Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Language versus literature" in the pulpit

I have nearly finished my degree in English Language and Literature. I have enjoyed pretty much all of it (though writing about the Benin Bronzes was pretty painful), and it is proving to be the jump-off point for lots of different reflections.

One is in relation to what happens in preaching, and Bible teaching. Frequently, teaching from the Bible can sound like literary analysis. The teacher takes a text, links it (apparently arbitrarily) with other texts, makes connections (apparently arbitrarily) with some of his own ideas and perspectives, makes (apparently arbitrary) assumptions about different aspects and shades of meaning, and draws (apparently arbitrary) conclusions. This is highly consonant with where we are culturally. From a literary point of view, there's a strong strand which says that meaning is not inherent in the text itself: it is imposed on the text by the listener/reader - hence, we can have black, or gay, or Marxist, or green readings of texts that apparently have little otherwise to do with those perspectives. But if one person derives a specific meaning from a text, it is quite possible that another person might derive a meaning which completely contradicts this. The effect of this understanding of the nature of the text and meaning is that any sense of authority of the text is completely undermined. The teacher explains a text - but this interpretation is just one amongst many; it only has force if you share his or her perspective; and if you don't, then you are free to ignore it. It raises the question of what exactly would be the point of Bible teaching - perhaps it's considered to be some shared existential experience which makes us part of the Christian community, but is not considered to have any real force.

However, this degree highlighted the fact that, in addition to the literature perspective to studying a text, there is also a language perspective. This was very interesting to come across - at various stages in the course, it became clear that the language approach was different. Writers on the language approach were reluctant to criticise their faculty co-members, but the divergence was clear. Firstly, they said, if you lose the idea of context, then you lose most of the meaning of a text. They talked in a Hallidayan way about register variables - field, tenor, mode. All of these have a bearing in understanding a text. And they said, with some deference to their colleagues, whilst different interpretations were possible, some were definitely preferable to others. In effect, whereas the literature approach puts the focus on the reader, the language approach places it back on the text and its purpose as originally written.

This will come as no surprise to Bible teachers from certain backgrounds. One of the thrusts in the Proclamation Trust approach, for example is to "take the listeners to Corinth". The literature approach takes words from 1 Corinthians, for example, disregards the context, and tries to go straight to understanding what it means to us. Proc Trust argue that to understand what it means to us, you need to understand what it meant to the people who heard it originally. Similarly, if a text was written as poetry (for example) then you don't try and interpret it as though it is a scientific treatise.

Or take the use of concordancing. This was introduced to us in E303, Grammar in Context. The idea is, if you want to understand the meaning and significance of a word, then look at how it is used elsewhere in the corpus. But this would be no surprise to those of us who have done Bible teaching. We are used to looking at how words are used throughout the corpus - so when we use the word "faith", for example, we know that we aren't using it in the modern, culturally-conditioned sense of "a leap in the dark". We don't only do this using one translation or version of the Bible, but refer to concordances in the original languages - Greek, Hebrew - to try and get closer to the actual meaning of the word. If we are using words in a way that is different from the way in which they were intended, then we are distorting the meaning.

What is the importance of all this? For Christians, we need to understand what the nature of Bible teaching is. It's not a subjective, literature approach, where meaning is all down to the reader/listener's interpretation. It's a language approach, where whilst we may not be able to fully unpack the meaning, we do accept that some meanings are more accurate than others. This further means that the message of the Bible is an objective matter - it's not something for people to take or leave, on the basis that someone else might interpret it differently. You may reject what a Bible teacher says - but if it has been faithfully explained, you are rejecting not an interpretation of the Bible, but the Bible itself.

Don Carson, in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, set about challenging what I have called "the literature perspective" and other ways in which postmodernism has altered our thought forms when it comes to understanding Christianity. But as far as I remember, he did not make reference to the fact that the language part of English faculties already assumes a greater role for objective meaning. It's not a simple question of "us against the world" - we have co-belligerents when it comes to epistemology.

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