Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

It has been a well-known fact that narratives have been used by empires to control the collective consciousness of the populations they seek to dominate. This has been an ongoing practice that dates back to the earliest of empires and is currently practiced by the conglomerative empire of western civilization and mosd81a56ad40996a0d500f6a706700daf2t directly expressed by its embodiment of the United States. And yet empire cannot be limited to national institutions but has expanded through modernity to include numerous other institutions (or metanarratives) which seek to universalize and centralize their power. As such it is necessary to include the more general institutions of democracy, communism, socialism, capitalism, the marketplace, and even religions. Each of these asserts itself through the telling of stories. These stories often seek to gloss over the injustices incurred for the purpose of further universalizing their claims. Therefore, whether it is dictating its seminal narratives to the exclusion of Native Americans and the stealing of their land, the manipulative retelling of events to justify or lessen the recourse for the stealing of labor through institutionalized chattel slavery, or the violence and war incurred in the name of some god, each of these narratives perpetuate the unjustly oppressive treatment of peoples.

Regarding the church’s collusion in this, it is not only disturbing but alarmingly so how any entity can affect such disruptive changes among the Christian community (within which I identify) that causes its members to empathize with and gravitate towards centers of power regardless of how despotic their actions may be. Instead of toward aligning with the powerless and marginalized as scripture clearly directs the followers of Jesus, many in the church have turned to the empires of this world. This, however, is nothing new.

raphaelLooking back at the third century one easily sees the historical developments that led to the Constantinian paradigm shift in the church. What is often not noticed is how the nuanced interpretations of such events effect the larger perception which eventually changes the trajectory of the community. For instance, many interpret the visions of Constantine as his conversion and therefore the justification for the resulting violence and political manipulation that took place in the following years. This has been a conclusion in spite of Constantine delaying his baptism until just before his death.

Now admittedly there are current assumptions that are read into these events that affect one’s interpretation, such as “baptism does not equal conversion or salvation.” This is a typical belief held by most Protestants. Ironically this has allowed them the ability to side with Catholicism’s affirmation of Constantine as the first Christian emperor. This occurs by tying the conversion of Constantine to his initial visions. On the other hand, the typical Anabaptist belief is that Constantine didn’t convert but only seized the opportunity to take power and use a fledgling religion to change the religious landscape of the church by syncretizing it with the empire (admittedly these are oversimplifications of these perspectives).

This illustration demonstrates how depending upon which tradition you embrace determines how you will interpret this pivotal event in history. And it is in the interpretive telling and retelling of these events that attempts to control the dominant narrative. In the end whoever rules the region, their telling of and interpretations of the events will be prevail. The one who holds the most power is able to tell the story louder and more often thus silencing the hetero-narratives. What is interesting in this is that each of the tellings express some form of the truth. Each, however, over generalize, edit, and emphasize, thus misshaping the actual events into mythological narratives that push their perspectives forward.

I’ve been wondering most recently as to the hermeneutical effects of a narrative telling that acknowledges the subversive nature of Constantine’s attempts to manipulate the Christian church while also allowing for his conversion late in life when he was baptized? For the Anabaptist tradition and those who follow along these lines theologically it would require them to rethink the extent of Constantine’s role in this paradigm shift and allow for the wisdom of the church leaders in discerning whether he was ready for baptism or not. A question likely asked would be, for example, “Has Constantine converted sufficiently to the ways of Christ enough to be baptized into the faith?” From almost 2 millennia away it is easy to pass judgment upon the church elders’ decision to accept him into baptism, but the details regarding his catechism and conversion are not adequately available to us. Therefore we are left to either accept the wisdom or make speculative judgments.

This matters significantly regarding hermeneutical questions in this context. Hermeneutics has everything to do with the questions we ask regarding a narrative as well as the judgments with which we conclude. Judgments are inevitable and there is always some degree of speculation when such great distances of time are involved. Even when studying the biblical text, interpreters make speculative judgments regarding the narrative. The question is whether the contemporary reader will adequately learn the context of the narrative allowing said reader to limit the judgments in scope. Additionally, there is the question of trust in the interpretive process also. When does the reader apply a healthy level of skepticism and when is it appropriate to trust the narrative of the community? These questions require judgments to be made.

IMG_0369If we shift this conversation back to the more contemporary context of the church in the United States, what we discover is that those in power are maneuvering to control the narratives. There are obvious attempts to silence the hetero-narratives by means of providing numerous spurious claims with no supporting evidence. Moreover, some in the church have confused the US political ideological conversation as an adequate framework to express the faith based convictions of Christianity. Moreover, in the zealous attempt to legislate those convictions they have compromised their faith by partnering with the empire becoming complicit in injustice. The basis of this movement, I believe, is the confusion of the empire (or empires of this world) with the kingdom of God. There necessarily can be no alliance between the two. Jesus taught in his sermon that a person cannot serve two masters. Unfortunately, in the process of making these alliances, some in the church have positioned themselves as enemies of their brothers and sisters in the faith.

The point of all this is that in the midst of the competitive tellings of these narratives, it appears that some Christians have chosen sides. The proverbial elephant in the room is that large swaths of the Christian church in North America (and perhaps Europe) have become apostate abandoning the “gospel” teachings of their founder, prophet and their God. The compromises made have put the church on a path that leads away from the cross and into the arms of those responsible for crucifixion. Instead of plodding the via Delarosa bearing their crosses on this way, many in the Christian community have chosen the gilded streets and ornate halls of power. Regardless of how the story is spun and the narrative manipulated, the “Truth” remains the same. And his teachings provide ample information to make plain how the events are unfolding. May God have mercy on the church, but not at the expense of justice for the least and most vulnerable in this world.

Empire & Hermeneutics

Posted: February 8, 2017 in Hermeneutics, Things of Faith

In his little book, Faith in the Face of Empire, Mitri Raheb writes regarding hermeneutics, “Interpreting a story is an art that requires much creativity and imagination. It is also a science. It is not an innocent science, but very closely related to empire. The empire wants to control the story-line—its meaning, production, and marketing. It does so consciously and often—far more dangerously—unconsciously” (pg. 23). In less than a weefaith-in-the-face-of-empire-the-bible-through-palestinian-eyesk I will be returning to the land where my faith was born. It is a remarkable place with remarkable people. While some have joked that it is a land filled with stones, it is more accurately a land filled with “living stones.”

Over the course of the last five years or so I have learned through the many stories and experiences of the people of the Holy Land that there is no more vivid truth than that this place is an intersection of converging and conflicting narratives. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the power to tell the story is controlled and monopolized by the governing empires. In the United States, the land of my birth, this has taken place in the ways in which the story of history is taught in public, private and home schools and various media outlets. In each context narrative choices are made and claims are put forth as universal truths. In each case these narratives are told from particular perspectives which have been shaped by the governing agencies that approve or disapprove of each telling. In addition there are individual narrative choices made by those in power in the classroom who then directly tell the narrative from a more nuanced and “personal” perspective regardless of any attempts to be objective (whatever that might mean).

Moreover, because we are children of western civilization and more specifically products of modernity we are consequently left with evaluative dichotomies such as, for example, “cowboys vs. Indians,” “north vs south,” “progressive vs. conservative,” etc. Even within academic contexts (where intellectual freedom is supposed to be evident) an underlining nationalistic narrative usually streams through. It is important to recognize that this is not an organic phenomenon. This is an intentional hermeneutical tactic systemic to the institution of nation states that endeavors to not only control the narratives told but more significantly to shape the corporate consciousness in the efforts to homogenize the identity of the resident population. In the United States this took place through “melting pot” rhetoric and intentional attempts to do away with “hyphenated-Americans” (Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, pg. 416). Incidentally, the nonviolent communities of the Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, Amish suffered under suppression efforts during both world wars as a result of this.

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Art Gish, 63, an American from Athens, Ohio, member of the Church of the Brethren and Christian Peacemaking Team Thursday Jan 30, 2003 (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

In much the same way, hermeneutical power is wielded around the globe by the empire in the attempt to shape public consciousness. The effort is to erase the “other” narrative in order to attain or sustain power over society. This, however, does not mean that there is no truth telling in the empire’s narrative, only that those truths told are used to place its own narrative in the best possible light to enable the empire’s pursuit of the expansionist goals. The hermeneutical threat that these endeavors pose to the Christian community is that the metanarrative of empire has discovered that “commandeering” the narrative of the Christian religion can have a semi-unifying result under the guise of “Christian nation,” while attempting to divide the Christian metanarrative along cultural and ethnic lines.

The most explicit effects of this can be seen by how the majority of western evangelical Christianity has turned its back on Palestinian Christians by universally accepting and supporting the modern nation state of Israel. The convergence of nationalism, evangelical dispensationalism and Zionism have had devastating effects upon the Christian population in Palestine. The way that the rhetoric of “terrorist” has been widely embraced and universally applied to the population of that region. The socio-political theology behind this convergence contradicts and marginalizes the teachings of Jesus and his sermon on the mount. While for western Christians this may not seem relevant to their experience, the efforts of the empire to delete or obfuscate the “other” narratives is now becoming evident in western society. The temptation is to see this as merely a political controversy. This phenomenon transcends politics; it involves the globalized corporate identity of capitalism and its partner militarism. The nonviolent discipleship of Jesus (Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, Immanuel, Redeemer, etc.) followers is more relevant and necessary today than it has been for centuries. The narrative of the “Truth” must be lived and told in such ways that both resist and protest the efforts of the empire. Christians must be diligent in their study and meditation of scripture in the context of humble service to those most vulnerable and oppressed in this world. The hope of God’s kin(g)dom come on Earth as in heaven is nothing more than the liberation of this world from sin and death. What this means is that in the violent throws of the empire, Jesus will be (was, is) victorious through resurrection. The hermeneutical challenge today for western evangelicalism is to find liberation from the universalizing metanarratives of modernity and to re-embrace the “Way, Truth, and Life” of the one who calls them to follow; the one who opens his arms to love even his enemies.

606x336_bonus-pablo2Last week I met with a group of folks who are predisposed to a missional perspective on ministry. Our topic for the day was “What does ministry and mission look like in a Post-Truth Culture?” It is obvious that the current political atmosphere was one of the basis of this topic. First, let me say that this group of women and men all serve in some form of leadership role within their worshiping contexts. There is certainly reason for concern when truth and facts are manipulated and lies become categorically euphemized as “alternative facts.” Secondly, the purpose of the conversation wasn’t about becoming involved in a political debate, but intentionally opening a dialogue concerning ministry in a culture where lying has become mainstream.

For the purpose of this post, I will lay out my argument that Christians have a particular role to play in this context. This situation in which we find ourselves has in fact been developing over several decades. I remember a time in the late nineties when cheating on tests in college was at times rewarded as being innovative problem solving. Deception and lies are as old as time. If this is the case, then what is it about right now that is most troubling? If I were to look at it from the dichotomy of national politics, I would most likely point out the blatant ways in which lies are told to shape a desired “truth.” I would point out the use of “convenient truths” that help to construct perception. For me the temptation is to throw my hands in the air and exclaim with Pilot, “What is truth?”

post-truth-bannerWhat I find most clear is that this “Post-truth” culture is not limited to any political categorization. In fact I see it as the logical progression of Modernity. Philosophically speaking, with modernity came a shift in emphasis to facts that support truth statements. Therefore when Kant proclaimed “Think for yourselves” he was essentially calling on the masses of society to check the facts. Question the authoritative statements made by the church and don’t simply accept them as true. What Postmodernity does is take this simple skepticism to the extreme and call all truth claims into question. In the postmodern world facts change. Where modernity emphasized objectivity and empirical evidences, Postmodernity calls into question all factual claims that support truth statements. Moreover, with Postmodernity comes an extreme emphasis upon human agency and choice to the degree that one now has the ability to choose what reality she wants.

In light of the children of Modernity (capitalism, democracy, etc.) comes the means to create your own personal reality. There is no more emphatic lie than to manipulate stories and facts for the purpose of creating a desired reality. As it is now predominately accepted that perspective shapes perception (see Gadamer, Derrida, etc.), it becomes impossible to make truth claims without attaching the Postmodern qualifier “for me.” Admittedly, all objective truth is interpreted subjectively. Where we have gone wrong is with the desire for truth itself. People now believe that they can create truth by manipulating perception.

Here is my argument. Looking back on the emergence of society’s obsession with fame, one cannot miss the use of lies and deception to create personas that are more spectacle than real. What western culture discovered was that if a person became famous a brand was created that could be used to generate wealth in the media market. A timeless truism is that with wealth comes success and power. Lies are often used to build up a person’s image for practical benefits. However, what has become most striking in western culture is the desire to create reality by means of manipulating facts to create a desired perception. Part of the logic behind this finds its roots in the marketplace as massive campaigns have sought to strike at the hearts of the masses for the purpose of selling them a product. This logic goes as follows: if you tell the lie convincingly consisting of just the right amount of truth; and if you speak it loudly enough; and finally if you speak it enough times it will become the governing reality. In the mind of such logic, perception is everything.

truth-300x200Unfortunately, this is where we are as a society. So the question (at least in my mind) is what is the role of a Jesus follower in such a culture as this? Going back to the conversation of those leaders, what seemed most important was to be representative of “the Truth.” And how does on be such a representative? In spite of the overwhelming obstacles this culture is providing, being a faithful presence, practicing simplicity, and especially emphasizing Jesus’ teaching to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” But this in itself is not enough. It is not enough to merely speak out when words no longer hold meaning. I am convinced that those who confess that they follow Jesus are essentially called to live according to the truth. What this means is that as a disciple conforms to the teachings of Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount), that disciple’s life will essentially become a living embodiment of the Truth. Therefore a faithful presence is nothing more than living a life that is consistent with the belief claims that the disciple makes. It requires an intentional focus upon the one who claims to be truth. The response must be one where the disciple rolls up the shirt sleeves and begins the difficult work of serving the widows, orphans and aliens in the community. It means that it is time to go to work becoming the truth that our neighbors and world desperately need. In a culture where words have lost their meaning, more is required.

Today I read an article announcing that the University of Chicago (read full article here)
alex_maclean_2005_campus_with_cityscapehad issued a letter to new students that it will not heed trigger warnings. It state
d that due to its long standing commitment to intellectual freedom that students can expect to be exposed to opinions that they may not only disagree with but sometimes find offensive. In my opinion this is a bold stance by a large university in the midst of a culture which finds itself dee
ply divided.

With the growing socio-political divide in this country, hypersensitivity to language and social topics has reached levels that have created a difficult environment in which to explore socio-political topics. What seem to be contributing factors of this hostile environment are (in my humble opinion) threefold. First, due to the politicization of particularly difficult topics, an extreme dichotomy is created. Unfortunately in a culture still struggling to shed its cloak of modernity such topics are most often boiled down to merely two sides. When this occurs it ignores the complex reality in which we live as well as silencing the multiple narratives living with the topic. In political language this occurs by categorizing the topic with “either, or” language with the popular labels of “progressive (liberal)” and “conservative.”[1]

Secondly, in as much as the culture has framed conversations surrounding social topics as simply two-sided (most often attempting to forcefully push people into one or the other category), the two culturally dominant groups have conscripted the language used in these conversations. On the one hand particular words or phrases become off limits labelled as too offensive for public discourse (and sometimes loading particular words with extenuating meaning thus minimizing the original sense of the word)[2] while the other side chides and intentionally pushes the limits of language directed sarcastically at the other side. While the original intent of sanitizing language was meritorious, it has contributed to the divided society. Both sides are championing (even though in distorted ways) values held by liberal culture.[3] On the one hand striving to solve social problems and on the other protesting the reactionary oppression censorship (even if only imagined) of language at least seems to cause.

Finally, the current climate of deep division finds its essence expressed by the illusionary environment it is creating and the painfully oppressive consequences of this embodied modern culture in the U.S. psyche. This is illustrated on the one hand by the conservative embrace of symbols and systems that have been used to perpetuate longstanding prejudices and violence. Again on the other hand it is illustrated by the use of the same oppressive behaviors toward those who have been characterized as being part of the privileged class, race, and gender. In both cases the same oppressive behaviors are used and embraced. One becomes the reactionary reflection of the other only labelling it in language of justice against the effects of the other. This becomes especially problematic when a primarily punitive understanding of justice is embraced instead of a reconciliatory one (which also includes aspects of compensation).

I’m not sure why it is, but it seems that the mainstream of U.S. culture wants to cling to the simple yes or no framing of modern perception rather than acknowledging the complex reality that we all experience. In a recent educational trip I took to Palestine, our guides highlighted the reality that too often the Palestinian/Isrit-is-impossible-to-stand-for-intellectual-freedom-without-grappling-with-censorship-frances-m-jonesaeli conflict is framed in an either or context. In reality it is a multi-narrative conflict consisting of a complex set of narratives and underlying socio-political, physiological, psychological and geo-political extenuating realities. The culture(s) in our part of North America share the reality of the Middle East that it is made up of multi-competing narratives with complex extenuating contexts. Until we begin to acknowledge and appropriate the complex reality in which we live, pushing aside our modern sensibilities and their aptitude toward boiling everything down to yes or no questions, we will never be able to appropriately engage the challenges our shared future holds on this small green planet.

So all of this is to say that I applaud the University of Chicago for their willingness to at least have a space where such conversations in all their complexities can take place. This may be so only in theory at this point, we’ll have to see how it works in practice.

[1] I consistently try to avoid using liberal in this sense in that it confuses the reality that both conservative and progressive are part of the liberal culture. Liberalism is nothing more than the political expression of modernity with its dichotomizing tendencies.

[2] Two examples are the use of terms such as “open and affirming” by the progressive groups and “pro-life” (those who identify as such politically are actually anti-abortion) by conservative groups. In both cases the conscription of the word fails to accurately express the fullness of the symbols and add implied meanings that characteristically and politically dichotomize the positions to yes or no votes.

[3] What I find most important in the University of Chicago letter are the qualifications for the freedom of such conversations being done with “civility and mutual respect.”