Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible

Article excerpt

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.



As everyone in the Society of Biblical Literature knows, historical critics and postmodernists are entrenched, embattled groups that speak to one another across the field of biblical studies only in sniping, intellectually unengaged footnotes. Historical criticism has been the dominant approach in mainline biblical studies for at least the last century and was moving into that position for a century or more before that.2 It comprises the congeries of well-known methods such as source criticism, form criticism, grammatical studies, and archaeology, and it attempts to combine them in ways that wUl produce assured and agreed-on interpretations of the biblical text, whether these be understood as the author's intention, the understanding of the original audiences, or reference to actual historical events.

Postmodernism is characterized by diversity in both method and content and by an anti-essentialist emphasis that rejects the idea that there is a final account, an assured and agreed-on interpretation, of some one thing- here the biblical text or any part of it.3 Diversity in postmodernism includes not just different methods of reading and interpreting the Bible but also variety within any one method; narrative criticism, for example, is not a clear, defined approach that aU narrative critics employ in the same fashion.4 What unites this methodological jumble is agreement that no final or essential interpretation of the text is being produced. Other readings are always possible, and often invited. Postmodernism does not reject the need for rigor in the analysis of actual texts, but it does caU for the acknowledgment of one's approach, including its underlying assumptions and its goals and limitations.

We draw here upon Jean-François Lyotard's well-known definition in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge:

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.5

The postmodern appears "in the modern," as Lyotard says, but in the form of radical critiques of modernist ideology. This includes a critique of modernist understandings of history and reality and of the production of meaning, on which historical criticism depends. According to Lyotard, postmodernism is "incredulity toward [traditional and modern] metanarratives"6 such as those of modernist historical scholarship.

Postmodernism lives within the same modernist metanarratives, but it is not "at home" there. Moreover, it does not await the intrusion of some transcendence, and it knows of no "other place" to go. As Fredric Jameson says, "We are left with that pure and random play of signifiers that we call postmodernism, which no longer produces monumental works of the modernist type but ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage."7

As an aside, we mention an issue whose full treatment is beyond the scope of this article: the explicit use of the term "postmodernism" and the claim that a book or collection is postmodern. Although we freely use the term "postmodernism," many of the works that we cite do not proclaim themselves to be postmodern even though they well exemplify the diversity and anti-essentialism of postmodernism. In contrast, evangelical Christian publishing houses now regularly issue books with "postmodernism" in the titles whose content may well not correspond to postmodernism as considered here. These evangelical tides are typically attempts to "baptize" postmodernism and to capitalize on current popular terms such as "postmodern" and "deconstruction" on behalf of evangelical theology. …

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