No Traction

I could be posting about the weather in Glasgow this morning, with snow-slicked slippy pavements so that one gets a backache just from walking with tensed muscles at every step — but rather I’m talking about the widespread perception that ‘exegesis’ and ‘hermeneutics’ concern the production of a correct answer, rather than (respectively) the rigorous analysis of a text and the theoretical articulation of how of interpretation works.

Freezing Fog in Glasgow


I just noticed this since Kelvin Facebook-linked to a post in which Gillan Scott offhandedly observes, ‘As those on both sides fight over the exegesis and hermeneutics (i.e. the correct interpretation) of the Biblical texts…’.

As long as biblical studies and hermeneutics are haunted by the longing for an illusory ‘correct interpretation’, we won’t get anywhere; the stakes are too high for combatants who can’t risk loosing their death-grip on their professedly correct interpretations. So part of the reason my work draws less uptake than do those essays and books that promise to guide readers to the proper 13 steps to arriving at the correct interpretation lies in my stubborn unwillingness to play that game. Of course one can always identify particular interpretations as correct relative to certain bounded criteria and premises — but people really want not just to be right relative to people-like-them, but specifically to be able to use their ‘rightness’ to bludgeon others into acquiescence. It won’t work; it has a long, demonstrable history of not working; but since participants in this fantasy gladiatorial sport can’t consider the possibility that their energies amount to nothing more than a charade. Big rewards fall to those who play the charade exceptionally convincingly — but the case for a different approach to hermeneutics gets no traction in a world where most participants mostly want to shore up their preconceptions.

4 thoughts on “No Traction

  1. Recently the association between an intolerance of semantic instability and more readily visible modes of absolutism has been nagging at me. Guns, for instance, seem to present the promise of closure. A study of gun advocates and their affiliations to hermeneutically intolerant modes of politics and religiosity might be worthwhile.

  2. Point of order: how can this post be in the category “How To Do Exegesis” and also “Uncategorized”?

  3. I always find it interesting that a vocal portion of those who advocate for a ‘correct interpretation’ (i.e. certain breeds of American evangelicalism) almost always advocate a methodology (namely, the common sense realism of WYRIWIT — What You Read Is What Is True) that precludes the objectivity they so desperately want. The imagery of traction is, I believe, quite apt because the claim of objectivity (and the implication of traction) seems to be more of a private language in the Wittgensteinian sense and, to add some more imagery, look like the nonsense of the Tea Party in Alice’s Adventure Underground to others.

    Another advance on the traction front would be the cliche of ‘rubber meets the road’ in that if there ever was a ‘correct interpretation’, it would have to be practical. ‘Correct interpretations’ like the premillenialism of Left Behind (which is apparently being remade with Nicholas Cage?!) would disqualify themselves because of their very impractical applications which are always delayed and postponed (someday — soon?! — Christ will return with an army of faithful carrying AK-47s to punish those who don’t believe). (OK, enough rambling from me).

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