Catching Up

Closing Panel

Originally uploaded by AKMA.

It’s been a long, busy week. I finally finished up my Winslow Lecture, and delivered it to a very full house on Thursday. It went well — a number of people gave very kind feedback about it — and I’ll post a summary in the “Extended” window below (it’s probably too long to post the whole thing, but I’ve uploaded a pdf of the complete text of my lecture, with notes).

Trevor came out from Ohio to stay with us during the series, which was terrific; we don’t get to see enough of him, now that he’s far away. We got to see a little of Steve, less than we’d have liked, but it was complicated since Francis and Kevin were here on equal standing as lecturers, though not such long-term friends. It was excellent getting to talk at greater length with Kevin and Francis, and at lunch yesterday Kevin allowed that my more loosely-joined hermeneutics (more loose than his) make more sense to him when he sees the shape of community life here.

At dinner Thursday night, at Koi in Evanston (home of the “Mongolian Plates,” which the menu describes: “The major staple of this dish is its wok-seared characteristic”), we learned that not only did Francis not know about blogging and tofu, but he didn’t know what a dumpster was, either. Steve helpfully equated “dumpster” with a British “skip,” so that was easily solved. “And another thing word I didn’t recognize,” Francis added, “was — ‘mojo’?” That was a little harder for us to explain, especially with a degree of circumspection concomitant with Francis’s dignity and decorum. I suggested that he might have heard of Muddy Waters, and he, at the other end of the table, said, “Oh, it means ‘to muddy the waters’?” At that point, we were nearly helpless at the incongruity of the situation.

I’m very relieved to have finished this up, and a little embarrassed at how much less-well-developed my thoughts were in South Bend last week, compared to the way I ordered them in my formal lecture this week.

AKMA Makes a Point
Poaching on Zion:
Biblical Theology as Signifying Practice

[I began with a general retrospective view of the discourses of biblical theology. My survey pointed out the way that the topic of biblical theology has served as a tool in theological and ecclesiastical controversies. If you can claim that your theology is more biblical than your opponent’s, you have a significant rhetorical advantage in church debates. What follows is part transcription, part summary.]

Discourses of biblical interpretation (including “biblical theology”) have also assimilated themselves to their ancestral responsibility for biblical translation. As a translation formally permits only one gloss-expression for each unit of original-language expression, so discussions involving biblical interpretations tend to imply — if not to state outright — that each biblical passage allows only one best interpretive equivalence. No matter how sophisticated our theories of translation, we tend to treat biblical theology as a matter of arriving at correct answers.

The paradigm that identifies all the work of biblical interpretation more or less forcefully with translation exercises further power over our imaginations to the extent that we assent to the conduit metaphor for language. According to many figures of speech in English, words serve as vessels of meaning, containers or pipelines through which one pipes a meaning that one can distinguish from the pipe that contains it. We say, “I can’t get into that book,” or “I couldn’t get anything out of it”; we commonly define “exegesis” as “leading meaning out of the text” (as opposed to eisegesis, “reading meaning into the text”); we discuss interpretation as though meaning were within the words we exchange, and as though we arrive at a successful understanding by siphoning the meaning out from its containment in words.

The combination of the translation paradigm, the conduit metaphor, and the ethos of interpretive competitiveness bring about a sort of enclosure of meaning. On the accounts of meaning that prevail in biblical theology, the church should permit only expert biblical scholars determine the meaning of scriptural texts; these experts alone can correctly translate the best possible representation of the text’s meaning into the language of the contemporary church. These scholars should study the text impassively, with no partiality, but if scholars communicate their interpretive conclusions in a way that doesn’t evoke fervent affirmation of the gospel, then – apparently – something is lacking. That sense of “lack” haunts biblical theology to this day.

It’s odd that anyone might perceive a lack in biblical interpretation, since the Bible must be one of the most-interpreted texts in the world. The sheer staggering plenitude of biblical interpretation may to some extent account for scholars’ artificial restriction on attention-worthy interpretations: if we wall off the sorts of interpretation to which we need to pay attention, we stand a slightly better chance of managing the flow of interpretations. We can carve out a space where the rules are clearer, the price of entry higher, the permitted gestures more limited. Once we’ve established this manageable domain of hermeneutical tidiness, we can name it “True Biblical Theology,” or “Legitimate Theological Interpretation,” or what we will.

This safe zone of orderly biblical interpretation will remain, however, a fortified outpost isolated from the teeming flux of signification outside its secure walls. While cloistered biblical theologians debate the developmental pattern of the Pauline epistles (or lack thereof), emergent-church congregations gather and grow, flourish and dwindle, worship and preach and argue. Theological interpretation thrives outside the walled precincts of academic biblical theology even as biblical theologians wonder how they lost their mojo.

The “enclosed” version of biblical theology aptly illustrates Michel de Certeau’s analyses of reading and meaning (in “The Scriptural Economy” and “Reading as Poaching”). Certeau notes that intellectuals tend to establish informal regimes that regulate interpretive legitimacy; schools, public criticism, lectures such as this series, inculcate the sense that there’s a right way of reading, to which the highly-trained, sensitive interpreter is privy. These interpreters commonly represent such a restrictive gesture as necessary due to the nature of the text, or the well-being of less expert readers (who might be misled without help from accredited scholars).

The use made of the book by privileged readers constitutes it as a secret of which they are the “true” interpreters. It interposes a frontier between the text and its readers that can be crossed only if one has a passport delivered by these official interpreters, who transform their own meaning (which is also a legitimate one) into an orthodox “literality” that makes other (equally legitimate) readings either heretical (not “in conformity” with the meaning of the text) or insignificant (to be forgotten).

Certeau argues that readers are not bound by the conventions that privileged interpreters impose on the text; they are more like nomads than like a lockstep military formation. Where biblical theologians try to seclude the meaning of Scripture in a closed field to which only the scholar has legitimate access, Certeau reminds us that the Bible remains open to unauthorized readers, who traverse the textual landscape as poachers, or perhaps more fittingly as gleaners. While the privileged interpreters fastidiously redecorate the landscaping inside their gated community, unlicensed readers of the Bible continue to discover precious meaning in the dumpsters of academic criticism.

In order to recuperate from what ails us, biblical theologians need to recognize that our experience of lack derives to a great extent from the self-imposed constraints on our discourse. Even if those constraints now seem obvious, natural, or theologically necessary, we may find that we simply can’t have the vibrant, profoundly biblical theology for which our essays lament at the same time that we stipulate a series of exclusions, qualifications, and preconditions for our discourse. If Augustine rightly asks, “what more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses,” then the biblical theologian’s task must more appropriately involve learning how to flourish in that divine abundance than in devising conventions whose function is to attenuate the variety God provides for our well-being.

For these purposes, the inherited mandates of biblical theology will persistently betray us. Though scholar after scholar proposes new and improved ways of doing the same interpretive thing, we will not thereby attain different results. A theological hermeneutic that develops out of the translation model, relies on the conduit metaphor, and relegates interpretive ventures to “either/or” characterizations will not equip its advocates to deal productively with semiotic abundance. A hermeneutic that respects the full catholicity of meaning needs to start by accepting abundance as a positive condition.

As the interpretive imaginations of so many readers have been formed decisively by the habits that enclose meaning, they recoil from the confusing prospect of semiotic abundance. Such readers adhere to this approach, which Stephen Fowl has categorized as “determinate interpretation,” and I as “integral hermeneutics,” for plausible theological and philosophical reasons. If the familiar rules do not apply, these readers wonder whether one can say that texts mean whatever one likes. They wonder what criteria one might apply if the familiar criteria no longer determine legitimacy in interpretation.

These problems derive most of their force from the sheer unfamiliarity of critical interpretation outside the precincts of the cloister. As Steve and I have argued, however, interpreters have always applied criteria for evaluating interpretations, and – contrary to parodic representations of pre-modern hermeneutics – those criteria do not simply amount to fanciful caprices. The rule of faith, the spiritual senses of medieval interpretation, the reader’s engagement with a network of other readers, as well as various other aesthetic and ethical criteria, abound to ensure that interpretation doesn’t float free of its accountability to standards. Indeed, even conventional critics tacitly appeal to a tremendous array of hermeneutical norms; the risk of arbitrariness dwindles markedly once one brings to conscious awareness the range of norms against which disciplined, faithful readers may check their interpretations.

The aforementioned allegorical approach to interpretation has long suffered the primary burden of modern deprecation. According to the reformers, allegorical interpretation made of the text a wax nose, “and wrest[ed] it this way and that way.” Yet Henri de Lubac’s analysis of medieval exegesis underlines the extent to which medieval interpretation ranged far indeed from arbitrariness, and recent studies have brought to the foreground ways in which de Lubac’s account of medieval interpretation might strengthen contemporary discourses of theological interpretation. David Steinmetz, Lewis Ayres, Margaret Adam, and Graham Ward have launched various complementary accounts of the value of allegoresis for contemporary biblical interpretation. These represent only a thin selection from a growing body of scholarship that shows how we can take allegorical interpretation seriously as a contemporary possibility for critical reading.

These, however, remain bounded by the captivity of our interpretive imagination to the representation of meaning in words. The world around us, however, teems with meanings expressed in non-verbal visual, auditory, gestural signs. Indeed, the more one attends to the ways we encounter and reason through meaning in non-verbal understanding, the more parochial and limited the domain of words seems. To the extent that we suggest and infer meaning in countless non-verbal modes of expression, a hermeneutics that takes verbal communication as the definitive case of evoking and apprehending meaning inappropriately generalizes from the most formalized and unusual sphere of meaning-making to the more common and less specific spheres.

Two side notes: First, this point marks one basis for my dissent from the way theologians have appropriated speech-act theory’s commendable advocacy of construing verbal and non-verbal communication together for philosophical and ethical evaluation; their version of speech-act theory still takes speech as the central focus of its analysis, tending to relegate “action” to the margin of meaningfulness. Second, the urgency of taking non-verbal meaning more seriously grows as an increasing proportion of communicators have access to increasingly refined tools for the production and transmission of audio and video expression online.

Our hermeneutics should begin from the general phenomena of semiosis, of meaning-making. Once we have learned what we can say about meaning and interpretation in non-verbal domains, we can take on the special case of verbal communication with less risk that this outlying example of semiosis provides the key for all interpretive discourses.

In the context of theological hermeneutics, this attention to all the dimensions of meaning and communication obliges us to acknowledge that the windows that surround us exemplify biblical interpretation, that the worship for which this space is customarily used constitutes an exercise in biblical interpretation, that the architecture, the musical accompaniment or lack thereof, all these and more take part in a the expansive, diverse, practice of re-presenting the significance of the Bible in words, images, sounds, and gestures.

Hence, I propose that we think of biblical theology not on the model of translation, not on the basis of a conduit metaphor, but as a signifying practice. On this account, biblical theology would not involve just, or primarily, the verbal interpretation of verbal texts, but as a way of living that deliberately enters into the ocean of signification that encompasses us, and seeks out a way to learn, to perpetuate and to propagate the significance of the biblical proclamation. The signifying practice of biblical theology will include a great amount of textual interpretation, no doubt – but this practice will conduct its textual exploration toward the end of submitting visible, tangible, audible, effectual claims concerning the Bible’s importance for our lives.

[Here I describe the history of the term “signifying practice,” and I’ll probably expand this section in the print version of the paper.]

In Stuart Hall’s account, we participate in reciprocal social activities (including, but not limited to, speech and writing) in ways that affirm, amplify, and perpetuate meanings for our behavior; a particular integrated set of these words and actions constitutes a signifying practice, a complex tapestry of expression by which we assert the sorts of meaning by which we (and the culture around us) define our identities. Dick Hebdige applies this cultural semiotics to the ways that non-dominant social groups define themselves over against the networks of meaning that prevail in the dominant social groups. Thus gangstas, punks, goths, and various subcultures use their appearance, the sounds with which they make their presence audible, their distinct vernacular, the gestures by which they interact with one another and with outsiders – making meaning by the ways that they signify, in dress and music and speech and action.

As a provocative digression, I will here propose in one paragraph my working axioms of semiotics: First, that everything signifies: our dress, our posture, our tone, our stride. In a Word-created world, everything signifies. Second, signification can’t be controlled. We often make to control signifying under the rule of intention (“I didn’t intend to scandalize you, so it’s not my responsibility if you’re hurt by what I did.”). The rule of intention has long been known to lead to Hell, though, and no other mode of policing signification has proved more effective. If I wear an orange jacket through the wrong neighborhood on St. Patrick’s Day, that’ll signify, whether I intend it to or not, and the significance may be enforced with sanctions that pay no respect to refined arguments about the nature of human intention, or the legitimacy of reader-oriented interpretation. If my word or gesture hurts you unintentionally, you’re still injured regardless, and I’m complicit in that injury. Third, then, there is no ethic intrinsic to signification – the signifying Spirit blows where it will, and we know not whence it comes or whither it goes – but only in our practices of expression and apprehension. We interpret significance in particular ways, and we speak and gesture certain ways, relying on provisional expectations and conventions. Those derive their sanction, however, not from the nature of signification, but from our understanding of how we ought to live in a world that’s more complex than we’re capable of controlling. As surfers, we do not control the waves of signification, but we negotiate their flux, riding forces we cannot command. (That’s for Frank Yamada.)

The benefits of adopting the terminology of “signifying practice” for biblical theology are manifold. First, when we frame biblical theology as signifying practice, we point away from an exclusively verbal model of signification and expression, toward a model that encompasses all our activity. We break out of the circle of texts interpreting texts interpreting texts, into a world in which every sphere of human action expresses our biblical interpretations, and invites critical analysis. Biblical interpretations formulated as stained-glass windows or paintings, as oratorios or praise songs, as eucharistic prayers or indeed as ecstatic pentecostal utterance take a coherent place in our reflection on the theological meanings of our Bible. Moreover, when we take up biblical theology as a signifying practice, we direct our attention toward ways that our lived practice as biblical interpreters constitutes an on-going interpretation of the Bible. Since the God of the Bible (in the varied forms in which Christians and Jews receive it) expresses especially vivid interest in how one orders one’s life, and since most biblical theologians profess some sort of allegiance to this God who was made known to Israel, to whom Jesus of Nazareth pointed as uniquely good and holy, we have strong reasons as biblical theologians to not separate our lived interpretive practice from our academic, verbal interpretive deliberation. The segregation of ethics, or homiletics, or liturgics, from biblical interpretation dissolves into a critical study of the ways that particular expressions and practices fittingly or inappropriately bespeak the meanings we infer from biblical precedents.

Once we adjust our expectations to regard biblical theology as a signifying practice rather than as puzzle in an arcane code, pieces of the theological vocation that have fallen apart come together again in gratifying and challenging ways. Interpretive disagreement no longer requires that we slug it out until one reader’s proposal show all others to be inferior; indeed, we must expect disagreement as an authentic representation of biblical theologies that emerge from divergent contexts, represented by divergent practitioners; just as any two harpsichordists will perform a shared score differently, so two biblical theologians will perform their shared scriptural score differently. The biblical theologian studies Scripture for the cues for his or her particular performance, imbibes the characteristic directions and gestures, the prohibitions and requirements, and improvises a biblical response to the congregation, the pastoral situation, the social circumstances she confronts. Some degree of innovation will prove intolerable to us, and we will resist and oppose it; other degrees of innovation will seem appropriate to our text, and we will welcome the fresh light they shed on Scripture.

Our exemplifications, our embodiments of biblical theology will always in some respects depart from their biblical precedents, so that we cannot simply assert that our practice fulfills the mandates of our biblical score. Our practice of biblical theology will express our sense of Scripture more or less faithfully, more or less recognizably, and observers of our practice will assess it differently depending on their own apprehension of biblical theology. This befits the Bible, which itself is not monophonic, but comprises a tremendous variety of material for us emphasize, defer, mute, harmonize, and resolve in ways that themselves always change; in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “truth is symphonic.” We who are Anglicans may appropriate this criterion to the instruction in Article XX of our Articles of Religion, which stipulates that the church may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Confronted by possibly ugly perplexities in the score of our performance, we may not simply adopt one passage and reject the other, citing one passage as the basis for negating the other. Instead, the Articles instruct us to seek the way of reading by which our exposition resolves apparent discord into a more profound, unexpected harmony.

In order soundly to signify Scripture, we need to know the Bible well, studying the Bible steadily and faithfully. In contradistinction to the ways that many prominent biblical theologians have framed their definitions and axioms, that entails studying the canonical biblical text. While speculation about precanonical sources may nuance our appreciation of the canon, Q is not a substitute for Matthew (as Francis suggested in his lecture). Similarly, we have much to learn from post-canonical commentary, particularly commentary from the saints who wrote during the time (described in Steve’s lecture) when Sacra Doctrina comprised all the theological specializations, but commentary does not substitute for the Bible. Perhaps above all, the signifying practice of biblical theology depends on our reading Scripture together, in conjunction with our lives of discipleship and worship. By hearing the Word together, by responding to the Word together, by conversing about the Word together, we encounter and embody at least a beginning measure of the richness that arises when different servants of the same Word practice together.

Thus, our worship – in a certain sense, the signifying practice of biblical theology par excellence – best serves our vocation when we tone down the liturgical expression of our selves and devote our energies to focusing attention on a gospel that we did not invent, in ways that direct attention away from us, away from our ingenuity, away from the urgent messages we need to convey, away from our resourcefulness, and toward the God whom we praise. Romano Guardini advises, “the priest of the late nineteenth century who said, ‘We must organize the procession better; we must see to it that the singing and praying are done better’ [should have rather] asked himself quite a different question: how can the act of walking become a religious act, a retinue for the Lord progressing through his land, so that an epiphany may take place?”

Our processional walking, however, must take our lives, fortified by the ritual expression of orchestrated praise, outward into a dissonant and disordered world. As biblical theologians, we endeavor to recognize God’s ways at work around us and to lend our lived testimony to strengthening, making more nearly visible and audible, the gospel Way. We shape our lives after the patterns we discern in Scripture, so that others may see our good works and give glory to God. We take up the imitation of Christ, the imitation of Mary and Moses, of Abigail and James, so that their significance resonates in the paths we walk. We study Scripture here not simply to learn a set of rules we must follow, but to learn a repertoire of rôles we enact. And by taking up the whole of our lives as a signifying practice of biblical theology, we make ourselves accountable to our neighbors. Without entrusting our signifying practice to the loving criticism of our sisters and brothers, we fall prey to the fallacy of assuming that we signify only what we intend. If we share our lives with reliable friends, their good examples can encourage our persistence in prayer and service, and they can help catch us when our intentions no longer match what our lives signify.

So – to conclude – our friends make us better biblical theologians, and our congregational worship makes us better biblical theologians, and the wisdom of the saints makes us better biblical theologians; and thus my opening litany of thanksgivings was no idle rhetorical convention, but a necessary affirmation that all that is true has come to us this afternoon as a gift. Since we have been so graciously surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we squander our energy if we construct a hothouse of artificial scarcity within which to sit in splendid disciplinary isolation, bemoaning our lack; instead, as biblical theologians we process confidently, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, into the abundant flux of meaning that surrounds and suffuses us, practicing at every turn the harmony, the diligence, and the gratitude by which our biblical theology testifies to the grace of Christ.

1 thought on “Catching Up

  1. A hermeneutic that respects the full catholicity of meaning needs to start by accepting abundance as a positive condition.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *