A semi-regular attempt (in other words, as I have time) to explore the interaction between God and the adolescent world, especially the connection between theory and praxis (otherwise known as practical theology). Primary emphasis will be given to the role of the church (and especially the emerging church) in this process.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Language and Control

As someone whose career revolves around words (both spoken and written), I am always fascinated by the way words are used and defined. It's not uncommon for various groups to use the same word, but to have attached radically different meanings to the word, thus ensuring that the groups wind up talking about subject A but from opposing viewpoints.

This has led me to consider carefully the work done by scholars such as Hans Frei, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul Ricoeur, and George Lindbeck (to name a few). These scholars came to the recognition that language plays a powerful role in the way we interpret issues. Of particular importance is how the community plays an important role in interpreting the language that we hear.

Which raises an interesting question. Which is primary: the language itself, or the interpretive community?

My understanding of Frei and some others would lead me to say that the text itself is primary. However, I'm not sure I can buy that. I want to align myself more with folk like Hauerwas and Lindbek and state that the interpretive community actually carries the greater weight.

In saying this, am I denying that the Bible is the Word of God? Of course not. But what I am proposing is that the way God's word has been interpreted over time has changed pretty significantly. While I am not a true bible scholar, I remember from my seminary classes the incredible number of interpretive influences on hermeneutics just within the last 100 years. Each interpretive school has made often sweeping claims that IT has finally found the proper way to interpret the scriptural text. In reality, each new interpretive school has simply proposed another (sometimes new) way of looking at the time. Yet the one thing that is true for all these methods is that THEY ARE READ IN THE CONTEXT OF A COMMUNITY.

Paul Ricoeur firmly believed that there is an intrinsic relationship between the text and the reader. Therefore, it is impossible, he says, to ever truly know the intent of the author or to decide how the original audience interpreted the meaning of the text.

Please note that Ricoeur is NOT arguing that for a deconstructive view that simply allows us the opportunity to impose our own views on the text. Rather, he would posit that the text needs to be heard anew by each succeeding community as a testimony to the revelation of God and a summons to faith.

Last week, I was listening to NPR on my way home. A reporter was discussing the revelation a month or so ago about the Bush administration paying reporters to advocate certain programs, and how the Bush administration has created "news" clips for airing on local news stations that are in reality nothing more than a plug for some proposal the Bush administration is advocating.

Now, I'm not wanting to get into whether I like the Bush administration (I don't), nor into the validity of what they are doing (while I believe it is wrong, I also realize they are not the first administration to practice this).

The reason I bring this up is that, as the reporter was discussing these issues, he made mention of how many newspapers have their own "style book." (For those who don't know, a style book is how one chooses to handle certain literary/grammatical issues. Perhaps the most commonly known style book is The Chicago Manual of Style, which is often viewed as the "bible" of style.
Each publishing group will often start with a general style book such as Chicago, and then adjust things as they see fit for their particular institution. Thus, they create their style book, which controls how their writers should handle these various literary/grammatical issues.)

The reporter went on to say that many well-known papers had decided that certain terms that the Bush administration used, especially in reference to the war in Iraq, would not be used in their papers, as the editors of the style book felt that this gave credence to these terms. As the reporter closed his report, he uttered a phrase that struck me. He said, "Those who control the language, control the agenda."

While he was talking in the context of the news media, my mind immediately jumped to the issue of how various interpretive communities look at the text of Scripture, and I was forced to ask myself: Who is it that currently controls the language of biblical interpretation? And what is the agenda that is being put forth by such language?

I'm concerned that in the current debate over hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that too much of the language is being controlled by those in the modern camp (especially those in the Reformed tradition) by their tendency to hold onto propositional truth as the axiom by which one lives his/her life and therefore, the lens through which Scripture is interpreted.

What is their agenda? It seems to me that a large part of their agenda is to package what it means to be Christian into their viewpoint. Unless one adopts their way of seeing, of interpreting Scripture, then one is definitely in the wrong, and quite possibly not even Christian.

As I re-read the blog entry by Albert Moehler criticizing McLaren's book, A Generous Orthodoxy, I was struck again by his insistence that we need propositional truth. He somehow believes that without these propositional truths we will "hop, skip and jump throughout the Bible and the history of Christian thought in order to take whatever pieces they want from one theology and attach them, like doctrinal post-it notes, to whatever picture they would want to draw."

And yet, could it be that Moehler himself fails to recognize that he is interpreting McLaren through his particular interpretive community (modern, reformed, Southern Baptist, etc.)? Sometimes we become so entrenched with an idea or philosophy (an agenda?) that we fail to consider alternative possibilities. When this happens, the danger is that we become cut off from the discussion, and unable to converse with others. Like my explanation at the beginning, we use the same words, but with entirely different meanings than those we are talking to hold. As a result, we simply talk past one another.

When it comes to language, again I ask, "Who controls the theological language today?" And what can we who are unsatisfied with their agenda do, not to gain control for ourselves, but to allow more people into the conversation? This seems to me to be a primary question we in the Emerging church need to ask and answer.


Blogger Kyle said...

Perhaps the way of grace is to discuss the meaning of words with these folks, and to lay aside the loaded words. For example, agree that one will not use "orthodox" as short hand for "propositional modernist reformed interpretation of scripture" or "whatever my pomo doctrinal patchwork is today."

That should be fair enough, right? That's a helpful post; thank you for it.

10:05 PM


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