Monday, May 16, 2005

Window, Story, Mirror

Most interpretations can be summarized into three categories: those that locate meaning “behind texts,” those that locate meaning “in the texts,” and those that locate meaning “in front of the texts.” Those interpretations that fall under the first category presuppose that scripture serves a referential function, the text is a “window” to a privileged past—to Israel, to the historical Jesus, to the gospel writers and their intentions, to the early Christian communities, etc.—that could be recovered. Interpretation is therefore aimed at first establishing what the text meant in order to arrive at what it means for today. The task of the interpreter is to recover meaning from behind the text to the historical setting from which it came. Traditional historical-critical methods like form, source, redaction criticism, and contemporary Historical Jesus research would fall under this category.

The second category of interpretations employ “closed reading” focused on plot, characters, setting, discourse, structure, implied authors and implied readers in order to get at “what is in the text.” If the first category privileged the past that the text referred to as the source of meaning, the second category privileges the text itself. This category would include most literary methods like narrative, structural, and rhetorical criticism. In such cases interpreters presuppose scripture as “story,” a text that “has life all its own.” And this “living” text is able to create or conjure up communities of readers/hearers.

The third category would include readings that privilege social location. Meaning, in this category, is not located in the past or in the text, but in parts of the text that point “beyond the text” or “in front of the text”: its rhetorical features as well as all the signs of ideological tensions, whether these are socio-economic, political, cultural, religious tensions that are recognizable, despite the fact that the text seeks to suppress them, for instance by marginalizing characters, institutions, or events that would manifest these tensions. These rhetorical features and ideological tensions are textual features that point “beyond the text,” in the sense that they are recognizable by the ways in which they powerfully affect readers in situations similar to those suppressed by the text. Thus, these “in front of the text” textual features are most directly recognizable when they are activated by present-day readers. After all, interpretations are, as Mark Taylor puts it, “constructs of socially located flesh-and-blood readers.” Scripture then serves as a “mirror” that helps inform--not define--concrete life settings. Most advocacy approaches—feminist, liberationist, womanist, reader-response criticism, cultural studies, and post-colonial studies—would fall under this category.
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