Friday, October 12, 2007

A recitation of Hebrews 9-10

Hat tip to Knotwurth Mentioning — my university-aged son! — for calling attention to the video embedded below.

It's very cool that my son is old enough to be a partner in dialogue! Knotwurth was responding to my post on philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Spoken Word, Sacred Text. He quite rightly saw that this video illustrates Ricoeur's point:
It is the function of preaching to reverse the relation from written to spoken. In that sense preaching is more fundamental to Hebrew and Christian tradition because of the nature of the text that has to be reconverted to word, in contrast with Scripture.


 
At one point, people are moved to applause — but tentatively, as if they're not sure it's an appropriate reaction. Later, they just let 'er rip. It isn't often that a congregation is transported by scripture like this!

12 comments:

Knotwurth Mentioning said...

Your quote is particularly striking for me, because that's exactly what's amazing about this video. He has the passion of a pastor, and yet he's simply reciting scripture. Most of the time, the pastor casually reads the scripture, then gets passionate over the message he has to offer!

Suddenly, how these things could have been so moving for the culture in which they were contrived makes a lot more sense!

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for this Stephen.

Now it's my turn to be cynical!

How much of the applause was generated by the emotion he brought accross in his passionate recital and how much by a comprehension of the content of what he said? I have to confess, I find Hebrews incredibly difficult to follow, but I do believe that Jesus has achieved something of apocalyptic proportions for me. So when I watch this recital, I also feel the burning sense that I belong to something great and powerful, without at the same time fully grasping what has been said.
So, in relation to your Ricoeur post, what sort of 'life' has been imparted to the audience: the 'life' of one who has come into contact with the transforming truth of the Gospel, or the 'life' of one who has been aroused by a passionate reaffirmation of what we think we know anyway?
I guess you can tell by this that I am critical of Ricoeur's points: he makes a theological statement concerning the status of textuality in Christian life (“The spoken word has a unique spiritual power — greater than the spiritual power of the written word”), but grounds this theological judgement in a historical-critical reconstruction which by definition tries to locate itself outside of the very tradition it seeks to reconstruct. In other words, whether, as Ricoeur (or perhaps you, I guess I'm more interested in what you think then Ricoeur) says, “communities were initially founded on oral tradition which was later reduced to a fixed, "sacred" text”, or not, the tradition eventually found canonical expression in such a way that text became decisive for the community's understanding of its relation to God. Moses wrote a book, it was in terms of Joshua's adherence to this written document that his entire mission succeeded or failed (totally aside from its verbal proclamation). Judges charts the constant failure of the people for not walking in the ways of the LORD, which mean, not oral tradition but the Law of Moses, as revealed at Sinai etc. The convenental relationship revolved around a book (I'm reading throught the OT in conjunction with the Exploring the Old Testament series and have only got as far as Judges so far, so I'll stop here).

In Acts, one group (I forget their name) evaluate Paul's message, not on the basis of his rhetorical skills (which he himself explicitly downplays!) nor on the basis of the fact that his verbal 'imaginative construal' of their sacred scriptures was somehow more spiritual or powerful, but on the basis of what their written scriptures said when they read them. It was the ability of Pauls message to accord with the Jewish Scriptures that gave his message validity and nothing else (see my thread on this: “in accordance with the Scriptures”). Thus, Ricoeur's observation that “It is the function of preaching to reverse the relation from written to spoken” can only be a phenomenological description of what happens in a church service at best, but it can't be a theological claim about the nature of Scripture and its inherent 'textuality' for the church. If this is the only ground he can stand on, then his lamenting of the closing of the NT canon is a dangerous move indeed. There is a lot more involved then simply eliminating our freedom to do with the text as we like!

Some additional thoughts:

Closing the canon does not mean fixing interpretation. A closed canon simply sets us with boundaries, within which legitimate interpretation may take place, outside of which threatens heresy (unless you feel that the Gospel of Thomas has a legitimate place alongside the Gospel of John?). Within this boundary, a lot can happen (hence the title of my major thread: “Interpretation Within Boundaries”) As Riceour says: the church must reform in order to conform to the word of God in the Bible. What makes this word come alive is not human creative ingenuity but the Holy Spirit, who convicts our hearts, often apart from the rhetorical power of a preacher, even despite it, so that the true Word of God which it faithfully contains is driven home into our hearts and brings about trure life. Within the history of interpretation,the distinction between the 'literal' and the 'spiritual' sense was not a distinction between written and preached word, but between a more limited and more profound sense of textual referentiality (e.g. is Egypt a geographical location or a type of all human bondage, the place we were before our salvation and which keeps tempting us back?)

As for Brueggemann, I still intend to get back to him at some point on my blog (I'll just say for now that simply asserting the pluriformality of the Bible does not tell us how to read it. It does not automatically follow that we have a smorgasbord of options which we can now choose from, depending on whatever we feel is more appropriate to our situation. The whole issue of 'intertextuality' needs to be looked at here: the complex and creative way the texts of the Bible relate to one another and thus constrain our interpretation of them, as latter readers who come a collection of texts which are now closed and shaped for us). You should read Childs' response to Brueggemann's OT Theology (to which Brueggemann responded, though I think he missed Childs' point).

Concerning the verse you opened with: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life”. Jesus was the Son of God, come to fulfil Israel's Scriptures and inaugurate the kingdom of God. In that sense, he had a unique relationship to these Scriptures that can't be imitated by either his apostles or us. His words (necessarily spoken given the nature of his career) were spirit and life not because they were spoken. He is not make an ontological statement about the nature of spoken words. Rather, they are spirit and life because of their content. Whether read or heard, they become for us the “spirit and life” only by virtue of a third person, the Holy Spirit. In this sense I concur wholeheartedly with your last paragraph (though not your last sentence):

“Those are humbling experiences, when the preacher realizes that s/he is not responsible for the spiritual dynamic. The preacher has been the conduit for a mysterious external force:  a power (ruach) that cannot be summoned at will, but comes and goes at the pleasure of Another.”

I hope this doesn't come across as too critical! I appreciate your contributions and look forward to more!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Phil:
I am delighted that you decided to take up my original post on Ricoeur and interact with it! I am not in complete agreement with Ricoeur. And if I was, I would expect to be challenged on such a radical criticism of the canon.

But first, regarding the recitation from Hebrews —

How much of the applause was generated by the emotion he brought accross in his passionate recital and how much by a comprehension of the content of what he said?

Actually, I found myself getting new insights into the text as he recited it. He certainly didn't rush through his presentation: I could read it much faster alone in my living room. So there was time to let the meaning sink in. And some of his physical gestures constituted a dramatization that brought out the meaning of the text for me. (I believe Knotwurth had a similar experience.)

More importantly, I wouldn't want to choose between the two options you mention in the above comment. Intellectual comprehension is the response of only one part of the human person. Emotion is another valid, even necessary response. Both play a part in a comprehensive comprehension of the text. I still find myself welling up with tears sometimes when I read the Gospel accounts of Christ's crucifixion. If I ever cease to have that reaction, I will understand the texts less well.

There's an expression, some things are "better caught than taught". The Holy Spirit flows best from one human being to another: hence the practice of the laying on of hands. Yes, the word of God is a vehicle of God's Spirit even in its textual form. But, in my experience, a human-to-human delivery of the word possesses unique potential for the quickening and convicting work of the Holy Spirit to take place.

Regarding Ricoeur's original post — let me begin with this comment, which brings us to the nub of our different perspectives:

Within the history of interpretation,the distinction between the 'literal' and the 'spiritual' sense was not a distinction between written and preached word, but between a more limited and more profound sense of textual referentiality (e.g. is Egypt a geographical location or a type of all human bondage, the place we were before our salvation and which keeps tempting us back?)

Again, I find myself wanting to affirm what you affirm, while also affirming what you want to deny. That is, I don't disagree with your allegorical interpretation of Egypt. That is one legitimate way to "spiritualize" a text.

But I also want to affirm what you deny: that the spoken word has greater life-giving power than the written.

Key here is Paul's phrase, "the letter kills". In context — shockingly — Paul refers to the letters written on tablets of stone: i.e., the ten commandments.

The ten commandments do not kill: except if they are wielded by some authority figure in the synagogue or church who applies them in a merely human way. Then the ten commandments can be a destructive implement.

In part, your canonical approach is the solution to that problem. The ten commandments must be wielded with a comprehension of everything the Bible says about God's nature (including God's eagerness to forgive)and human nature (not least, human frailty). So a canonical approach goes a long way to preserving us from Paul's concern, the potential power of the Decalogue to kill.

In addition to the canonical approach, I might speak of a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit (who guides us: when is it time to take a hard line, and when is it time to be gracious), and a large measure of basic human compassion (modelled for us by Jesus).

But here's the thing: in all this, we are moving away from the written text, toward the spoken text. It is not the words on a page that save us; it is the text mediated through a wise, biblically-literate, spiritually sensitive, compassionate pastor. Anyone who has been part of a congregation with a different sort of pastor will tell you what a destructive, killing force the written text can be. This is the pastor who insists that he is only upholding what the text says, but somehow leaves a path of destruction and death in his wake.

Ricoeur makes a theological statement concerning the status of textuality in Christian life … but grounds this theological judgement in a historical-critical reconstruction which by definition tries to locate itself outside of the very tradition it seeks to reconstruct.

I suspect you're right, Ricoeur would take us too far outside the ambit of the written text. That doesn't preclude me affirming what he says about the superior power of spoken word to save.

The tradition eventually found canonical expression in such a way that text became decisive for the community's understanding of its relation to God. Moses wrote a book, it was in terms of Joshua's adherence to this written document that his entire mission succeeded or failed.

I continue to think you are too uncritical of the process by which the canon was determined. In my view, the pastoral epistles (which were not written by Paul) are an example of a deliberate imposition of orthodoxy; the pastorals were crafted to blunt some of the more radical statements actually penned by Paul (e.g., on the role of women in the church). So yes, the canon does exert a hermeneutical control, via intertextuality; but no, it is not necessarily the control that God intended. Here I am much closer to Ricoeur's (or Brueggemann's) position than Childs's.

Re your second sentence, about Joshua. Do we know that Deuteronomy, for example, was written by Moses? Childs would follow critical scholarship in denying it, wouldn't he? Therefore Joshua didn't have the Penteteuch as it is known to us. Joshua had a personal experience of the man, Moses, and his teachings. Some of those teachings may have been written down by Moses, or a scribe overseen by Moses. But it is reductionistic to suppose that Joshua was obeying the same book that you and I are reading.

It was the ability of Pauls message to accord with the Jewish Scriptures that gave his message validity and nothing else.

Not even the work of the Spirit? I'm sure you don't mean "and nothing else."

Anyway, here we are on very tricky ground. I don't pretend to have it all sorted out. Is the Jewish (non-pauline!) interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures legitimate? You know better than I do what a vexed question that is.

Having read Levenson's critique of Brueggemann, I'm prepared to accept that Childs ultimately does a better job of leaving the door open to a Jewish interpretation of scripture than Brueggemann does. I mention this because, in my view, there are other interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures which are contained in the NT itself. I think not only "James" (whoever wrote that letter) but also Matthew would have taken serious issue with some of Paul's interpretations of the OT.

Thus Paul represents one school of interpretation: indeed, the dominant one among Christians. But not the only legitimate one.

Let me turn Levenson's critique back on you. I think Childs carefully establishes various interpretive paradigms, then leaves them hanging there without ultimately reconciling them. (I've been looking at Childs's commentary on Exodus, and it seems to me that that is precisely his program.). It is that approach which Levenson embraces: an approach that does not finally close the door on the Jewish (non-pauline) interpretaion of the OT.

But the implication is, Brueggemann is right in theory (if less right in practice). The scriptures are multivocal (my preferred term). We ought not to use intertextuality as a principle to blunt Paul's message, or Matthew's, or the Deuteronomist's. We must allow the multiple voices to have their say, and not try to smooth away the resultant tensions. We must inhabit those tensions, for that is the nature of the book that God has vouchsafed to us.

You should read Childs' response to Brueggemann's OT Theology (to which Brueggemann responded, though I think he missed Childs' point).

I would be happy to read it. Is it available online? Otherwise, perhaps you can provide me with a reference to look up.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your response Stephen,

time is unfortunately knapp (as they say in Germany), so a brief response on my part.

Intellectual comprehension is the response of only one part of the human person. Emotion is another valid, even necessary response.

I don't disagree with what you have to say about the power of a well preached sermon. It's just a matter of the direction of movement. You said: “Intellectual comprehension is the response of only one part of the human person. Emotion is another valid, even necessary response.” Totally. But I think that the emotion follows from the understanding, which is primary. This point is made in the header of a new blog I've discovered here. Of course, reality is far messier, but I think it's important to have in the back of our minds the utlimate nature of the issue, like a lighthouse that guides us through stormy times.

The ten commandments do not kill: except if they are wielded by some authority figure in the synagogue or church who applies them in a merely human way. Then the ten commandments can be a destructive implement.
I'm not sure how an emphasis on preaching over reading gets us out of that dilemma. If preached well, they give life; if preached badly, they don't. But in both cases they are preached. The same applies to reading.
Anyone who has been part of a congregation with a different sort of pastor will tell you what a destructive, killing force the written text can be.
Here I make the same point as above. This isn't a distinction between written and spoken word, but between good and bad pastors. A good pastor can also say “it is written”.
the superior power of spoken word to save
This is a theological statement. How do you come to this conclusion? By observation of what happens, like a pneumatologist watching for how the spirit works best? These kinds of statements need to be grounded in some way, and I'm not sure that describing what one sees is an adequate basis for determining whether something is salvific or not. It can play a role, but surely only a supplementary one to exegesis ...

So yes, the canon does exert a hermeneutical control, via intertextuality; but no, it is not necessarily the control that God intended.

Here I apply the same criticism as above. This is a theological statement. How do you now what God intended? How does one go about determining that? I would have thought exegesis would be the answer. You'd have to demonstrate it exegetically in order for it to be binding on how we understand how God works (which is what I'm trying to demonstrate on my “according to the scriptures” sub-thread). Intertextuality is extremely important to theological interpretation (you could replace the word 'typology' with intertextuality in my most recent post on Genesis to see one example of why this is important).

But it is reductionistic to suppose that Joshua was obeying the same book that you and I are reading.

I wasn't supposing this. I was saying that according to the traditions (however one conceives of them historically-critically) some concept of a 'book' has been central to the relationship between Yhwh and his people. Which book is irrelevant, but it shows that in some sense Christianity is a 'book religion'. And it was the book that was important, not its actualization in preaching (again, I refer you to my comments at the beginning: in reality it's difficult to separate the two, but it's still a matter of direction and emphasis).

Not even the work of the Spirit? I'm sure you don't mean "and nothing else."

It's a question of how the Spirit works, not if.

I think Childs carefully establishes various interpretive paradigms, then leaves them hanging there without ultimately reconciling them.

Could you expand on this? I'm afraid I don't know what you mean.

We ought not to use intertextuality as a principle to blunt Paul's message, or Matthew's, or the Deuteronomist's.

This is a misunderstanding of intertextuality. It certainly can be used to blunt a message, but that applies to most methods. Intertextuality is a rather vague concept that still needs precision. I hope to write on this further.

We must inhabit those tensions, for that is the nature of the book that God has vouchsafed to us.

This is exactly the issue under debate between Childs and Brueggamann. What is the nature of the Bible? My Genesis 22 post vaguely touches on Childs' approach, but I hope, at some point, to address this issue in more detail.

All the best! We have more in common than my few critical remarks would imply.

Phil Sumpter said...

I just read a relevant quote from Ancient Hebrew Poetry (not that it supports my point at all):

"The form of access [to the meaning of Scripture] is personal – holistic, embodied, and social – not strictly cognitive."

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Phil:
I appreciate your comment. You make a lot of good points. I suspect our respective positions may boil down to a different emphasis. You emphasize the documents, I emphasize the spoken word, but we both understand that both are important.

Exegetically, I note that you haven't responded to Paul's statement, "the letter kills". On the positive end of the equation, I would point you to Rom. 10:14-17, which makes the case that the preached word saves:

… How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Re Joshua: I didn't place my emphasis where I ought to have. Here I will simply repeat that Joshua knew Moses personally. He had seen Moses in action, heard the commandments articulated by Moses face to face. So your Joshua example doesn't really help your case.

More generally, I think that relational element is always present. Moses and Paul are no longer among us. All we have are the texts they have left behind (that and the Spirit of God). However, those texts are always mediated through a human individual or community.

I don't think that human mediation is accidental or unfortunate. I think it is part of God's design, and it places an enormous burden of responsibility on those of us who would dare to preach.

Re Childs:
I plan to follow up with a post on his Exodus commentary. I'll be very interested in hearing your response, because I'm sure you'll be able to fill in some significant gaps in my knowledge.

Phil Sumpter said...

Sorry about this late response. With this new follow-up service I should be able to track these things better. Time is short, so once again a brief response:

I'm sure you're right, we are probably emphasising the same thing differently. However ...

I think the "letter kills" statement is more than a statement about written words versus spoken words. I think its about staying on the surface of something rather then going to its substance. I don't see speaking coming into it.

The same applies to the verse on 'preaching the good news'. This is doing evangelism, not doing theology. There, the interpersonal dimension is indespensible. In theology it is too (agreed), just different. Paul couldn't have recommended that evangelists go around distributing biblical scrolls. Again, this has nothing to do with a reading/hearing or writing/speaking dichotomy. To be honest, beyond your quotes of Ricoeur (which are based on phenomenological observation) and your interpretation of the John quote, I don't see how you can privilege speaking over writing.

The Joshua account only emphasises a book. The book takes precedence over the person of Moses. It is the Word of God which must be held to. The account nowhere implies that it is only through a personal knowledge of Moses that Joshua could interpret the text properly, so that it was 'living' rather that 'dead'. It wasn't just Josh, but also all the judges and future kings who were commanded to read in the book everyday, meditating on it day and night (Deut. 17.14-20; cp. 1 Sam. 17:14, 19-20). Although community and interpersonal relationship are significant, and God uses that, it is God himself who makes his word come alive or not, and that can happen independent of the community (as the narratives seem to imply, with stories of righteous individuals amongst a wicked generation).

I do believe in the communal dimension; I'm still not sure how to relate that fact to interpretation of the Bible, but its reality does not mean that spoken, or taught, theology is by definition always better. The irony is, that I often argue for the importance of the personal dimension with people who believe that all we need is the Bible, read privately in our bedrooms!

I look forward to your treatment on Childs.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Beyond your quotes of Ricoeur (which are based on phenomenological observation) and your interpretation of the John quote, I don't see how you can privilege speaking over writing.

My conclusions are based on:

• My personal experience of the efficacy of preaching, at least when it's done well;

• The quote from Ricoeur, which is insightful because it sees a correspondence between a fact of Christian history and a fact of Christian practice. The fact of history is, there was a long process of oral transmission that preceded the creation of a written document. The fact of contemporary practice is, we always return from the written text to an oral proclamation of that text.

• Hints in the biblical text itself: Paul's statement that the letter inscribed on tablets of stone kills; Jesus' statement that his spoken words are spirit and life.

You rightly point out that I am making a theological assertion in this post, and you ask where it comes from. I think the three bullets above constitute an adequate foundation for reaching a theological conclusion.

You are free to reach a different conclusion, of course. But I insist that my conclusion is legitimate.

Phil Sumpter said...

Sorry to keep dragging this out (I hope you don't mind). What significance do you give the fact that the church, up until the 18th century, never read the text according to its tradition-historical development. I.e. Deuteronomy had always been read as the fifth book of the Pentateuch, and not as a polical document written to support the Josianic regime? Or that gen. 22 was read according to what it says, not not as an aetiological cult legend explaining the name of a hill (i.e. a possible meaning of parts of the text in its early oral stages). I don't see how, in this light, the oral development of the text can be seen as significant theologically when Jesus was never comprehended in terms of its stages. It's not a matter of the early church not being educated enough to know better, it's a matter of the hermeneutic they employed to unlock the identity of the potential messiah.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

What significance do you give the fact that the church, up until the 18th century, never read the text according to its tradition-historical development.

I'm not sure that I accord any significance to it.

What matters is not whether the Church engaged in historical-critical reconstruction in the 18th C. What matters is that we now know (clearly Childs agrees on this point) that there was a period of oral tradition, during which the biblical editors felt free to adapt the source material, combine diverse sources, update the narratives to reflect contemporary developments, introduce editorial comments, etc., etc. Telling and retelling the stories, regularly introducing modifications, some of which "stuck" and were ultimately included in the written documents.

Perhaps entire books (e.g. Deuteronomy) were created and attributed to ancient personages. I'm not well-read enough on the debate over Deuteronomy to have anything like an informed opinion. However, it seems to me that what is envisioned is a re-narration of Moses' history, with a new polemical thrust (e.g. Jerusalem as the only legitimate place of worship).

Throughout that long period, then, the biblical editors felt it was right and proper to freely revise the source material to fit it to the contemporary situation. There was no such thing as a sacrosanct text during that period.

The written documents were later edited in their turn. But you need to grasp the sovereign freedom of that period of oral transmission: fidelity to the tradition, with a simultaneous flexibility in how best to recount the stories.

I don't see how, in this light, the oral development of the text can be seen as significant theologically when Jesus was never comprehended in terms of its stages.

I guess we're talking about two slightly different things. I'm not talking about historical-critical scholarship. I'm talking about oral tradition (then) and preaching (now). Obviously there was preaching during the 18th C., too.

That period of oral transmission was crucially important for the Gospels. For example, later conflicts with the Pharisees were read back into the Gospels. This is what I regard as significant: the oral delivery of the message adapts it to contemporary circumstances in a way that breathes life into an otherwise static and increasingly irrelevant text.

We don't do quite the same thing in the Church today. But we do take the biblical texts as source material for sermons, which seek to apply the ancient message to contemporary circumstances, and which are open to the quickening and convicting work of the Holy Spirit. It's parallel to the early stage of oral transmission: more or less as Ricoeur claims.

Why was it OK for the Israelites of Josiah's era to invent whole new books of scripture? Who were they to revise the narratives about Moses in that way? Why is the text that they produced authoritative, if it doesn't actually trace back to Moses and his encounter with YHWH? If it was legitimate for them to exercise such sovereign freedom over the tradition, why must we stay within the boundaries of canonical "clues" about the "correct" interpretation of the text today?

The authority of Moses, I understand. The authority of some anonymous Israelite of Josiah's era putting words into Moses' mouth — that I don't understand.

But I do understand that the spoken word has a unique spiritual power. The Church is always returning from the static message of the text to an oral delivery, adapting the written word to the contemporary needs of God's people.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your thoughts Stephen, I look forward to interacting with you on this whole Brueggemann/Childs topic. I count it as a real blessing to have found someone who is so into Brueggemann and who can provide me with the kind of conversation I need to get these issues more or less clear in my head!

I think it makes more sense to carry on the conversation in relation to your most recent post, to which I now turn ...

Oh, P.S. I should point out that I don't necessarily subscribe to the historical-critical theories that I outlined above. I just wanted to point out what kind of things are being said, which in turn, if accepted, are problematic. But you know that already.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I agree about the value of the conversation. I'm still just getting to know Brueggemann myself: it's just that it was immediately obvious to me that he is coming from the same "place" that I'm coming from. I got there not by studying Brueggemann, but by years of reflecting on the problem of the historical Jesus.

So now I'm trying to understand Brueggemann (and, more challenging to me, Ricoeur). The dialogue with you, presenting Childs as a foil to Brueggemann, is helping to clarify the issues for me. Thanks for dialoguing respectfully.