5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile as Judgment

fall of samaria2 Kings 17 recounts the story of the Fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians and her Exile:

But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:4-6 ESV)

At first it looks like a simple case of power politics gone wrong. Hoshea backs the wrong horse in putting his trust in Egypt, calling down the wrath of the more potent political power found in Shalmaneser’s Assyria army. Open and shut case here, right? If we’re dealing with the purely human level of motivation and machination, then yes. But the author of Kings invites us to peer deeper into the providential working of God in the events of Israel’s Exile. Please don’t skim this, but read it carefully:

And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. (2 Kings 17:7-18 ESV)

Reflections on the Exile as Judgment. As I was reading through this story earlier this year, I was struck with the clear progression at work here. In this short narrative passage, we have a constellation of disputed but crucial themes involved in understanding the deeper logic at work in our theology of atonement and sovereignty. I’ll list them in no particular order:

  1. Sin as Idolatry – First of all, sin is presented to us as both relational and legal violation. The LORD gave Israel the Law, the covenant that codifies in its clear commandments the special relationship between the LORD and his chosen people. All of Israel’s sinful actions are committed “against the LORD”. To despise God’s commandments is to despise the God who gives them. This point is deepened when we reflect on the fact that the sin that is singled out here, almost exclusively, is that of idolatry in its various forms. Reflecting both the metaphors of King and husband, Israel’s violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments can only be seen as a betrayal of trust, fealty, and fidelity to her covenant Lord. In the covenant we have a relationship of law and love. Indeed, in their placement as the head of the commands, we are instructed to understand that, first and foremost, all sin has a God-ward dimension that cannot be reduced to its horizontal implications.
  2. Patience – Next, the God of the Old Testament is radically merciful and patient. After clear violation after violation, God sends warning after warning, prophet after prophet, both before and after the period of the kings of Israel, in order to draw his people away from their sin. I’ve told my students this before, but the history of Israel is not the history of God getting mad and destroying things. Instead, it is the history of God having patience with a people that repeatedly, irrationally, and violently reject him, until his hand is forced to act.
  3. Wrath - His warnings go unheeded. In fact, they seem to provoke only greater disobedience and idolatry of such depravity that includes child sacrifice and every sort of abomination that the Canaanites who dwelt in the land before them were driven out for. And so, God is presented to us as one is who is provoked to “anger” and wrath by sin. Three times God’s anger is mentioned here in this passage, twice after a laundry list of Israel’s sins, and once in the judgment formula. I’ve mentioned Volf’s reflections on God’s anger before, but once again we’re faced with the reality that the holiness, goodness, and yes, the love of God means he does not shrug his shoulders with a “meh”, in the face of gross evil, or really, any evil. For Though God’s emotions mustn’t be thought of in a simplistic fashion, we cannot deny the reality that God observes human sin and idolatry with great displeasure and the will to ultimately remove them. With references to God’s wrath/anger reaching spanning between 400-600 times in the Old Testament alone, if we are to take the revelation of God to Israel seriously, we cannot brush this aside.
  4. Judgment – Which brings us to the Exile. The judgment and exile of the Northern kingdom is clearly presented to us in what can only be described as a judicial execution of as the God’s anger at sin. “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” Judgment is the enacting in history of the LORD’s moral evaluation of Israel’s actions in eternity. Given our prior reflections, we can’t help describing it as a penal judgment rendered in reference to the covenant law. This is not just some “Western, legalizing” interpretation of the event, as is so commonly charged, but a reading that flows from carefully attending to the logic of the text, as well as its placement within the broader narrative of God’s dealings with Israel. That said, we see the logic of the Exile as well. If the land is symbolic of, and part of, the covenant blessings Israel enjoys as part of her relationship with the LORD, it only makes sense that her rejection of the LORD would result in exclusion from the land. It is the “fearful symmetry” of judgment we’ve talked about before.
  5. Multiple-Agency – Finally, this judicial execution is presented both as the work of both divine and human agents. Shalmaneser is clearly given responsibility, acting for what were presumably less than holy reasons like imperial dominance and greed. And yet, in the inspired author’s presentation, without denying or explaining away the freely chosen actions involved, the ultimate agent of judgment is the LORD himself. Again, “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God”, and “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” We see, then, both Divine and human agency at work in one and the same event, one wicked, and one wholly righteous in the destruction and Exile of Israel. While no explicit theology of mulitple-agency is cleanly laid out here, something like it is clearly presupposed.

This is the logic of exile: Israel violates God’s covenant at length, ignores God’s mercy, provokes God’s anger, and brings down God’s judgment. I’ve chosen one key passage where it is laid out rather cleanly, but it’s important to note that each of those five points could be buttressed with skads of verses, narratives, prophecies, and long-range themes in Scripture.

The Cross as Exile – So that people don’t misunderstand, breaking down the logic of exile takes on the importance it does for me because, again, it is that logic that informs part of how we understand Jesus’ glorious, representative work for us on the Cross. As the author of Hebrews hints at, Jesus’ execution on the cross was that of the Levitical scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people beyond the camp in a mini-representative-Exile:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (Hebrews 13:12 ESV)

What’s more, in line with the curse of execution, he suffered “outside the gate” as the Law prescribes (Lev. 14; Num. 15; Deut 17) to exhaust the covenant curse of Exile-as-judgment in our place as our great High Priest, make us holy once more, and institute a new covenant with the people–a truer, more inviolable one–in his own blood:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17 ESV)

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:12-18 ESV)

I know that I’ve only just sketched a basic, partial, and patchwork understanding of these New Testament texts, but when you understand the logic at work in the Exile of Israel, you can begin to see how deeper logic of Jesus’ Exile on the Cross as divine judgment on sin isn’t just some “rationalistic, systematic-theological”, or “medieval”, imposition on them, but rather a way of understanding them describing the Cross as the culmination of a number of themes central to the divine drama of God’s faithful relationship to unfaithful Israel. Again, the dark backdrop of sin and judgment is the only one in which the light of sacrifice and grace can be see in all of its glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Diversity of Form Lead to Diversity of Message in Theology? (Engaging KJV Pt. 2)

Last week I kicked off a little series engaging Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. I opened with an appreciative post outlining Vanhoozer’s unique place in Evangelical theology, but from there I figured it would make sense just going through the various essays in order, beginning with Stephen J. Wellum’s “A Critical Appreciation of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology.

“A Critical Appreciation” aptly sums up the thrust of the essay; it’s appreciative, then critical. Wellum begins with an excellent multi-page summary outline of RT, noting carefully the methodological as well as material proposals Vanhoozer is making. From there, he moves into three areas of criticism within his overall appreciative take on the work. While Wellum raises some material issues (how does the author-analogy for sovereignty deal with reprobation?), he settles in mostly on issues of theological framework, truth, and method.

Though his section on the absence of apologetics, or rather the assumption of a Reformed theological framework, is worth pursuing, it overlaps with the thrust of Crisp’s essay, so I’ll leave that to the side for this post. What I’d like to do is frame Wellum’s question to Vanhoozer on the issue of literary forms, and then summarize what Vanhoozer has to say in his puckishly-titled follow-up article “Vanhoozer responds to the four horsemen of an apocalyptic panel discussion on Remythologizing Theology.”

mediumMore Than One Medium, More Than One Message? - Back in the day, Marshall McLuhan taught everybody that the “medium is the message”–essentially form and content are inseparable; how you say something is part of what you’re saying. For instance, print media and visual media are two very different things and they radically shape what is being communicated. Vanhoozer is well-known for giving the dictum a theological twist and arguing that the form, or forms, of the message–specifically the various genres of literature in Scripture–should play a role in our theologizing about the message, especially in Is There a Meaning in this Text? and The Drama of Doctrine.

It’s here that Wellum starts to wonder, “are literary forms overblown?” (pg. 24) See, it’s not just that Vanhoozer claims we should be paying more attention to genre so we can figure out that you’re not supposed to read Revelation the same way you read the book of Acts. That’s all fine and good. What causes his query is the further claim that he sees Vanhoozer making–that the plurality of mediums and genres (canonical plurality) yields a plurality of conceptualities and theologies (theological plurality.) Quoting Vanhoozer in DoD (pg. 275):

The plurality on the level of the canon may call for an equivalent plurality on the level of interpretative traditions. If no single conceptual (read, confessional) system is adequate to the theological plentitude of the canon, then we need a certain amount of polyphony outside the canon, too, in order to do justice to it. The church would be a poorer place if there were not Mennonite or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox voices in it.

Applying the idea to atonement theology, this would mean that instead of privileging one of the many metaphors used to speak of Christ’s work to one, single, conceptual framework, a remythologizing approach will let them all come to play and shape our understanding. In RT, he says something along the same lines about our theology of God. Again, he quote Vanhoozer,“The reality of God outruns any one theologian’s attempt to conceptualize it, just as Scripture outruns the attempt of any one interpretative scheme to capture its meaning (RT, p. 474).”

At this point, Wellum throws up his hands and confesses that he’s not quite sure what to make of all of this. It’s all fine and good to think through the various genres of Scripture, as we struggle to do theology that honors all that God revealed, but “why does this lead to theological diversity?” (pg. 25) Sure, we should think through and include all the metaphors used in Scripture when thinking through the Cross, but isn’t it possible to take them all into account and land at an account of things that is better than other attempts? “…does this entail that there is no single conceptual system which accurately understands the Scripture, or at least, in terms of the areas that are central to an understanding of the Gospel?” (pg. 25) Pushing further, Wellum also asks whether this holds up in light of the inter-textual usage of the Old Testament texts by New Testament authors, who seem to appropriate texts freely across literary forms as they re-read them in light of the redemptive-historical story-line of Scripture.

These are good questions. So what does Vanhoozer have to say about it? Well, as with everything he says, he says it playfully and humbly–especially since Wellum happens to be his former student.

The Master Responds – So what’s he getting at? Well, to begin Vanhoozer does a little clarifying as to what he does not mean by theological plurality:

The first thing to be said is that I am careful to locate diversity on the level of vocabulary (e.g., metaphors) and concepts, not the more fundamental judgments that underlie them (e.g., ontological judgments). A second
preliminary observation: diversity is not the same thing as indeterminacy or contradiction. To be sure, there is a certain tension in saying that the same basic theological judgment may be rendered in more than one set of concepts, some of which catch certain nuances better than others. But we need only think of the various metaphors to describe the saving significance of Jesus’  cross to see how canonical perspectives generate theological perspectives. (pg. 75)

In other words, don’t take this too far. Recognizing understandable theological plurality is not a charter contradictory or incoherent doctrinal formulations. It is, however, a call to humility in our theological pronouncements given our finiteness and the fecundity of texts themselves.

Next, Vanhoozer happily concedes Wellum’s last observation about the NT author’s seeming emphasis on redemptive-historical readings over ones sensitive to literary form. That said, in the dispute between Christ and the Tempter (Luke 4), Vanhoozer points out that they’re not just trading true propositions. The issue up for dispute is where these statements fit in the canonical narrative of redemption. In other words, the issue of re-reading texts in light of redemptive history is still an issue of appreciating form–in this case, the form of the whole canon.

Finally, one of the key points to understand, is that Vanhoozer’s reflections on form and genre are an attempt at correcting against some approaches to the place of genre in theology on offer.  For so many Evangelical theologians, possibly including Wellum, understanding genres is important so that you can better crack open the shell of the text, and get to the juicy propositional content. Vanhoozer’s basic hunch about the forms of biblical discourse is that they “do more than provide packaging for theological content.” (pg. 75) Vanhoozer’s concern is that we see Scripture not merely as a treasure-trove of divine propositions to be deciphered and reassembled in the proper, systematic order.

God had particular purposes in using wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative, instead of one, clear, monological form, and this is an insight of theological importance:

Form is also an ingredient in “rightly handling [orthotomeo] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). It is through the various literary forms of Scripture, including stories and histories, that the divine authorial imagination shapes our view of God, the world, and ourselves, thus forming us to be those who can make right judgments concerning fittingness. (pg. 76)

At a more than systematic level, the forms of Scripture train the disciple in ways of seeing, hearing, knowing, loving, and responding to drama of the Gospel, and that says something about the God of the Gospel.

One of Ricoeur’s line in particular continues to intrigue me: “Not just any theology can be wed to the narrative form.” How much more is this the case with a theology wed to history, apocalyptic, wisdom, prophecy, law, and gospel! (pg. 76)

A Clarifying Word – For some, questions will remain. I have a couple myself. Knowing this, Vanhoozer points the inquisitive to works by Ricoeur, as well as his own essay “Love’s Wisdom: the authority of Scripture’s form and content for faith’s understanding and theological judgment ” (Journal of Reformed Theology 5, 2011) At the end of the day, given the amount of space he had, this is a helpful, clarifying word, though not a final one from Vanhoozer.

Still, in the space he takes, we find a challenge to go back to the text and really see the formal diversity for what it is: not an obstacle to be puzzled apart, reduced to a clear, propositional form, but God’s diverse word that strikes “all the chords of the human soul, not just the intellectual”, in order to train us to take our place in the grand Theo-drama of redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Meet the Family

victoria_family_tree_1901Family trees can be fascinating. At some point we all get this itch to find out where we come from, who we are, or whether our ancestry contains some famous personage. We have this sense that knowing our roots says something about who we are; our identity is caught up in our heritage. I know for myself, there’s been a rumor going around that there is some Crusader blood somewhere up the family tree on my mother’s side, the Bendecks. I did some digging online–the kind you can do without paying money for blood tests and all that–and there might be something to it.

John Jefferson Davis points out that this fascination with our ancestry ought to be one more thing driving us to read our Bibles:

How do we understand our fundamental identity and purpose in life as we approach the Scriptures in prayerful meditation? Our sense of personal identity, either conscious or unconsciously presupposed, does influence the way we approach texts. If I am looking at a set of papers and hearing my friend explain her family tree and the fruits of her genealogical research, I may listen with polite and sincer interest; if someone shows me surprising new information about my family tree–that I am descended from some great celebrity from the past–then my interest is even deeper!

The Bible is, in a very real sense, my “family tree.” I read the biblical text not as an outsider but as an insider. Jesus Christ, the central character in the entire biblical narrative is not a stranger to me but–by virtue of my union with him–is my ancestor, my brother, and my beloved friend. “My lover is mine and I am his…His banner over me is love.” (Song 2:16, 4)

-Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction, pg. 80

This, I think, was one of the advantages of being raised in in Sunday School; I’ve always had a vivid sense that when I was learning the flannel-graph stories about the patriarchs, I was learning something about myself. In ways more subtle than a 2nd grader could grasp, I was being ecclesially and scripturally-formed.

In one sense, I’ve always known that the Bible is not about me. It certainly wasn’t addressed to me when it was written, but the original communities which formed the people of God addressed by the prophets and apostles; my name appears nowhere in the text. At a deeper level though, Scripture is not about somebody else, but intimately involves me because I am united to its main character. Because of that, when I read the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1, I’m not just reading about Jesus’ royal lineage, but my own. If I am in Christ, then King David is my flawed but glorious grandfather; Ruth is my redeemed pagan grandmother; Jacob is my ingenious but duplicitous forefather. As Paul argues, by faith I am included in the covenant people of God so that I am one of the heirs promised to Abraham (Rom. 4). Because of this, the failures of Israel are my family’s failures as are her glories.

And this is simply one more reason we should want to read our Bibles–it’s how we meet the family.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Morality of the Story (Mere-Orthodoxy Guest Piece)

So, I wrote a piece a while back on the way looking at our lives in the narrative key shapes the way we understand our moral situation. After some tuning up and heavy editing, Matthew Lee Anderson was kind enough to give me the honor of publishing it over at Mere Orthodoxy. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

Vanhoozer’s 10 Rules for Cultural Interpretation

I don't know what he's thinking right here, but it could probably serve as a Ph.D. thesis.

I don’t know what he’s thinking right here, but it could probably serve as a Ph.D. thesis.

I was planning on doing a couple more posts on Kevin Vanhoozer’s theory and methodology of cultural interpretation. (I still might, partly for my own benefit.) But for now, I’m going to cheat and cut to the end by laying out Vanhoozer’s 1o Guidelines for Everyday Theological Interpretation of Culture. Some of them need some unpacking, but since that would be too much work (and you really should go buy the book anyways), here they are:

  1. Try to comprehend a cultural text on its own terms (grasp its communicative intent) before you “interpret” it (explore its broader social, political, sexual, or religious significance.)
  2. Attend to what a cultural text is doing as well as saying by clarifying its illocutionary act (e.g. stating a belief, displaying a world).
  3. Consider the world behind (e.g. medieval, modern), of (i.e., the world displayed by the cultural text), and in front of (i.e., its proposal for your world) the cultural text.
  4. Determine what “powers” are served by particular texts or trends by discovering whose material interests are served (e.g.. follow the money!).
  5. Seek the “world hypothesis” and/or “root metaphor” implied by a cultural text.
  6. Be comprehensive in your interpretation of a cultural text; find corroborative evidence that makes best sense of the whole as well as the parts.
  7. Give “thick” descriptions of the cultural text that are nonreductive and sensitive to the various levels of communicative action.
  8. Articulate the way of being human to which a cultural text directly or indirectly bears witness and gives commendation.
  9. Discern what faith a cultural text directly or indirectly expresses. to what convictions about God, the world, and ourselves does a cultural text commit us?
  10. Locate the cultural text in the biblical creation-fall-redemption schema and make sure that biblical rather than cultural texts have the lead role in shaping your imagination and hence or interpretive framework for your experience.

Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, pp. 59-60

Soli Deo Gloria

What’s a Culture and How Does it Work? 4 Functions of Culture According to Vanhoozer

everyday theologyThe notion of culture has been on my mind for a long time now, but after joining the writing staff over at Christ and Pop Culture, I figured it was appropriate to do a little more digging on the notion of culture and cultural analysis. To that end I finally picked up a little volume edited by Kevin Vanhoozer Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. While there are many volumes out that address the issue of biblical exegesis, there are few that address the crucial task of “cultural exegesis”, the practice of reading culture, interpreting the “signs of the times” (Matt. 16:1-3), in light of God and his revelation. That’s the gap that Vanhoozer and his co-editors (Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman) aimed to fill. The volume opens with an programmatic essay by Vanhoozer in which he outlines a theory of culture, as well as a methodology for cultural interpretation. The essays that follow are examples of the method put into practice, with explorations of the check-out line, Eminem, Gladiator, and the blogosphere. In this post I’d like to take a (very) quick look at Vanhoozer’s view of culture and the way it works.

What’s a Culture? (Again)
Working primarily at the levels of what Roger Scruton has identified as “common culture” and “pop culture”, Vanhoozer’s discussion is fascinating and helpful many ways. One important point to note is his dependence on Dilthey’s idea that cultural studies observes the realm of human freedom, spirit, and creation v. that of nature. On this view cultural artifacts are concrete expressions of the human spirit by which our values, beliefs, and aspirations are given objective existence. As such, cultural artifacts such as songs, architecture, poetry, games, literature, and political practices “call not for explanation but for interpretation.” (pg. 22) Hermeneutics is key.

Another distinction he makes is the difference between culture and society; his chosen metaphor to understand the difference is hardware and software. Society is viewed more as the hardware of social institutions that gives shape to the shared life of a people. Culture he says, “is the software that determines how things function and how people relate in a given society. Culture is both system and practice, a means through which visions of the meaning of life (cultural worlds) are expressed, experienced, and explored through the diverse human products (cultural texts).” (pg. 27) So, police are institutional hardware that can be found across cultures, and yet an American “cop” is understood differently than a British “bobby” that usually doesn’t carry a gun. (pg. 23) Same institution, different cultural implementation.

How, then does Vanhoozer define culture? I won’t go into his very long and rewarding discussion, but in the end, Vanhoozer views culture “as a world and work of meaning. Better, culture is made up of “works” and “worlds” of meaning.” (pg. 26) It’s a work because it’s what humans do freely. Cultural objects are intentional creations–texts that communicate meaning. It is a world because these texts “create a meaningful environment in which humans dwell physically as well as imaginatively.” *(pg. 26)On this view,  popular culture is the shared context, practices, and “resources” that shapes and forms our way of life. (pg. 30)

How Does it Work?
The question remains, how does culture do this? Vanhoozer identifies 4 things that culture does to shape our lives.

  1. Culture communicates – First of all, culture is constantly communicating to us in ways both explicit as well as subtle, in a variety of formats, media, advertisements, and cultural artifacts. While there are hundreds of different specific messages aimed at a every discernable area of human life, the over-arching goal is to communicate a vision of the meaning of life, and the embodied form it should take. We mustn’t be naive the way this vision is communicated though. As Vanhoozer notes, “form and packaging” are just as important as content here. (pg. 28) Most cultural communication happens not through propositional argumentation but through allusion, suggestion, and connotation. It gives us pictures and metaphors (“life is like a box of chocolates”) that give rise to broader stories about the world we live in; subtle hermeneutical suggestions that shape the way we interpret our lives.
  2. Culture orients – This gives rise to the next function of culture: it orients us. By providing us with metaphors and models it gives us the inner logic by which we live our lives. “Life is like a baseball game”, “Life is like an episode of X show”, etc. These models also have “evaluative” and “affective” dimensions to them, in that they shape and form our loves and hates, our very sense of right and wrong. (pg. 29) Culture maps the world for us and creates a sense of mood by which we experience life. Moral and social orientation that we previously drew from family, community, and cult, we now draw from popular cultural texts such as movies, shows, song lyrics through which we construct the scripts of our lives. While How I Met Your Mother gives us a script about dating, childhood soccer-fields teach us about the nature of victory and competition. Importantly for Christians, Vanhoozer notes that while in the past culture gave us narratives of faith, we now more often find stories of “broken faith: defiance or anger at God; of fear of an indifferent or oppressive reality; of escape from sorrow over the absent God by finding joy in one’s immediate, mundane life.” (pg. 29)
  3. Culture reproduces -We need to understand that culture spreads. “Culture spreads beliefs, values, ideas, fashions, and practices from one social group to another.” (pp. 29-30) in the past through institutional force or colonization, but now it mostly happens through memetic reproduction. A “meme” is a “cultural unit” analogous to a gene in that it reproduces and passes itself on by means of imitation (mimesis). This could be anything from an idea, a fashion, phrase, song, or practice. The point is that cultural “programming” is spread from person to person, sort of like a virus, as people encounter each other and begin to copy or imitate the cultural behaviors that they see. This can happen institutionally in schools, or through parental instruction, but more often than not it’s happening informally all the time through everyday interactions with friends, online content, and media saturation.
  4. Culture cultivates – Finally, culture “cultivates”–it develops and grows. What does it grow? Well, recalling Dilthey’s point earlier, it cultivates the human spirit. By communicating and creating worlds for us to inhabit, metaphors to live by, or the basic orientation for our lives, culture develops our souls. It gives a vision of the meaning of life for our “hearts”–the seat our willing and acting–to desire and pattern itself against. “In short, culture cultivates character traits–the habits of the heart–and in doing so forms our spirit so that we become this kind of a person rather than that kind.” (pg. 31) The point isn’t that we are helpless against the onslaught of culture’s imagination or affection-shaping power. It is rather that we need to understand that it’s not a question of whether a particular show is educational, but what’s the lesson being taught? (pg. 31) Prolonged exposure to cultural texts presenting us with similar narratives and worlds shape our self-understandings and create a sort of “second nature” for good or ill. (pg. 32) Culture is a spirit-forming reality.

Because of this, Vanhoozer calls Christians to wake up and not simply walk about in culture like “sleep-walkers” unaware of the worlds which they are being invited to inhabit. (pg. 32) We need to be discerning readers both of Scripture and of culture, determining which is exerting a greater force on our hearts, and for what end. What vision of the good life are we buying into? What narratives and metaphors have we adopted? Which works and worlds dominate our imagination? The various little texts provided by marketers and other meaning-makers in pop culture, or the works and world of God as found in his Text?

Soli Deo Gloria

On the Difference Between “Literal” and “Idiot-Literal” Interpretation

literalI’ve already written once before on the issue of a ‘literal’ hermeneutic. I want to take time once again to clarify, from another angle, that there is a difference between a ‘literal’ hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and what I’m calling an ‘idiot-literal’ hermeneutic.

Classic Literal
A classic “literal” hermeneutic was the favored interpretive method of the Magisterial Reformers such as Calvin and Luther, which, at its better moments, has been followed by their Protestant heirs. It also might be called the “historical-grammatical” method because, in a nutshell, its aim is to first understand what the author’s intended use of a given word, sentence, paragraph was in accordance with the historical, cultural, and literary context and usual grammatical rules. As Kevin Vanhoozer has said, “the literal sense is the literary sense.” Interpreting a text ‘literally’ in this sense did not mean ignoring figures of speech, metaphors, analogy, or running roughshod over genres, context, or linguistic anomalies. Essentially, if the biblical author is trying to write history, you read the text like history; if poetry, like poetry; if a letter, then as a letter.

The Magisterial Reformers were, for the most part, humanist scholars trained in rhetoric and an appreciation for literary art, so they championed this sort of exegesis as a corrective against the spiritualizing, or rather allegorizing, interpretive methods favored by some in the Middle Ages, and passed down from some of the Fathers such as Origen and Augustine that could, and I say this with great respect for those classic interpreters, could go off the rails a bit as they found all sorts of hidden, “spiritual” meanings in rather straight-forward texts. While the Reformers didn’t rule out certain typological interpretations–for instance it’s fine, and even necessary, to see a figure of Christ when discussing OT sacrifices or King David–they worried that some of the allegorizing that went on led to the Scriptures becoming a “wax nose” of sorts, that could be shaped and reshaped at will. Any typological interpretation must come after and be in line with the original story, or law that was set forth according to its intended purpose. Now, admittedly they weren’t perfect at this themselves, but by and large this was a good move for biblical studies and theology in general.

My point here is to clarify that a “literal” interpretation in the classic sense is not what might be called a “literalistic”, or illiterate approach to the text, but rather it is one concerned with discovering the author’s intended meaning in accordance with sound rules of literary interpretation. Which brings me to our next category: the idiot-literal hermeneutic.

Idiot-Literal
An idiot-literal hermeneutic is the interpretive method that is favored mostly by liberalizing critics for straw-manning conservative  opponents. It consists of finding the most obtuse, ham-handed, or silly interpretation of any given biblical text that fails to recognize a textual or literary clue that we’re dealing with figurative language and holding it up as the necessary reading for anybody holding a “literal” hermeneutic. Often-times it’s linked in these presentations to the doctrine of “inerrancy” (which, for some reason, is usually also caricatured, confused, and conflated with a straight dictation theory of inspiration).

Now, I’m not denying that often-times you can find conservative/fundamentalist interpreters whose readings border on self-caricature. In fact, along with Beale, I do think the time might come when we need to start using the phrase “literate” hermeneutic, or something of that sort in order to distinguish things. Still, I do think it’s important to clarify that just because someone self-identifies as adhering to a “literal” hermeneutic, or because the Reformers held to one, it does not mean they must adopt whatever silliness is imputed to them by their critics on pain of inconsistency.

Conclusions
This was necessarily rough and probably simplistic, but hopefully it sufficed to make my point–a literal reading of the text is not the same as an idiot-literal reading of the text. You haven’t refuted conservative hermeneutical approaches by simply picking the dumbest reading possible and saying, “Here, this is what you have to believe, right?” Also, if you pride yourself on your conservative view of scripture and hermeneutical approach, please don’t play into the caricature–do your homework.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. For those looking to learn how to read their Bibles better:

1.  How To Read Your Bible For All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart is an excellent place to start.
2.  Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robbert I. Hubbard Jr. is also excellent, although a bit more advanced.