Thursday, July 30, 2015

Imaginative Construals and Canon Criticism in the Era of Postmodernity

(From someone who I was having a listserv dialogue with some years ago)

First, thank you very much for your astute and heartfelt words on WB.  In both of your messages, your WB quotes get at the essence of his core message at least in his powerful essays.  I haven’t studied his more formal writing in any depth, so perhaps he is a bit more systematic there in his book on Genesis and Theology of the Old Testament.  I assume there’s a fair amount of “leakage” there, too, though perhaps not as much as when he is writing “imaginative” (quote meant positively) essays in his confrontation with the hegemony of postmodernity.  I enjoyed his collection, Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living a great deal and found in particular, “The Legitimacy of a Sectarian Hermeneutic” based on 2 Kings 18-19 nothing short of stunning, where WB speaks about being at and behind the wall in addressing the claims of the empire.  I also found his essay “The Third World of Evangelical Imagination” very rich in “daring speech” (my quotes, mimicking WB) about God in the very epicenter of secular modernity/postmodernity.

I’ve mentioned here what I take to be the core of WB’s project in the piecing of postmodernity one verse, one miracle, one revelation at a time, and the quotes that you provided in both of your messages provide a substantive demonstration of such piercing.

In terms of the canon, you point to its “unfathomable diversity.” No doubt there is a great deal of range, but I would still rather say, unfathomable depth.  One can discern such in Romans alone in Paul’s complex exegesis on the relationship between grace and the law.  Then there are the particularly poignant chapters, 9-11 where he’s struggling with his religious progeny, through an incredibly diverse use of the OT scripture in his various arguments by analogy (as exhibited throughout Romans).  The evocation of such speech undoubtedly had a powerful impact on the early church as if God himself were speaking through Paul’s words—speech which still resonates today for those who have ears.  The subtlety of 9-alone bears comment in his own grappling with the meaning of the new covenant in light of the permanency of the original one: “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake (accent on the last three words), but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (accent on the last 6 words) (Rom 11:28). 

And as previously written in Romans, “If their fall is richness for the world and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness"” (11:1-12).  “For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (vs 15).  Then, after three rigorous chapters of this intense wrestling he can only but accept what to human beings can only seem profoundly paradoxical: “Oh, the depth and the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (11:33). As someone on the list put it, “I find the Gospel very exciting and out of control, at least of our control...”  Thus, Paul, himself seems to be downright Brueggemaniann in his “imaginative construals” of the OT text in his preaching of fresh words in and about the Gospel of Christ. 

The reconstruction of the Deuteronomic text through the mouths of the prophets in light of the Babylonian exile is another profound grappling with the narrative, which WB tells so well.  In short, fresh interpretation streams throughout the biblical narrative that at least to some readers brings home the core point that, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  Accent here on “All Scripture” and “is profitable,” which speaks to potentiality, but nonetheless, all scripture, a point that WB does not deny, but then I get troubled when he privileges certain texts over others, which at least puts in jeopardy the notion of all scripture.

WB is the master of drawing out the imaginative depth of the individual text and in that he offers much potentially both to hungry liberals and conservatives seeking a fresh word of truth in a land that may be very dry.  In his wrestling with the text WB is a consummate preacher and expositor.  I take no issue with that, which I view moreover, as his primary gift to the modern/postmodern church.  What I do find troubling is an almost dogmatic-like aversion to the “grand narrative” of the canon as a whole, from Alpha and Omega to various points between.  While I agree with you that the biblical text can be domesticated, it not need be so and does not have to be to the extent that preachers, teachers, and other communicators of the Word honor both the text and the context in which the Word and people are situated.  Of course, this is what WB seeks to do, but I think we do have to look closely at his core project of “funding” postmodernity, which he views as kairotically integral to the times in which we (in the west) live.

I, for one, do not dismiss the potency of this moment; this off-centered (geographically defined) Christianity in which marginality rather than Christ the center defines the primary space of where so many people who are willing to hear the Word, live.  That has defined my own space for a very long time, one that I know quite well, which has its own allures and appeals, and who am I to say that it is not authentic space.  This Christ at the margins is a very real space where many who sit in our pews, and perhaps more than a few pastors, as well, live.  What WB does is to give them voice and in that he is making a substantial contribution to mainline identity and in the process he re-introduces the legitimacy of the Bible.  This is no small achievement.  His “angular” interpretation speaks to this mode.

I want to keep this angularity and the imaginative construals that fresh interpretations evoke.  I want to do this, however in a way that honors the canon in its entirety; the grand narrative as well as the many little stories that comprise this constructed text.  This, I believe, WB has not adequately grappled with, and, in fact, exercises a profound hermeneutics of suspicion against any such project, as indicative in his ongoing canon criticism of biblicist Brevard Childs.  The question that I pose back to you is what do we do with the grand narrative?  Is this simply part of a mythopoetic legend that speaks an idiom of an ancient world, but has no applicability today?  Be clear, I, too, want to separate the wheat from the chaff of critical historiography and modern scientific understanding, and the allures of obscurantism have no appeal to me either. 

That said, we still have to deal not only with the matter of interpretation, but the standards upon which interpretation is based; the standards upon which our faith is grounded; particularly the relationship between the text and the world.  What I find in the serious evangelicals like Bloesch, Fackre, Erickson and others is a profound grappling with the challenges of modernity/postmodernity, while at the same time, when push comes to shove, viewing the Bible as interpreting the world rather than the world setting the context in and through which the Bible is interpreted.  Obviously, the relationship is more complex in that there is considerable interplay between these two— complexity always leaking out against our best construals.  This I grant.  Nonetheless, we do have to decide at some level below having complete or perfect knowledge and our decisions are invariably based on where our ultimate vocabularies and commitments reside.  At his best moments, WB is nothing short of prophetic in his electrifying imaginative construals, which, in the very act of his speaking (writing) it is as if God is piercing postmodernity that is grasped at the moment of reading.  That is obviously very powerful and to lose that is to lose much.

Even still, and this is where I want to raise a very big issue, to what extent does he see funding postmodernity as he describes it in Texts Under Negotiation as THE kairotic moment of our times?  For if that is our times, then WB's marginalized but very powerfully spoken Christian faith may be nothing short of the will of God for our times.  However, if he is holding onto this vision tighter than perhaps God intends, then perhaps there is some idolatry lurking in his insistence that marginality is in fact the key characteristic state of our times, or that even if it is, sustained inward cultural migration is simply not a feasible place for “serious” Christians to confront and address the world (Hauerwas).

Again, I'm very glad that you have raised these important issues.  I don’t think anyone here is saying there are simple answers.  Sill, there is direction and choices have to be made on the basis of where one locates ones ultimate commitments and vocabulary.  For me, the Bible, all of it, is a very solid place to go; a place I go with my eyes wide open and with a fair amount of knowledge of its many contextualizations, but where I go as a predominant resource as the Spirit leadeth.

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