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Faithful Intepretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World

A. K. M. Adam

Posted Sunday, November 11, 2007 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Culture and TheologyHermeneutics  

How does a postmodern read the Bible? A. K. M. Adam has given us a very helpful view for how a postmodern can read the Bible and use it in their life. The largest step which Adam makes (in my opinion) is that he moves away from determinate meaning and away from an overarching universal criterion for interpretation. But he does not thereby move to  complete relativism, since he says that some interpretations are only possible while others probable. The way that he draws this line is to bring in local criteria. For example, if he gave a bizarre interpretation of a particular text, then those around him would censure him in various ways, either directly or through ignoring him. Hence, this will define what can be a possible or a probable interpretation. But even with a bizarre interpretation he says that there would be some who would probably accept it, and then presumably it would be a valid view among that local group. He says that we should welcome a variety of interpretations because it reflects the diversity of creation: we should not try to stifle interpretations that are different than ours, because that just is a blatant power play, but we should glory in these various interpretations. Quoting Stephen Fowl, he says that texts do not have ideologies, but we bring our ideologies to the text. Hence, Matthew is not anti-Semitic for Adam because it cannot be anything. He does not like the imitation idea from Jesus and Paul, especially Paul, because he sees the command to imitate him as another power play. In its place he proposes the idea of repitition, where we repeat what others have done, but adjusted to our own context. Somewhat predictably, he ends the book with a strong defense of homosexuality in the church.

While the book is a fascinating and easy read, there are several unanswered questions for me. The first I will call the "stop sign" problem. Adam discusses the stop sign several times in the book. He notes that drivers stop at an octagonal red sign only because of a local concept: because in this culture that kind of sign signifies that one needs to stop. But if the sign was different and written in Chinese, then the American would not be held culpable for not understanding the sign. But then Adam adds that they would be held culpable for denying the  underlying command exists. This seems to go against Adam's whole thesis: the red stop sign might need to be translated, but the idea behind it is absolute for all. So why can't there be an ultimate meaning for a biblical text? The closest that Adam gets to explaining this is that the Bible is a literary text and different from a stop sign, which is more simple. But I think that there is more of a parallel between these two types than Adam grants. He could state that the stop sign is a single incident, which is different than the complex literature which we find in the Bible. But there is no text without a context: there is no abstract stop sign without contextual clues.

The other problem is what I call the "Nazi problem". The Nazi's are the whipping boy of ethical discussions, but they do provide a nice example because virtually everyone says they acted in a wrong manner. The problem is what happens when the local criteria are wrong, as in the Third Reich. An interpreter could present a strongly anti-Semitic viewpoint and be encouraged by his community and pass the local criteria. How does the local criteria function work when it is broken? Adam never addresses this issue in the book, and I think that this problem is the Achilles heel of any pure community or local model. One possible way around it is to say that the interpreter should have moved away from purely German criteria and brought in more criteria from other countries. But this moves us ever closer to universal criteria, which is exactly what Adam tries to avoid.  When he talks about his bizarre interpretation, he says that it would be accepted by some, so presumably the interpretation is valid as long as some accept it, so it cannot be rejected simply because it does not conform to a larger circle than the local circle. Presumably Adam would also respond to this charge with a call to ethics: the Nazi reading is not an ethical reading. But this simply creates another problem: What is an ethical reading? The Nazis certainly thought that they were being ethical, and if we say that they were wrong then we are simply executing a power play, in postmodern terms. I simply do not see any way that an indeterminate view of meaning can handle the Nazi problem.

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