Ktismatics

30 October 2006

Why the Creation of Hermeneutics Interpretation is Doomed

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 12:50 pm

[This post is a continuation of the Genesis 1 series. Last Friday’s post described the Genesis 1 conversation between God and the narrator as the creation of hermeneutics. Today I talk about why that interpretation is doomed to irrelevance in the emerging post-evangelical church. These are long posts, but I’m posting in real time, as I write. The faster I write, the sooner I finish.]

In our exegesis we tried to understand what the text means, to see the unfolding events from the narrator’s perspective, to understand what meaning he intended to convey. Paradoxically, we found the narrator doing the same thing: trying to understand elohim, to take his perspective, to grasp the meaning. If our interpretation is correct, then Genesis 1 describes the creation of hermeneutics itself.

The witness writes; we read; we interpret. In our exegesis we consciously allowed ourselves to be constrained by the text as if it was possible to discover its embedded truths. We tried to orient ourselves toward events as the witness might have experienced them. We tried to hear in elohim’s words the meaning he intended as he spoke them; we tried to read in the narrator’s words the meaning he intended as he wrote them. To propose that Genesis 1 describes the creation of natural science might not be a canonical reading in the Judeo-Christian interpretive community, but it’s not an unreasonable reading. More importantly, it’s supported by the text itself. The text exists, independent of its writer, independent also of its interpreter, as a fragment of written language. Language evolved as a means of communicating about and making sense of the world. In allowing our interpretation to be constrained by the text, we act as if we can see what the writer was pointing to, and with what conscious intent he was pointing, when he penned the words.

Still, our exegesis might be wrong. God created the heavens and the earth, the Bible says – not just a scientific description of the heavens and the earth. And the witness: the new interpretation assigns a mighty important role to someone who never makes an appearance in the story itself. Even if we follow the most conservative exegetical practice we can never arrive at a universally-accepted right interpretation. We can’t project ourselves into the mental shoes of the narrator, seeing the world through his eyes so we can understand what sense he makes of it all, because we don’t know who the narrator is. Did we infer from the text what the witness must have been like, or did we just imagine him? At least someone actually wrote the story down; elohim left no record engraved in his own hand. Was there really a witness to the creation, or did the writer have to infer from oral tradition and physical evidence what must have happened so long ago? Maybe the tale began as a campfire story, an island of reassurance surrounded by the nighttime void. The whole project begins drifting toward the indistinct borderland between nonfiction and fiction, between reality and fantasy.

And so we force ourselves to turn back: this is true and real, this is redemption and renewal; God inspired the writer and personally revealed to us what the text means. But… we can never demonstrate to independent observers that it was really God speaking, or that we understood him correctly, or that we’ve entirely set aside our own personal perspectives. We have to create an interpretation that fits the evidence, then wait to see whether anyone else can see what we see. What if they don’t see – are we delusional? What if they do see – have we propagated a collective delusion, or perhaps unwittingly anticipated the next inevitable collective insight of our interpretive community? Did these thoughts go through elohim’s mind, or that of the witness, as together they faced that first dawn?

How would we be able to recognize the “right” interpretation? Our exegesis was careful and detailed; we tried to set preconceptions aside; we arrived at an internally consistent reading. In traditional hermeneutics we would look for the message that the writer embedded in the text, also seeking spiritual enlightenment from God as to the meaning he intended to convey. But if we set aside the possibility of hearing directly from the author and try to extract meaning directly from the “raw” text, there’s no way of knowing how our interpretation corresponds to the truth of the message. The narrator isn’t around to confirm or to discredit our understanding; besides, he might not have understood everything he was reporting. A radical relativism would dismiss the truth idea altogether: if there’s no way of knowing what the truth is, why worry about it? Let hermeneutics be fruitful and multiply, without regard for which of the alternative readings is the “right” one:

Hermeneutics sees the relations between various discourses as those of strands in a possible conversation, a conversation which presupposes no disciplinary matrix which unites the speakers, but where the hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts. This hope is not a hope for an antecedently existing common ground, but simply hope for agreement, or, at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement… united by civility rather than by a common goal, much less by a common ground. (Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 318)

Unconstrained by the need to discover any underlying truth, hermeneutics becomes a work of pure imagination, no more subject to independent verification than the spiritual interpretations of medieval scholars.

* * * * *

What’s remarkable, and what might completely undermine the creation-versus-evolution dispute, is that some of the brighter lights in the evangelical firmament are moving out of the traditionally tight text-centered orbit into a more free-floating hermeneutic. The literal hermeneutic that reached its zenith among twentieth-century fundamentalists is increasingly discounted by some evangelicals as symptomatic of a broader rational empiricism that virtually defines modernism in its disregard for spirituality and tradition.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, a twentieth-century philosopher, argued that texts could never give up their “truths” either by treating them as empirical data or by trying to understand the writer’s intentions. What readers look for and find in any text is determined in large part by the culture and the historical moment in which they’re inextricably embedded. We can never free ourselves from our historical and cultural context, so our readings are inevitably biased in ways we cannot even recognize. We can never extract the objective meaning from texts; all we can do is interpret texts from within our own limited perspectives.

Postmodern evangelicals increasingly endorse Gadamer’s conclusions, acknowledging the impossibility of ever arriving at the definitive reading of any Biblical text. The closest we can come is to identify the normative reading of what Stanley Fish called the “interpretive community”: those people with whom we share a similar orientation to interpreting Biblical texts. For Christians the interpretive community is the church – not just the local church, not just the worldwide twenty-first century church, but the church universal throughout history, perhaps even extending back into the Jewish community before Christ. Postmodern exegetes in the Gadamer-Fish tradition try to identify the historically normative beliefs of the church universal, beliefs that not only shape hermeneutical decisions of the interpretive community but that also presumably influenced the canonical writers, themselves participants in this same community. The Biblical canon is itself a collective product of the interpretive community of its writers. No longer constituting imperfect renderings of the eternal Logos; now the Scriptures are artificially stable manifestations of a constantly changing tradition. To use a flagrantly anachronistic analogy, reading a Biblical text is like studying a single still shot extracted from a very long movie in which all the characters are at the same time the directors and the screenwriters.

As applied to Genesis 1, this postmodern evangelical hermeneutic asserts that the text was written within a culture that wanted to assert its belief in a single all-powerful God who created the material universe. The text shouldn’t be read empirically, as if it were a factual account of how and when the universe came into being. The text might be a poem, or a story, or even a polemic – a text not meant to be read literally, as if the author had intended to convey information. What’s important is to recognize the shared beliefs of the canonically interpretive community that gave rise to the text, then to arrive at an interpretation of the text that reflects those beliefs. A reading of the Genesis 1 narrative that questions the central premise of a single God creating the material world is to read out of context, even if that reading preserves a literal rather than an allegorical understanding of the text.

It’s not clear just how important the problematic creation narrative has been in causing the evangelical community to rethink strict Biblical inerrancy. We recall that Jesus’ treatment of Old Testament Scripture as authoritative became foundational to the inerrancy position. Now a revision is underway: Jesus and the New Testament writers regarded the Bible as an authoritative source of revelation to be sure, but they also extended, perhaps even distorted, the meaning of Biblical passages beyond what the writers probably had in mind, and also beyond how first-century Jewish readers were likely to read them. The evangelical community also seeks to reestablish greater continuity with the historical Christian tradition, a gesture that has led to the rehabilitation of the early Church Fathers, of Augustine, even of Aquinas, all of whom were practitioners of spiritual exegesis and who, as we have seen, rejected the strict literal reading of Genesis 1.

Ans so it is that “post-evangelicals” increasingly accept what would have been anathema a generation ago and what remains so among mainstream evangelicals: that Genesis ought to be read as a mythopoetic homage to the creator-God rather than as a source of propositional truth about how the universe was created. Seemingly overnight Biblical literalism has become expendable, whereas preserving the historical Judeo-Christian tradition of a God who created the material universe ex nihilo has become even more essential. We employed a literal empirical hermeneutic for reading of Genesis 1 and, incredibly, we arrived at an interpretation that described God’s creation of literal empirical hermeneutics itself. Ironically, we’ve achieved this interpretation just at the moment in history when evangelicals are moving toward contextual, subjective, even allegorical hermeneutics. The potential impact of our new literal reading of Genesis 1 is undermined from within the very constituency that might have had the most to gain.

There’s even a tendency for the post-evangelicals to question the importance of language as a source of revelation. Encounters with God are existential, mystical, impossible to capture in words. Language is a consequence of man’s separation from God. When perfect union with God is restored, the need for language and its interpretation can be done away with. The Genesis 1 narrative describes elohim using language right from the beginning, even before the Fall in the Garden of Eden which presumably separated man from God. But if the Genesis 1 story is no longer to be taken as literally, then the words of the text were imposed by fallen man long after the fact. God’s speaking becomes an anthropomorphism, a way of describing events in which language played no part. Again the irony is striking: God creates language and communication, but the Church decides that linguistic communication with God is irrelevant.

 

NEXT: The Creation of History

 

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15 Comments »

  1. I understand that most posts are a lot shorter than the ones I’ve been putting up. Is this terminally dissuasive from readage thereof? I just came this review of Dawkins’ atheism book. It’s a really long post, and it got 60 comments in 24 hours. It’s a pretty darned good review, but it was, after all, a review. Do we presume that most of the commenters read not only this megapost but also Dawkins’ book?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 31 October 2006 @ 6:48 am

  2. As applied to Genesis 1, this postmodern evangelical hermeneutic asserts that the text was written within a culture that wanted to assert its belief in a single all-powerful God who created the material universe.

    We employed a literal empirical hermeneutic for reading of Genesis 1 and, incredibly, we arrived at an interpretation that described God’s creation of literal empirical hermeneutics itself. Ironically, we’ve achieved this interpretation just at the moment in history when evangelicals are moving toward contextual, subjective, even allegorical hermeneutics. The potential impact of our new literal reading of Genesis 1 is undermined from within the very constituency that might have had the most to gain.

    Interesting points.

    We have the ancient construction of meaning based upon the text. We have a post-evangelical reading of the text. We have your own interpretation as a literal rendering of God’s creation of meaning/language.

    Any chance they all hold validity? I’m not talking about equal validity, but simply validity for a specific cultural context. If God did create the universe ex nihilo, as well as creating man for an experience beyond language, as well as creating imagination/hermeneutics/language/meaning (per your suggestion)……then perhaps the significance of each of these creative dimensions become greater or lesser depending upon which aspect of faith is most crucial to a particular cultural context.

    Creation ex nihilo matters greatly to some if the philosophical paradigm demands a first cause. Yet in the absence of such a demand this takes on lesser significance.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 1 November 2006 @ 5:24 pm

  3. Did you ever directly address the question of why the interpretation of the creation of hermeneutics is doomed????

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 1 November 2006 @ 5:27 pm

  4. The multiplex reading of text harkens back to medievalism, doesn’t it, even if the kinds of readings being considered are very different from the ones Aquinas put forward. In the Methods section I specify that I’m going for a literal reading. There are well-known conundrums associated with all the other literal readings I know of; e.g., creating the sun after creating the flowering plants of earth. I take my shots at these in the exegesis, though I don’t dwell at length on them.

    As for experiences beyond language, I offer only the methodological difficulty of validating interpretations that cannot be justified empirically either by the words or by the things the words refer to. Again, I specified in Methods what hermeneutic I was going to employ — a hermeneutic that both a Calvinist and a scientist could understand. Slipping out of that kind of tight reading is what’s happening today in postevangelical circles: the evangelical exegetes are accused of knuckling under to the empiricists. Hence the doom…

    The doom is in the quote you cited in your first comment: I offer a literal, internally consistent and scientifically compatible reading of the text just at the moment in history when the evangelicals are finally prepared to move away from a literal bottom-up reading to an allegorical presuppositional reading. Paradoxically, what we discover in the literal reading is the creation of literal readings: the witness’ understanding of elohim’s speech, our understanding of the witness’ text. It’s paradox followed by irony, that old postmodern one-two punch.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 1 November 2006 @ 9:19 pm

  5. Let me take issue with your distinction between “literal” and “non-literal” interpretations.

    I actually came accros a brief blurb in a book I was reading last night on Derrida in which it was mentioned he had a problem with the distinction between “literal” and “metaphorical.”

    Are such categorizations really helpful? Or is there some harm in working within such a tight distinction between the two?

    In the past, Conservative exegesis has developed rules and regulations for interpreting literal/metaphorical/allegorical meanings: how to discern the use in the text and how to interpret these passages. While I see the validity of this (I sincerely do) I also see a danger in pre-determining how to interpret a text before actually engaging a text. This is the problem I have with the dichotomy you are working in for Genesis 1.

    What Genesis 1 is may be “literal” or “non-literal” or “metaphorical” or “allegorical” – or, most likely, some combination of the above. But personally I care very little about what we call the text. What I would prefer to do is engage the text itself and look for meaning.

    In some circles the battle of Genesis had turned into a battle for a “literal Bible,” which for many means a battle for the Bible itself. While on the other side evolutionists who are eager to make room for their precious scientific findings want Genesis to fit their agenda. The result is that neither side really seems all that interested in Genesis 1, itself, as much as they are concerned with greater issues.

    As for me, I would just like to open up the text and let it go. Let it speak, and set aside the literal/allegorical debate to engage the text and allow it to impact the reader/community. That’s my approach. It is a suspension of external debates for the purpose of dialogue with the text.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 2 November 2006 @ 5:38 pm

  6. Now we’re getting to the doom part. “Literal” means roughly and intuitively what? That the speaker/writer is using words conventionally in order to convey information and to orient the listener/reader to that information. Metaphor, poetry, sarcasm, lies – these are some of the various non-literal uses of language. You can say with Derrida that all speech/text is partially allegorical, and that’s true in the sense that words can never do anything but tell you what something is like rather than what it really is. But to think that post-evangelicals would blur the meaning of literal to such an extent? Remarkable.

    You know what I mean when I say I’m striving for a literal meaning of Genesis 1: I’m trying to figure out what the writer is trying to tell me, what info he’s trying to convey, to what truth or event or idea he’s trying to bear witness. When we read blog posts and comments we’re doing just that: trying to understand them literally. If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that at least 95% of all communication is intended to be understood literally. The writer usually gives a pretty clear signal when the intent is other than literal. If that signal is not given, you assume that a straightforward communication is intended. If subsequently you determine that some non-literal meaning was meant, then you are likely to decide that the writer/speaker was being deceptive.

    So I say I’m going to read Genesis 1 literally, as a straightforward communication. The text certainly reads like a straightforward narrative, in continuity with the historical material that follows in Genesis. There’s a certain rhythm and structure to the passage that distinguishes it from a contemporary piece of reportage, but it’s reasonable to assume that the events just went that way: somewhat repetitive and formulaic from day to day. It’s also easier to memorize and repeat texts that have rhythm and repetition, so there would have been reason for the narrator to build this sort of structure into the narrative.

    What factors distinguish Gen. 1 as anything other than a straightforward narrative intended to be read literally? One: it’s apparently wrong in certain key ways. Do the evangelicals admit that it’s wrong, errant? No. Therefore two: other creation legends from the same era are, by our modern lights, exaggerated for effect; therefore the exaggerated genesis legend is defined as a literary genre. Gen. 1 is of the genre; it presumably differs from the rest in that it was inspired by the God who really did create the universe. This becomes the standard post-evangelical interpretation of Gen. 1.

    So now I come along with a literal reading that contains no factual errors or conflicts with generally-accepted scientific findings. But the post-evangelicals don’t care any more; they’ve already moved on to allegory and poetry and saga-legend literary genre. Here I am ready to save the Bible from error at its most vulnerable spot – the first person in history to do so, maybe – and am I going to be celebrated as a hero? No: my work will be ignored by the church. It doesn’t support the presuppositions about what the text means; it relies on a literalist hermeneutic that the church now denigrates as an ill-conceived attempt at emulating modernist empiricism. Doomed.

    You say you want to let her rip as an exegete? Go ahead. You want to let the text speak? That’s what I did, if you read my exegesis from start to finish. I entered into it, let it tell its truths, elaborated on them extensively. I superimposed no genre theory and no presuppositions; I let the narrator tell the tale and I listened.

    Just know that, when the worm turns again, there’s this literal inerrant reading sitting around gathering dust. Maybe it’ll be 30 years from now. Wait a minute, you’ll say: where’s that exegesis from Doyle? But Doyle will be long gone, his blog abandoned, his book never published. Perhaps, though, you’ll remember enough of it to reconstruct it. And in that day I will be vindicated, though I won’t be there to savor it. But hey, I’m working for future generations, right? The fools, the poor fools! Muahaha! Oops — I do get carried away sometimes, don’t I?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 2 November 2006 @ 9:49 pm

  7. If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that at least 95% of all communication is intended to be understood literally.

    Fair enough. I’ve think along the same lines.

    other creation legends from the same era are, by our modern lights, exaggerated for effect; therefore the exaggerated genesis legend is defined as a literary genre. Gen. 1 is of the genre; it presumably differs from the rest in that it was inspired by the God who really did create the universe. This becomes the standard post-evangelical interpretation of Gen. 1.

    Genre! Awesome!

    I love genre. It’s so important. It’s not the alpha and omega because it is a somewhat fluid and flexible process. Not all literature fits perfectly into a particular genre, so we need to respect a text’s individuality, but that brings us back to G1.

    My personal feeling is that the text, itself, of G1 opens itself up for allegorical or metaphorical interpretation. As such, I am not as harsh on those dastardly post-evangelicals. I allow for some textual ambiguity.

    However, your perspective is one I had never considered and it has opened up G1 in a way I had not considererd. So, even if your account is “doomed” it is not doomed on its own merit. It is just that Evangelicals have much bigger fish to fry: it’s about evolution and inspiration and inerrancy. We can’t be bothered by the text!

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 November 2006 @ 6:48 pm

  8. Poetry as a genre, sure. But myth? This seems at first blush like an ad hoc, after-the-fact rationalization, a way to reclassify errors as deeper truth. It’s also kind of ironic, since nonbelievers contend that the whole God-faith thing is based on myth. To have evangelicals say yes, this part is myth, but it’s inspired myth — what the heck is that all about?

    I’ve started reading Caputo’s The Weakness of God. He says Jesus’ life is a parable, but it’s a God-inspired parable…

    Some guy on McKnight’s blog asks this: can we decide something is myth that the author believed was factual?

    The alternative I offer is one in which a literal reading blurs the distinction between man and God almost to the vanishing point. It forces a choice: can I accept a literal inerrant reading that shows a weaker God and that violates presuppositions about what the passage is about? The doom is that the evangelicals would rather allow inspired mythology that supports the presuppositions, even if it opens the door to guys like Caputo, than to accept a God who might really be a man or even a group of men, like atheists believe. I can’t say I’m surprised.

    Do you allow for the kind of textual ambiguity that admits flat-out error in the text?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 3 November 2006 @ 10:54 pm

  9. For the most part I reject the fact that many of these discussions take place at a strictly theoretical level with little to no interaction with the text. So, if you ask me:

    Do you allow for the kind of textual ambiguity that admits flat-out error in the text?

    Then I would ask you which text you would want me to turn to and what the “error” in question is.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 7 November 2006 @ 5:18 pm

  10. As a general rule I believe there exists a certain fact-aphobia on the part of atheists and conservatives. conservatives laugh at the stupid atheists who disbelieve in the face of all the evidence, and the atheists (crf. infidels.org) laugh at the stupid conservatives who believe in the face of all the evidence.

    I think the so-called “evidence” in many of these debates is way overblown.

    However, as you would probably guess, I don’t joing the crowd that completely dismisses historicity.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 7 November 2006 @ 5:22 pm

  11. In Genesis God creates flowering plants before he creates the sun. Almost certainly that’s factually wrong. Or the Flood covering the whole earth: that too is almost certainly wrong. Must there be always be a rationalization; e.g., by proclaiming genre and myth for which “truth” is an irrelevancy? Would anyone ever be willing to say that on some things the Biblical authors made a mistake?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 November 2006 @ 9:10 pm

  12. I’m off to the movies. Anyhow, my point on this post is that evangelicals used to assert unassailable truth in Scripture. Invoking genre and interpretive communities for making sense of Scripture are ways of relativizing the flat-out literal readings of truth for which the Reformers are known. This downgrading of literal truth makes my literal rereading of Genesis 1 irrelevant to the ways in which post-evangelicals are moving into the future. Agree?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 November 2006 @ 9:16 pm

  13. Again, my point is an ironic one. I did an evidence-based literal reading of Gen. 1, leading to the paradoxical conclusion that the narrative describes the beginning of literal evidence-based readings (elohim’s reading of the world, the witness’ reading of the words of elohim). Simultaneously, for the first time since the Reformation the evangelicals are prepared to downgrade the importance of its evidence-based literal hermeneutic. I don’t disagree with your post-evangelical hermeneutics; I’m just pointing out the irony that dooms my “revolutionary” exegesis in the evangelical world. I think you would agree that this drift from literal hermeneutics is happening, irrespective of whether it’s the first step on a slippery slope or a necessary minor adjustment.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 8 November 2006 @ 10:45 am

  14. I agree that the so-called “literal” truth is being downgraded by post-evangelicals. I do not see this as a slippery slope. I do see it as an adjustment made necessary by the leaps and bound that language and hermeneutical theory has made in the past century. The previous models of hermeneutics that have drawn strict dichotomies between literal/figurative language are, to put it in the kindest terms possible, grossly oversimplistic.

    We cannot go to a text with pre-conceived notions of how the language of that text “should” be operating. (We have an idea of the shouldness of the language b/c this idea is the precondition for reading.) But the danger is that our shouldness becomes so restrictive that the text is no longer allowed a natural reading, or to operate on its own terms. So, each time we encounter a text our shouldness should evolve and change as needed to accomodate our new experience with a new text. (Or even with an old one that we have reread.) As such our “How to Read a Text” manual that is stored in our minds should changed with each textual encounter as needed.

    (On a side note, I think that we quite naturally adjust to allow our minds to accomodate a text. It is only when the wise amonst us tell us the “proper” way to read a text that we begin to say to ourselves “oh yes, this is the way to read a text.” So our natural “How to Read a Text” manual which would otherwise naturally adapt to a text now simply dominates any reading of a text. This has been the danger of hermeneutics classes and methods of the past: The fluidity is gone.)

    The literal/figurative dichotomy damages texts because it creates a dominent hermeneutical question: Is the text literal or figurative? And yet the text may fit neither definition. And if it doesn’t fit either definition then we force it to fit a definition for sake of maintaining our preconceived dichotomy.

    That’s why I cannot, at this point, fully subscribe to your reading of the text. Not because I want to “allegorize” or make the text “figurative,” but because I simply do not believe in the literal/figurative dichotomy. For as much as I have benefited from your reading of Genesis 1 (and I will continue to emphasize how illuminating your reading is) the weakness I see in it is that you are still perpetuating the literal/figurative distinction. You want to cater to those who are looking for a “literal” reading. But the fact that this catering is “doomed” is not because you have failed to be literal, but because a literal reading is not, in reality, what the so-called literal crowd really wants to preserve. The issues are much deeper. A literal reading merely guards issues like: A particular scientific theory, a theology of inerrancy, etc. The theology of inerrancy guards against the onslaught of Liberalism, which seeks to undermine the Bible as non-historical, and we can’t have that because if there is any part of the Bible that is non-historical than our whole faith is bankrupt….and so the cycle goes…..The interesting thing is that many people have moved on past the Liberal/Conservative dichotomy and have just simply rejected it. Even Liberalism (capital “L”) as a theological movement is pretty much dead – or at least it has moved on past the polarizing dichotomies.

    I don’t think that your exegesis needs get involved in this dichotomy. I think it can stand well enough on its own without having to appeal to the literal crowd. In this way you can escape the impending “doom.”

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 8 November 2006 @ 7:18 pm

  15. I’m more interested in creation than in interpretation anyway. I believe that my reading of Genesis 1 is an act of creation, and that all interpretations, even “literal” ones, contain elements of creation. So if we move toward creative readings of all these texts, then (I suggest) we are embodying the elohimic ethos of Genesis 1. So maybe there’s an overcoming of doom after all.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 8 November 2006 @ 10:09 pm


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