Sunday, November 13, 2005

Derrida and Biblical Hermeneutics

I’ve been reading Derrida for my Rhet Theory class, and working on a potential paper about Christian engagement with Derrida.  (disclaimer: I plan to read a lot more and I might later find out that the stuff I’m saying here is obvious and/or wrong.  Hopefully I’ll think of more interesting things soon.)  The idea I have been trying to understand today is différance.  As far as I can tell, it is about the distance between the author, the text, and the reader.  The lacuna of absence, the semantic slippage that necessarily occurs in any use of language because of inherent ambiguity.  According to Derrida this leads to openness of meaning and possibility.  Possibility for new understandings, including new understandings of old texts, as well as possibilities of misunderstandings – we cannot assume that what we express will deliver the same thought or feeling to our hearers or readers, but this gives way to a fecundity of language as well as an imprecision.

This same idea of ambiguity and necessary distance between author, text and audience is problematic for fundamentalist biblical hermeneutics – it means that language (including (especially?) Biblical text) necessarily means different things to different people at different times.  It means that perhaps the bumper sticker “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” does not really settle it at all.  Because how do we know that what God meant is what God said and that we understand it the same way?  Is there even a correct way to understand it?  

Does Derrida free Christians to interact with Biblical text in new and different ways because of the possibility built into language? or does it only mean we are doomed to misinterpretation until the New Earth?  I prefer to think about it in terms of the former, although there is a sense of the latter as well (especially when I hear some pretty crazy stuff).  I know plenty of Christians who avoid the question altogether and that is why they are so scared of postmodernism – it undermines their very epistemology.  Perhaps this is how “postmodern” became a dirty word in the church until recently (thanks to the likes of Grenz, McLaren, etc).  It all certainly raises new questions: if we are following a text that is necessarily ambiguous, how, then, do we choose to read it?  Why would God choose to use a language that is so slippery to tell us things in the first place?  Perhaps God, with Derrida, revels in the diversity, the possibility, the différance the text allows…


Bob K said...

Just because we can not assume that what we express will deliver the same thought or feeling to our hearers or readers does not mean that it can not deliver much of what we mean. if I say "Bethany, get out of the street!" in my tough Daddy voice then it could mean a plethora of things nearly all of which have an awful lot to do with me wanting you to get out of the street. And the context will play a big part in that.

So differance should not obliterate the importance or the efficacy of good exegesis. On the contrary, it strengthens the need for it - something *some* fundamentalists are reluctant to admit because “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” That very sentiment indicates that no exegesis is necessary. So your argument primarily forces a more Reformed reading of scripture.

So, it seems, Reformed theology was ready for Postmodernism all along. :)

Simon said...

lacuna? fecundity? epistemology?

I'm trying to understand this post, but stand distanced from the textual eloquence. :)

bethany said...

touche. I told myself I wasn't going to be that type of academic and I already am. I just get too excited about my vocabulary.

joshwall said...

If you run with derrida and hermeneutics, you should check out some of the work by Stephen Moore. Very few biblical schollars have written on derrida, but he's done a decent amount of work in it. He's got a book called, "post structuralism and the NT:derrida and foucault at the foot of the cross" that might be worth a gander...
Sorry, I'm interested, in as a general whole in exegesis and he's one of the big(as far as anyone gets to be a big name in po. mo. biblical studies) name that is out there. He's also co written some works with catherine keller.

Once again, sorry to take up response space, but it might be helpful depending upon where your piece ends up going...

bethany said...

Josh - please don't apologize! I appreciate your input, thanks so much, I'm going to look that book up soon.

o1mnikent said...

Seems like biblical exegesis, textual criticism (Raymond Brown, etc.) uses many methods from the nineteenth century. For whatever reason, I think those who are suspicious of this method (and rightly so) often defer to "this is what I think of the text," yadayadyad.... which produces really horrible sermons. This is not a corrective to nineteenth century textual criticism.

Maybe the anti-intellectual sentiment that a few evangelicals embraced a century ago really got cemented back in the 30s when Brown, etc. were at their heyday, so they stuck with what they knew and have been using it ever since. While I'm sure that a Reformed folks haven't quite figured out yet what to do with pomo epistemology, so I wonder if the anti-intellectualism of Christians in North America has effectively blocked any new methods of textual criticism as well.

I've been kicking some of these ideas around since I started a textual criticism class about nine weeks ago. The methods make sense, but they seem to fall so short sometimes, yet I can't quite put my finger on why that is. In seminary, it's easy to defer to a theological answer which might be true, but doesn't really address the problem. In that regard, I'm going nuts.

Just some thoughts, sorry they're so disorganized.

I would write more, but as it happens, I need to finish a paper on John 8 for my textual criticism class.

MattyA said...

Interesting thoughts, Bethany. I won't claim any expertise on methods of textual criticism and my only encounter with Derrida came through English Lit classes, but I wonder how this discussion fits into the practice of Christian life. Allow me to elaborate.

To summarize, most Christians would agree the Bible, our special revelation from God, is authoritative on all matters of faith and practice. Derrida (and others) introduces this idea of a communication gap in the "hermeneutical triangle" of author, text, and reader. I wonder if there isn't an appropriate and loving way to allow for ambiguity in certain situations, and not in others. Bethany, you already heard me rail about a pastor who highlighted the differance and ambiguity of a scripture passage in the middle of a sermon, causing confusion and frustration among the congregation. I love investigating the communication gaps in scripture, the differance if you will, but is there a time and place where it's inappropriate? Am I causing my sister or brother to stumble if I discuss this stuff indiscriminately? My anti-Jane-Austen gears click in, though, and remind me I'm for as much openness and honesty as possible in my relationships. If I think these things about scripture texts, do I need to share them in a public Christian forum? I think Occam's Razor says that, all other things being equal, choose the simpler option. When working on a passage of scripture, should I just share what makes the most sense and leave the other possible explanations alone? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think it's important to at least think about what these ideas mean for the practice of our faith.

Bob K said...

Good thoughts, Matt, but, by not sharing various interpretations with a congregation (or by letting them in on the mystery of a passage) isn't a pastor giving his or her congregation a "dumbed down" version of the text? Isn't part of a pastor's job to be a steward of the mysteries (I Cor 4:1)?

On the other hand, it depends on the congregation. The congregation of which I am a part is mostly made up of well-educated Christians who are prepared to think about a text in a new way and puzzle through the mysteries of God together with the pastor. A congregation made up of new Christians wouldn't be quite so ready to go there.

By preaching a definitive interpretation of a text, isn't a pastor setting his or her congregants up for confusion later when they discover that there may be other, perhaps better, readings of a passage?

joshwall said...

Nice thoughts Bob,
Personally I like the ambiguity and confusion that lie in many biblical texts. The more I study the texts the more it seems to me that the books (a collection of many texts) tend to muddle up our good Christian theology (which doesn't do so well with ambiguity or parrdox).

I note the confusion Matt has, and think there is a time and a place to muddle with our clear understanding of the bible... and depending upon the situation I often think that they pulpit.

But perhaps that is just my own interests which don't like restrictions on the questions we can ask... For me it comes down to the effect of the sermon, if it was good (e.g. edifiing to the body, challaning, and foces us to reconsider the text and its application for our individual and communal lives) then I think the approach is good. If however, the preacher is not an effective communicator (heaven knows there are plenty of them) then I feel like the message and efficacy of the sermon gets lost and perhaps the person should have stuck with a simpler version. (I find it odd that I evaluate the use of the technique based upon the rhetoircal skills of the speaker... oh well) Anyway, my two cents, interesting discussion.

bethany said...

Perhaps Matt will return and speak for himself, but I think the problem with the sermon he is complaining about is not so much that a non-traditional view of a text was presented, but that the pastor presented it as though it were authoritative in a congregation with a lot of new christians, who may not already know more traditional interpretations. I think if you're going to embrace Derridian (?) hermeneutics, you have to also embrace the mystery and ambiguity in the text and be up front about the fact that there are a variety possibilities.
So I guess I agree with Josh in that it comes down to presentation. I'm a critical pluralist - I think different perspectives open up different facets of a text and the sum of their insights is the most helpful. But I also think preachers particularly (but also academics, writers, bloggers?) need to be up front about where they are coming from, especially since the majority of their audience doesn't know as much about the bible and hermeneutics as the people who read this blog do.
Which, by the way, how smart are my blog readers? This is fantastic.

joshwall said...

"if you write it they will come..." Or something like that.

besides how often do people even dare write derrida and any part of the word bible in the same sentence?

Honestly, if nothing else I find it affirming, in the realm of biblical studies there isn't much work done on derrida, well realistically, there isn't much work done on anything that isn't historical recreations, so its nice to know other folks are interested in this stuff...

Brooks Lampe said...

I too am puzzled why Christians react defensively at differance. Obviously, there are "scary" applications of Deconstruction, but the more rigorously the theory is applied, the more it undermines and exhausts itself, in my opinion, which is why scholars are scratching and asking "what's next?"

What concerns me about the application of poststructural thought to textual criticism and rhetorical theory is its implications for the role of ethics in communication. After Derrida displaces text and author, Foucault comes in and claims that there is no author, that all texts "write themselves." My question is: if texts write themselves, who takes responsibility for what they say?

Economically speaking, we function everyday holding people responsible for what they say--whether it's punishing a politician who let slip an injudicious remark about his opponant or rewarding those that speak well.

On a totally different note:

I thank God everday for John 1:1. That verse opens up all kinds of possibilities--and flexibility--for Christian theology to jive with critical theory. Wittgenstein says nothing exists that cannot be described in language. Maybe he is write: "the Word was with God and the Word was God." Maybe language is reality. Reality is God's Word breathed outward, the range of the extension of his Speech... or something like that.

Keep reading!