims and interests and to address our world), after the preliminary act of justice and understanding that we have just described. As Eco comments, it is risky to open a text before have duly protected it. “Overstanding” is thus a kind of reading that puts questions to the text that the text itself does not pose. Now a text will invite some questions, tolerate others, but be victimized by still others. For instance the book of Job invites questions about the problem of evil, tolerates questions about whether it is prose or poetry, but is violated by questions concerning its stance on the next presidential election.
The purpose of overstanding is to allow the world of the text to penetrate our world. Ascertaining a text’s significance and applying its meaning to our context is a way of honoring the text. Overstanding remains at the service of understanding, for the reason that we seek answers to our questions is so that we can follow the text into our context. Understanding occurs when we succeed in grasping the intentions of another mind. The Bible is overinterpreted only when one overstands without having first understood.
Biblical interpretation is not over when we have grasped with our minds the implied and applied meaning of the text. Interpretation remains incomplete until we respond to the text, until we allow the meaning to move from page to practice. “To follow” something means not only to understand it but to go along with it. We must put feet on our hermeneutics; the good reader walks differently after conversing with the text. As W. Beardslee observed, a literary style generates a style of life. It is not enough to hear or even to understand God’s Word; it must be done. We do or “perform” God’s Word when we grasp its implied meaning and appropriate or apply it in our present contexts. The reader is indeed active, but interpretive activity must be governed by the ethical virtues of justice and respect and by the theological virtues of humility and love. Is the Bible being overinterpreted? If biblical interpretation excludes this performative dimension, we may well decide that the Bible is not being interpreted enough.
By Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Ph.D., Lecturer in Theology, New College, University of Edinburgh; author of Biblical Narrative inthe Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and Theology (Cambridge University, 1990).
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