In Our Neighborhood

David Weinberger offers thoughtful criticism of my developing essay on integral and differential hermeneutics. If all writers had readers like David, writing would be none the less difficult—David doesn’t let me off any hooks—but it would be vastly more rewarding.

Shelley has answered us, firmly, that blogging is no longer for her, and she gives some good reasons. The minuses still don’t outweigh the plusses for me, not by a long chalk, but she’s certainly right about those minuses.

Gary Turner has uncovered my complicity in Halley’s hitherto-secret plan for world domination, which means I may have some time to spare when King George II’s Homeland Security Keystone Investigative Agency tracks me down. At least I now know who’s the anonymous other member of our cell.

And I meant to acknowledge Kevin Marks’ first announcement of mediAgora, but he’s only gotten more on target and accumulated more pertinent links. If you only stopped by Kevin’s the first time, go back again. It’s hard to imagine how anyone who reads Kevin’s pages can imagine that government-by-RIAA-and-Disney serves the interests of the people in any way.

DRMA: “Red Beans,” All That; “Got Myself Together,” the Holmes Brothers; “Talk of the Town,” the Pretenders; “Wild Women Never Get the Blues,” Lyle Lovett; “Lovesick,” Bob Dylan.

Weekend Update

Jennifer, our wonderful adjunct daughter, is here for a while, and Margaret leaves New England with Pippa and Si tomorrow early in the morning. We figure to be all together by Wednesday at the latest. It is, as Martha says, all good.

Integral and Differential, Again

Picking up near where I left off, oneof the aspects of the whole discussion that flummoxes me involves the extent to which the argument tends to presuppose a Protestant-vs.-Catholic worldview, with no room left for anyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the same vigorous arguments against plurivalence in the context of Judaism or Eastern Orthodoxy (I don’t know enough even to guess about other traditions). Judaism isn’t the exotic rain forest of unchanneled meaning that some critics in the 80’s made it out to be; we are talking about the Torah, after all, not a capricious textual free-for-all. Even the Catholic tradition embraced some plurality of interpretive meaning through Medieval exegesis. Once the Reformation took root, all parties to the dispute over theological authority felt the need to say, “The Bible supports us and not them,” and at that point plurality in meaning can only complicate the power moves that the advocates of Rome or Geneva or Augsburg, or for that matter Canterbury or Westminster or Plymouth, felt the need to make.

But authority in Judaism and Orthodoxy devolves more directly on performative criteria than on the theoretically exclusive textual correctness of one party’s interpretations. (By “performative,” I don’t mean to refer to Lyotard’s attention to the crtierion of performative productivity in The Postmodern Condition, but to something more like what Raoul Eshelman describes in the article wood s lot recently blogulated for us: testing truth-claims by living them out). This, too, may make a connection to hermeneutics in Judaism (and in Christianity outside the West?); questions of interpretation often resolve themselves the more clearly by trying them as part of life. As such, and permit me some emphasis here, my “postmodern” differential hermeneutics is intrinsically, inescapably ethical. Bad interpretation isn’t only a matter of insufficient cerebration—it’s a moral failure. Good interpretation isn’t a matter of being smart enough, but of interpreting with spiritual wisdom.

It doesn’t follow that someone we think good will always interpret rightly, or that being smart is irrelevant to interpreting well. It does imply that there are as many ways to interpret well as there are to live well.

[Brief interval as I’m overcome by the urgency of implementing relative font sizes in my blog template. Either I’m not an adequate direction-follower, or something about Blogger and CSS and the way I implemented the HTML dysfunctioned, so I went back to the old fixed sizes, with apologies. Movable Type will be here some day, I’ll begin working directly with Dorothea’s version of my template, daisies will bloom, relative sizes will work, we’ll get just the right amount of rain and heat, and I’ll have a sabbatical.]

So I just argued that differential hermeneutics is so far from being a-moral that it’s radically ethical (not that being a partisan of differential hermeneutics makes you ethically praiseworthy, but that it is, as Nate would say, all about ethics.

In this context, the Tutor’s question — plaintive, were it not so thornily pointed — “What must I do to be saved?” should find its native habitat in the differential approach to hermeneutics. Now, I anticipate that some readers, if not the Tutor himself, would like a single, unambiguous answer—and will reject any reluctance to provide that simple injunction as mere deconstructive stammering, unwillingness to commit oneself to the plainly-marked narrow gate that leads to salvation.

On the other hand, Jesus tended to respond to such questions indirectly, with parables or prophetic actions or aphoristic deconstructions of the presuppositions on which the questions seem to rest.

“What must I do to be saved?” First, neither I nor you can determine that you be saved — right? Salvation depends not on our efforts or on your or my wise advice. Salvation as a free gift from God comes not by way of diligent good behavior or (certainly not) from good advice from an online theologian, but always only as a gift (I ran through this same set of premises way back on the “forgiveness” topic).

Do I then mean that there’s nothing to it, that we can shrug our shoulders, kick the homeless beggar at our feet, and laugh all the way to the pearly gates? I would not dare suggest so. At the same time, it does imply an awareness that salvation comes not through our power—and “power” marks one of the cardinal points in the conflict over interpretation. So here, too, I would urge a benefit of differential hermeneutics, as an approach to interpretation that duly observes the humility befitting fallible followers of a God who blesses not the exercise of coercive force (whether social, interpretive, or military), but patience and resolute faithfulness and integrity.

Now, there’s more to be said about these and many other dimensions of the topic (as readers moan), but not tonight.

DRMA: “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday (I can hardly listen to this, but I make myself; it feels as though this recording, once made, ought immediately to have converted the hearts of anyone who ever hears it); “One Day,” Dixie Hummingbirds and Angelic Gospel Singers; “When I See His Blessed Face,” Sister Wynona Carr; “All This Useless Beauty,” Elvis Costello (a live version wherein he pertinently observes, “People are always asking me, ‘What does that song mean?’ and if I could say it in other words than are in the song, I would have written another song, wouldn’t I?”); “I Want to Go Where Jesus Is,” Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Singers; “I Thank You Lord,” James Bignon and the Deliverance Mass Choir; “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley; “Balm in Gilead,” Sweet Honey in the Rock; “The Girls Want to Be With The Girls,” Talking Heads; “Sunken Treasure,” Wilco; “I’m Someone Who Loves You,” the Roches; “All of Me,” Billie Holiday; “Here at the Western World,” Steely Dan; “Function at the Junction,” Shorty Long; “People Say,” the Meters; “Opening” from Glassworks, Philip Glass; “Watching the Wheels,” John Lennon.

The Shadow Over Evanston

And I thought it was just the typical Chicago summer heat: Alex Golub continues the saga — I hear Spielberg is interested, your people should talk to his people, let’s do lunch — of his intrepid defense of Baroque music and everything else worth saving in yesterday’s blog, in which my hitherto-secret weakness imperils the All-and-Everything, or at least Mayan commercial traffic. As an aside, I feel obliged to say that Alex has taken literary license and disguised my Achilles meal as Tim-Tams, perhaps as a way to draw in the Australian contingent. I’ve never had a Tim or a Tam, though, and my particular gustatory shame lies elsewhere. . . .

Then the Tutor reminds me that more than intellectual fashions, more even than lives are at stake in talking about interpretation. I’m still working on this; something so important deserves painstaking attention. (Recently I read that bloggers take less time to write their posts than readers take to read them — excuse me?)

DRMA: “Svefn G Englar,” Sigur Ros; “Oh No!” Camper Van Beethoven; “Didn’t It Rain,” Golden Gate Quartet; “London’s Burning,” the Clash.

Another Miscellany

Just ran into two weblogs-in-education sites, Sebastian Fiedler’s Seblogging and (linked from there, but I found it before) Will Richardon’s Weblogg-Ed. I’m encouraged not only by their enthusiasm for blogs in education, but also by their informed aversion to BlackBoard. I’m beginning to think of BlackBoard as a litmus test for understanding of the potential for technology in education: if you’re impressed by BlackBoard, you’re not on the educational Cluetrain.

Now, having said that, I’m sue there are some insightful educators who, for circumstantial reasons, are enthusiastic about BlackBoard, so consider this an insta-retraction. But only sort-of; I’m systematically enough dubious about BlackBoard that it would take an awful lot of persuading to convince me that the local circumstances warrant a positive estimate of the courseware’s value (especially at the rates they charge, especially when Blogger non-Pro and Movable Type are available at no charge, and Radio and Blogger Pro are available at extremely low cost).

And to anyone who’s been waiting for me to take up the e-learning topic again, I will indeed return to that after I square away this hermeneutics essay. I also want to tackle another facet of the forgiveness-identity-integrity metablog — but for now there’s a lot of other writing to be done.

DRMA: “I’m Bad,” Katie Webster; “My Hit Parade,” the Beautiful South; “Overture” from Tommy, the Who.

Way Cool

One last thing: It looks as though the Wabash Center will be setting up a wifi base station so that the participants in the Teaching and Technology Conference there can (a) watch their TIAA-CREF protfolios vanish (b) play Unreal Tournament against one another (c) check email and (d) (in my case) live-blog the proceedings, which will include presentations about classes where we used emergent technologies to positive effect, discussions of the obstacles, possibliites, and dreams realtive to realizing a stronger use of technology in teaching, responses to assigned readings including David Weinberger’s Small Pieces, Lessig’s Code, and Duguid & Brown’s Social Life of Information.

More On Hermeneutics

That’s “more on.”

If I try to respond to David Weinberger’s notes to me about the hermeneutics post, I may find myself coming round to a more satisfactory way of addressing Tom’s enigma. He pokes me about the extent to which revelation, the divine illumination by which biblical writings bespeak truths that reach beyond run-of-the-mill human knowledge, affects my account of hermeneutics. After all, he points out, one wouldn’t necessarily treat the authorial intention that shaped the menu at a California restaurant the same way one might treat the authorial intention that shaped Genesis.

Terrific point, and (actually) one of my strongest impulses toward differential rather than integral hermeneutics. Why? After all, some of my integral-hermeneutics colleagues argue that the unity of God’s will and its realization in the composition of Scripture require the ascription of a unitary meaning in Scripture (and the concomitant integral hermeneutics). Moreover, they suggest that the idea of God offering an ambiguous or plurivalent revelation contradicts the idea of revelation itself.

Sed contra (as my Dominican teacher used to say), experience teaches us that the Bible has indeed provoked a panoply of divergent interpretations among unquestionably earnest, diligent, intelligent, devout interpreters. On the account of integral hermeneutics, we are obliged to reckon that one among these scholars has been right, the others incorrect — but without any manifest way of determining which. If we subscribe to integral hermeneutics, we find ourselves taking a crapshoot on which spokesperson truly divined what was to be revealed in the Bible. Especially where interpreters divide diametrically, as interpreters have from time to time in Christian history, integral heremeneutics simply fails to give an adequate account of how we might ascertain to whom we ought to listen.

Differential hermeneutics, however, can locate revelation not in the text by itself, such that we’re left to assay the content of an unambiguous revelation that we can’t get at. Instead, differential hermeneutics can locate revelation in the shared practice of interpreting the Bible under the social, liturgical, communal, ethical conditions of participating in life under the Law, or under the Cross. Judaism (as David has pointed out) already demonstrates the theological cogency of a tradition that recognizes plurality of insight within a shared commitment to a very specific Torah. Christianity offers too many examples of “our way or the highway” interpretations of Scripture—but araen’t those schismatic gestures warranted, if not outright required, by a rigorous application of integral hermeneutics?

By contrast, the pre-Reformation Western tradition, and many aspects of the Orthodox traditions to this day, preserve an appreciation for the extent to which the Bible may engender divergent harmonious interpretations.

One last thing before I crash for the night. David’s question about a difference between sacred and secular hermeneutics favors a differential approach in another way, too. Although English departments may shelter some of the most erudite, persistent, articulate practitioners of integral hermeneutics, few if any would ground their practice on theological premises. But that’s just what certain sorts of integral hermeneutics suggest that they ought to do. If one does not believe in a Triune God, for instance, why should one be especially moved by the trinitarian resonances of the author-text-audience triad? (And what if one adhere’s to Kenneth Burke’s schema for interpretation; would that oblige one to proliferate divine Persons?) Differential heremeneutics offers both an account of why people read the Bible differently from their dinner menu (because they do so under different conditions, with a different stake in what they’re interpreting, and different goals in taking on the interpretation) and a (unitary?) general account of why people interpret texts as they do.

More tomorrow; this felt good, and I think I’m getting at some of what I’d been hoping to say to Tom.

DRMA: “Mothership Connection,” Parliament; “You Are My Sunshine,” Norman Blake; “Christiana,” Prince Nico Mbarga and the Rocafil Jazz; “Desert Blues,” Leon Redbone; “Immigrant Song,” Led Zeppelin; “I’ll Never Be Your Maggie Mae,” Suzanne Vega; “Shake It Up,” the Cars; “Don’t Keep Me Wondering,” the Allman Brothers (a propos in several ways); “Shhh/Peaceful,” Miles Davis.


I’m putting off resuming the hermeneutics blog, partly because I sense that I haven’t answered Tom well enough yet, and partly because if I don’t continue working on the blogged version, I might not have to write the version for print. It’s pretty lame as an excuse, but it’s all I’ve got.

Dave Rogers (no, not that one, the other one) enjoys seeing what’s playing from my hard drive as I blog. Glad to note it, Dave, though I think I’ll ite a new, smaller-type style into my stylesheet when I get around to incorporating the Pilgrim relative-size strictures. I’m not using the BlogAmp tool ’cause I play from SoundJam and iTunes mostly. What Dave may not realize is that this playlist saturates my sermons (and “scholarly” writing as well), running indeed as a sort of soundtrack album to my life. A big, long soundtrack album.

Gary Turner thinks I’m sincere. Oh, yeah, surrrre.

DRMA: “He’s Got Better Things For You,” Memphis Sanctified Singers; “Whenever,” Shakira; “Weapon of Choice,” Fatboy Slim (at Nate’s urging — if you can, check out the video with Christopher Walken!); “Turn Around,” They Might Be Giants; “Love At First Sight,” XTC (glad that came around); “Dreamer In My Dreams,” Wilco; “To Sir With Love,” Trash Can Sinatras.

Service Error

The Seabury server was down all night and part of the morning, so far as I can tell. But that didn’t slow down my blogging—no, sirree! I was stuck in the mud all by myself.

Gary Turner isn’t blocked, though; he added two covers to his series of tabloid bloggers, including (last and surely least) me. Time to take Fiona at her word, Gary; in a few months, you won’t be having too many of these evenings alone together any more.

DRMA (that is, “Dave Rogers Music Alert”): “Dear Old Stockholm,” Miles Davis; “Working Class Hero,” Plastic Ono Band.

$99 a Year

I’m not saying anything about Apple’s new policy of charging for the “free” (in the sense of, “Take one, faithful Mac user, it’s free — for now”) email addresses, because I’d so much rather say something positive.

Give a Spy a Break

It can be a real challenge to ascertain just which of your neighbors or customers are likely to threaten the stability of the Bush Administration and thereby lend aid and comfort to the Forces of Evil. Help your local tipster with this sticker, carefully designed to indicate that you’re dubious about Dubya — hence, a threat to the American way of life.

Nosy Neighbour Turn Me In

Dave Rogers Music Alert: “Circulo de Amor,” El Gran Silencio; “Book I Haven’t Read,” Lambchop; “Blues Stay Away From Me,” Louvin Brothers.