Friday, April 3, 2009

Texts in Context

In the course of teaching Bible and early monasticism over the years I have become aware, as I suppose is inevitable, that modern readers come to these texts with our own presuppositions. This is not exactly news. But it is also not always obvious to us when we are reading. We aren't usually conscious of the biases of our own culture until we have something to compare it to.

The first thing to know about an ancient text is that it was not written in our language. English as we speak and read it only emerged between 1500 and 1600. And for quite a long time after that, there are enough differences between our form of English and theirs to require fairly heavy notation. In fact, our language is always changing. Something written 50 years ago can already seem linguistically and culturally dated.

For many people this does not seem to be a problem, though. Just get it translated. And so we do, and we can read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer in our own language. Except then we soon discover that the text we are reading doesn't make much sense. Not because the words aren't clear, but because what they are saying isn't part of our world. Translating the words is just the first step.

In fact, with any text older than approximately this morning we need to do historical and cultural translation as well. When we read things from our own past, or see an old film or hear an old song or look at an old photograph, we do this automatically, remembering the date it was produced and adjusting our focus accordingly. We can do this because we have the tools to understand the context in which what we are reading or hearing or seeing was produced, because we lived in that context and can remember it. If we were alive and conscious when it was produced we can retrieve the context. In doing so, we automatically make what might be called a hermeneutic shift, imagining ourselves back into the original context and then comparing it to what we might make of it in the present moment.

This is the essential process for confronting anything from the past. And since we are used to that process in things within our own range of experience and memory, we apply the same process to things from before our time. But unfortunately, we don't always have the tools we need to interpret the past. Translation is only the beginning, and it is often problematic itself, as anyone who has compared vastly different translations of the same text will know. A translation is always dependent on the cultural presuppositions of the translator, and translators sometimes have agendas. Think of translations of the Bible which serve different theological and denominational interests.

I have long thought that the best way to study anything from the past, including the Bible, is to read it with a double focus: What did it mean to its author and his original audience? and, What does it seem to mean to us today? Then the task is to move beyond our (always at least partly) uninstructed contemporary perceptions of what we are reading to ask a second level question: What would be an analagous meaning in our own terms?

But to tell a group of students or a Bible reading fellowship that they can't really understand the text or artifact they are considering until they understand its original context is not very helpful unless they have some access to that culture, that context. And unfortunately, most of the time the answer is to point them to the library, where, if they apply themselves, they will soon discover themselves mired in the almost trackless forests of academe. The minute you think you have a grip on some important cultural fact that allows you to go back to your text and approach it with a new and better instructed confidence, along comes another scholar ambitious for fortune and fame, or at least tenure, and knocks that down.

What to do, short of discouraging people from reading intelligently at all? Well, one might provide some tools for reconstructing context.

Some years ago I discovered an approach that I have found consistently illuminating. An old friend, Phina Borgeson, years ago, recommended the work of a cultural anthropologist named Bruce Malina to me. I went looking and eventually discovered his major work, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Originally written in 1979, and now in its third edition, Malina outlines major cultural categories that are different from ours. I have to say that this book completely changed the way I have read older texts, and not just the ones from the New Testament period. This alternative cultural understanding opened my eyes to the possibility of the double focus, the hermeneutic shift, not simply as a theoretical possibility but actually.

Malina uses major categories of cultural anthropology and compares those of the New Testament period with our own: Honor as the primary cultural value instead of material and professional success; the absolute importance of locating oneself in one's in-group for identity instead of achieving one's own autonomy; finding one's psychological identity in what others think of you instead of cultivating your own interior self (the dyadic personality); the idea that the wealth of the world is a fixed quantity (limited good) and all that flows from that in terms of fixed status hierarchies instead of our assumptions of social mobility; and so much more.

With these categories the stories of Scripture take on new life. The Prodigal Son moves from a touching drama of family forgiveness to a confrontation about the nature of God: in the values system of Jesus' time, a father who allowed a son to behave as the younger son did was endangering the family's future (by halving its resources, which were not likely to recover) and inviting public shame by the violation of the family's honor (the direct insult of the son to the family demanded a severe and public punitive reaction from the father). What the people listening to that story would hear in the extravagant welcome of the son home would not warm their hearts, but chill them to the bone. If this father is a stand-in for God, then God is violating every norm of civilized behavior, is in fact undermining the very fabric of human life as they understood it. The parable should be called the Prodigal, that is, Criminally Irresponsible, Father. And of course, Jesus is telling the story to make the point that God's love for us transcends the assumptions of our culture which would bind and constrict a human father's love and condemn a wayward son for life instead of reincorporating him into the family.

And then, more importantly for us, how does this story challenge us? We can be smug and tell ourselves, Well, thanks to your teaching, Jesus, we don't live in those presuppositions anymore, and so we're home free on that one. Our fathers can welcome their sons home without the tiresome cultural baggage of the past. But that would be a false reading, I think. In place of adopting the specific cultural shift Jesus seems to be recommending to his culture as our own and then basking in our superior understandings, I think we should ask ourselves, What process of cultural criticism would be analagous to us? What fundamental presuppositions of our culture would come under judgment if God acted so recklessly in our terms? That might set us back as much as it doubtless set Jesus' hearers back. The message for us both would seem to be, God really is not interested in validating our deepest cultural assumptions when they would stand in the way of redemptive love.

I have found Malina's book so profound that I have introduced it to almost every class I have taught both in Bible and early monastic texts. It gives some actual, helpful categories to place our encounter with ancient texts in context. It gives us a way to analyze ancient texts and the compare them to our own situation. It helps our reading move away from cultural solipsism. I heartily recommend it.


The Religious Pícaro said...

Your recommendation was so compelling that I went ahead and ordered it right away - Amazon says it'll be here by Tuesday. I look forward to reading it.

Adam D. McCoy, OHC said...

I hope you find it useful!

The Religious Pícaro said...

The book got here last week, and I started reading it yesterday. Wow - it's rich! The chapter on honor and shame gave me so much food for thought that I'm going to take the whole week to digest it...