Postmodernism and the Bible I: Their Importance for Preaching
By David Lose
Excerpted and adapted from Preaching at the Crossroads copyright (c) 2013 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission of Augsburg Fortress.
Postmodernity at its best stands against modernity's penchant to quash dissenting voices in its relentless quest for order, stability, unity, and certainty. At its worst, postmodernity loses all confidence in any truth or conviction beyond its own pessimistic views on the absence of truth and the futility of conviction.
It's at just this point that the field of biblical interpretation offers something of a microcosm of the larger postmodern concerns about authority and legitimation. By and large, modern interpreters have assumed that the text means one thing, that that "meaning" resides somewhere in the text (typically in the intentions of the author) waiting to be discovered, and that, once uncovered, it can be proved, displayed, and ultimately possessed. Hence, modern interpreters committed themselves to the rational-critical, even scientific, road of historical criticism to ascertain the one true approach of a passage with the intent as Friedrich Schleiermacher, one of the architects of "modern theology" optimistically put it, to "understand the intention of the author better than the author himself."
Preaching, following closely on the heels of biblical interpretation, understood its primary purpose in correspondingly clear lines and was, for this reason, a rather straightforward two-step endeavor. First, the preacher figures out and explains what the passage once meant to its original audience (exegesis), and second, the preacher uncovers and shares what the passage should mean for us today (proclamation).
In contrast to modernist interpreters, however, postmodern interpreters assume that "meaning" is not at all univocal or stable, because it is constructed by the reader or community. Therefore, meaning does not resides behind the passage in the author's intention but rather lives and is constructed in front of the text, in the interaction between a passage and its readers. Hence, postmodern interpreters are committed to a "multivalent" and "plurivocal" understanding of meaning, employ a variety of methodologies, and assume that the passage in question can mean any number of things to any number of readers and communities.
In such setting, the two-step waltz danced by so many preachers of an earlier generation begins to falter, as there is no clear consensus about what a given passage might mean or even about how one might attempt to uncover that meaning. As it turns out, in fact, the various exegetical methods we were taught in seminary or have been exposed to since then are not simply a collection of neutral instruments in our homiletical toolbox used to decipher the meaning of a passage. Rather, each method represents a distinct and exclusive understanding of how a text communicates meaning in the first pace. For this reason, we simply cannot hope to distill a single postmodern method of biblical interpretation, as each method competes with all others as a viable interpretive alternative with its own distinct means by which to determine a text's meaning.
Consider, for example, how various exegetical methods can be distinguished and grouped together in terms of where they locate meaning in the history and composition of a particular text. Source and text criticism, redactor criticism, and all other primarily historical-critical approaches to interpreting a biblical passage assume that the primary location of meaning is behind the text (in the historical situation of the composition of the passage). Literary methods, by contrast, stressing the artistic nature of the text and focusing our attention on character development, plot, symbolism, and other literary devices, assert that meaning resides in the text. Those who stress the communal and ecclesial nature of the Bible invite us to look at the canonical impulses that drew all these texts together, the history of interpretation, and the church's current use of a passage in the lectionary or immediate church service (wedding, baptism, etc.) and in all these ways urge us to look for meaning around the passage in question. Finally, another cluster of interpretive methods gives primary attention to the context and circumstances of the readers and hearers and thereby advocates that we locate meaning in front of the text.
Can these various methods complement each other? Certainly, but just as often they offer competing interpretations that cannot be settled by any claim to neutrality, as each method makes a claim as to where meaning is located. Ultimately, methods that were once presented as neutral exegetical tools each turn out to harbor hermeneutical convictions.
Indeed, what is striking in the current scene of biblical interpretation-and therefore also in preaching-is that there is no convivial dialogue present (the naive postmodern desire and promise) but rather a competitive scramble to locate where meaning resides once and for all. As a result, many preachers awash in the various exegetical methods now available feel as if they are faced with the unsavory choice between insisting on one approach to deciphering the meaning of a biblical passage or surrendering instead to a cacophony of interpretive voices. It is the choice, as one scholar has described it, between the Tower of modernity and the Babel of postmodernity.
This situation has proved nearly disastrous for Christian use of the Bible and for preaching in particular, as it has often bereft preachers of a confident approach to reading and proclaiming the Scriptures and thereby led to what James D. Smart presciently called "the strange silence of the Bible in the Church."7 In the face of this challenge and need, I am interested in whether it is possible to read the whole of the Bible in light of one's confession of its primary witness. While I don't know whether any single approach can entirely resolve the issues we've named, I believe that reclaiming this overlooked practice of the church might provide a way forward.
I will turn to the development and testing of this idea in a future posted excerpt from Preaching at the Crossroads.