Friday, March 12, 2010

Hermeneutical Method: Random Thoughts

Reading through a review of my friend and mentor's latest contribution to scholarship, Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation is one, exciting, and two, fraught with the potential for bias against the reviewer, in this case, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, because David is my friend and one I have always looked up to. Nevertheless, with this disclaimer out of the way, my following comments raise the issue of hermeneutical method in general and probably speak to my own biases on this issue.

Fiorenza criticizes deSilva's labeling of other hermeneutical approaches (i.e. liberationist, feminist) as 'ideological interpretations'. She claims that in effect, deSilva's contemporary-historical-critical approach is too, idealistic (2). Fair enough, as she well notes "that all readings are ideological and that the 'rhetorical situation' of the text and that of the reader determines all interpretation and engenders multiple readings" (2; italics original).

Interestingly, deSilva does indeed value these other readings. deSilva labels these disparate approaches under a 'fifth key' namely, contemporary-historical approaches. He states that idelogical interpretations are "generated by readers deeply aware of, and engaged with, their own social locations of reading" (deSilva; 7). Second, deSilva labels liberationist readings as "important...though with a very specific goal" (deSilva; 7). Similarly, feminist readings such as those produced by Schüssler-Fiorenza and others are "important readings, wrestling specifically with the gendered images and language of Revelation, asking whether or not any reading of Revelation can still be liberating for women" (deSilva; 8). Important for deSilva is to note that there should be "no hard and fast lines...drawn  between feminist and (other) liberationist readings"--an assessment with which Schüssler-Fiorenza agrees (deSilva; 8).  This latter point is important when deSilva lays out his own methodological approach:

In this book I seek to contribute to opening up Revelation's composition, construction, meaning, and significance using this fifth key. In particular, it will do so by giving close attention to John's rhetoric,(italics original) both in terms of the rhetorical strategies and effects resulting from John's choice of the genres in which to communicate to his hearers and in terms of the ways John fulfills general expectations, current in the first century, of a public act of communication geared toward persuading.  Like liberationist readings, (italics mine) this reading will explore how Revelation holds the practice of modern churches within a particular range of social locations under a critical yet healthful lens, offers a critical perpsective on the domination systems within which we live and with which we cooperate, and challenges us to respond in ways that renew the prophetic witness that John exemplified and to which he called his own congregations (deSilva; 8).

There is much more I could say regarding Schüssler-Fiorenza's critique, however, the one question that keeps bugging me is this: "Should we privilige certain hermeutical methods over others?" I am not saying that liberationist, post-colonial, and feminist readings are unimportant, but should they be held to the same level of importance as the contemporary-historical approach which, Schüssler-Fiorenza considers an "outdated hermeneutical method" (2)? It seems to me that adducing what John meant in his original context and applying that application to churches today is the responsible route to pursue in doing justice to the text. I have no poblem in recognizing that the application of what John meant will vary with respect to differing contexts within the church; what does bother me is the apparent diminution of the historical-critical method among proponents of 'ideological readings'.

Moreover, as demonstrated above, deSilva adopts a liberationist hermeneutic in his methodology. Secondly, he maintains that ideological readings are "deeply aware of, and engaged with, their own social locations of reading"(deSilva; 7). If deSilva adopts his own liberationist reading, does this not imply that he too, is deeply aware of his own social location?

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