Text & Experience: Towards a Cultural Exegesis of the Bible
Daniel Smith-Christopher, ed. Text & Experience: Towards a Cultural Exegesis of the Bible. The Biblical Seminar, 35. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995. 354 pp. $28.50 pb. ISBN 1 85075 740 2.
This is a collection of eighteen essays that were originally presented at a conference in March 1992 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. In his introduction Smith-Christopher explains what he believes to be the essence of what he labels "cultural exegesis." The term has two dimensions, both of which have to do with understanding of the biblical text.
On the one hand, there is the conviction that certain cultural contexts can have a deeper empathy with and comprehension of certain texts, because their lifestyles and social settings are similar to what is depicted in those texts. This conviction goes hand-in-hand with the now widely recognized hermeneutical phenomenon that no interpretation is value-free or wholly objective. The recent interpretive climate has just now begun to welcome the positive contributions of readings from other quarters beyond the Western, urbanized, Anglo, academic paradigm. On the other hand, and this for the editor is a further (ideal) step, these parallel contexts and life experiences in the present also can give new insights into the historical meaning of those biblical texts themselves. In other words, the interplay can go both ways: from text to reader response and from reader to text.
Space will not permit a summary of all of the essays (although some do deserve special mention), but it is also possible to catalogue the essays into three broad categories. To begin with, several contributions are historical studies that detail the impact of context in the past on interpretation. For example, Eskenazi's tracing of Jewish approaches to their sacred canon from the Targumim to recent times, Washington's exposition of the role of women in early Quaker biblical study (seventeenth century), and Barton's analysis of Wellhausen's classic Prolegomena to the History of Israel from the last century are a mine of fascinating glimpses into how diverse socio-historical realities and religious traditions have impacted how the Bible has been received and utilized to sustain communities or defend particular academic positions.
A second set of essays attempt to consciously read different passages in both testaments with specific ethnic and national lenses. This group forms the bulk of the book, and the perspectives range from African-American (Kampen; Reid) to North American Hispanic and Native American (Segovia; Archambault and Tinker) to Latin American (Milligan; Richard) to African (Mosala; Mafico) to Asian (Yieh; Wan; Kayama; Vellanickal). These chapters can offer interesting comparative data to consider in the study of the biblical text. A few of the essays of this second group also present extended theoretical discussions on various dimensions of "cultural" interpretation, such as the move toward an intentional sensitivity and commitment to the reader's context in any interaction with the biblical text and the questioning of dominant interpretive frameworks (e.g., Reid; Segovia; Mosala).
A third set of essays come closer to Smith-Christopher's hope that these newer interpretive stances will inform the original historical meaning of the biblical texts. For instance, Kampen discusses how and why Negro slaves in the Southern United States gravitated to some of the Old Testament apocalyptic literature. Their interest was not based solely on the desire for an escape out of history to an otherworldly and transcendent future, but rather more fundamentally was grounded in the necessity of putting their present sufferings into a new perspective; perhaps, he suggests, scholars could reconsider their sometimes too neat distinction between the more realistic narratives and eschatological visions (he mentions in particular the bifurcation between Daniel 1-6 and 7-12). Kayama utilizes the purity strictures imposed on the outcast caste within Japanese Shintoism (the Burakumim) to explore some of the interpersonal dynamics within the Gospel narratives and the story of Cornelius in the Book of Acts.
There is much in this volume that will be of value to the interpreter, as different cultural perspectives indeed can illuminate many a biblical passage in ways that perhaps the reader might not have ever imagined. Some of these texts actually can be visualized, so to speak, in the open air markets, the shamanism of folk religions, the customs pertaining to the role of women and to the dead, and in the cruelties of warfare that are the warp and woof of life beyond North American and Western European borders. All of the chapters are of reasonable length and can repay a thoughtful reading.
At the same time, contextualized approaches can raise a whole host of methodological and theological issues that surface directly or indirectly in the essays. For example, one must ask how close a correspondence is actually possible between modern contexts and ancient settings. Also, does greater resonance with the biblical narrative necessarily guarantee a more accurate reading (cf. Overholt)? These queries should motivate the interpreter to do careful work in both contexts. In truth, one can see how short-sighted work has cut both ways: those committed to the modern context can sometimes give only cursory attention to the ancient world in the rush to allow the text to come alive for the contemporary context; more classically trained scholars might do serious study of that ancient context and then seek a few applications to modern life, without appreciating just how much closer other parts of the world are to biblical realities than their own and how they might lead to new, hitherto unnoticed, interpretive insights.
A second potential problem can arise if an interpreter who is not from one of these more "Third World" contexts attempts to read the Bible as if he or she were. Here, the danger can be one of well-intentioned naivete. This perception crossed this reviewer's mind, for instance, in Milligan's essay on the Roman Catholic Base Ecclesial Communities of Brazil. Subsequent reports from Liberation theologians after a series of theological and political setbacks in the 1990's revealed that the number of these groups and of their active members, as well as the nature of the readings going on within them, did not actually reflect the optimistic and politically aware profile that some desired them to have. It is also interesting to observe that Milligan criticizes the evangelical 'sects', when the explosion of growth among evangelical groups probably more accurately mirrors the religious life and aspirations of the masses - a fact that even liberationists now acknowledge.
Lastly, one who desires to do contextualized biblical work must also think through the meaning of the nature of the inspiration of the text. If one concedes that a text was penned in a certain context, does this statement then lead to speaking about the ideology of the author(s) and of the production of the text? If so, does the interpreter then move to critique that text's ideology as somehow inadequate and even worthy of rejection? Some within this collection readily question the 'ideology of the text' (note especially Mosala). It is one thing to say that the Bible has been used in destructive or oppressive ways; it is quite another to say that these sort of ideological perspectives are inherent within the text itself. A host of thorny theoretical matters come to the fore, and confessional commitments become an inescapable factor to consider in this contextualizing enterprise.
These closing observations are in no way submitted to discourage the reading of Text & Experience, but perhaps they can be kept in mind in the interaction with these essays. As I have said, there is much here to appreciate and appropriate, and the clarion call to let the entire world into the interpretive task is echoed by this reviewer.