Is it possible to do violence to a text?

When I read a text, I feel that it is important to read that text “on its own terms,” insofar as I am able.  By this, I mean reading it in its original context as best as I can understand it.  Some texts lend themselves quite naturally to application in other contexts: Aesop’s Fables are didactic, fictional parables designed to teach a lesson; one of the reasons we enjoy poetry is that it evokes feelings within us or communicates and elaborates feelings we already have.  The text lends itself to being read in a certain way, and so applying that text is being faithful to it.

Is it possible to violate a text?  I believe so.  To affirm that texts can be used unfaithfully or inappropriately is to assume that there is an objective standard by which a use of a text can be judged.  Who is that judge?  What appropriations might be considered to be out of bounds, and how can we know?

Maybe it’s just something we know intuitively, like Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”  Well, I know that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is out of bounds–but why?

Regarding biblical texts, I believe that there are valid and invalid (faithful and unfaithful) appropriations of these texts in various contexts.  My tendency is to overemphasize the historical situation of a text and underappreciate the application of a text in an alien context.  This stems from my perception that modern Christian interpretation has abandoned a rich redemptive-historical reading of Scripture in favor of a purely exemplaristic or “applicationalistic” reading of the Bible; rather than letting the text say what it “wants to say,” we mine the text for things that interest us personally.

But maybe I’m too restrictive.  Is it arrogant to think that history matters?  I think that we need permission from the genre and situation of the text to draw application in other contexts.  For example, the poems of the Psalter have been composed, edited, compiled and preserved for liturgical use; therefore, it is right that Christians and Jews read them personally (though historical perspective still provides an added dimension of meaning).  Other texts can be more complicated to read.  Ezra-Nehemiah, for example, provides examples of people who are obedient to God—excellent.  However, the message of the book demonstrates that YHWH’s presence is not fully with his people after the Return as it was before the Exile.  Both readings are important, but the text itself points us toward the latter.  (And my Christian faith certainly affects my reading of Ezr-Neh, because I want to see Jesus as the true Return of YHWH to dwell with his people.)

The very fact that these texts were preserved for us means that they are supposed to be read and perpetuated in the life of the faith community.  So, there is “application”—or at least import—to the genealogies, the Holiness Code, the laments, the histories of Esau and Hezekiah.  What is it?

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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5 Responses to Is it possible to do violence to a text?

  1. Ben T. says:

    Context is important.

    The question is: which context is “most ultimate” (I suppose this applies to both text and reader).

    I think the problem — generally speaking — is that the dialogue between “meant” and “means” is often imbalanced…
    I rely heavily on canonical/narratological categories with biblical texts as it allows me to sidestep (read: avoid) some of the more controversial issues such as authorship, date of composition, historicity, etc.

    Still, even within narrative categories, to speak of a text’s “purpose” is to posit a redactor/editor/author and, by extension, an intended audience. As for the audience question, I cast a vote for “post-exilic Israel.”

    Thoughts?

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      I also prefer to think canonically, literarily and narratologically about the biblical literature. I’m not as interested in source criticism, except to the extent that it aids literary criticism. For example, I think we’re seeing a shift in Pentateuch studies away from the debates about JEDP (and E¹, E², J¹, J², etc.). Knoppers and Levinson edited a volume a few years ago entitled, The Pentateuch as Torah: New models for understanding its promulgation and acceptance. No one can agree on all the sources, but maybe we can make some fruitful progress on why the biblical texts “caught on.”

      But I digest… Back to your original comment: I’m fine with “post-exilic Israel” as a starting point (in the OT, of course). But can we go any further than that? Need we justify using the texts beyond that context? How would we go about justifying it apart from an NT mandate (e.g., Lk. 24:27, Jn. 5:39)?

  2. v02468 says:

    I agree. I’m overwhelmingly interested in what the author had to say in the original context. People tend to be surprised when I get to application, but honestly it’s because it there’s so much background work to do before I feel comfortable drawing an application forward.

  3. v02468 says:

    The other side to it, is something I read by Vanhoozer before.

    I don’t remember the details well, so instead of guessing I will just make everything ambiguous.

    There was a people ruled by a tyrannical and cruel leader. The people rebelled against his forces and brought justice to the kingdom. Their inspiration was from Joshua as their priests taught that what they were doing was driving the evil from their land, just as Joshua had been commanded.

    They used the text horribly inaccurately, but Vanhoozer’s point was that God used it for good. While I wince hearing Scripture used in such a way, it does help me to realize that even with all the aggressive application going on many times “the right meaning from the wrong text” can still be a “correct” use of Scripture.

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