I enjoyed my two year sojourn as a gadfly of the academy. I was a graduate student at Ole Miss, taking classes toward a Masters degree, and better still teaching two classes of Freshman English each semester. The two intersected my first semester when I was taking a class on teaching the class. There we were given fresh nuggets of wisdom from our chosen field. We were taught not to make comments on papers in red ink because it damaged the self-esteem of the students. We were encouraged to encourage collaborative processes, though I can’t recall why. And we were told that when it came to interpreting the writings of others, a key component in the class as a whole, there was no right or wrong answer.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? If I find in this story of Saul Bellow’s a metaphor for the industrial revolution, and you find in the same story a clever modernization of Chaucer’s Abbott’s Tale, who is to say who is right? Which is the question I raised in the class I was taking. “If,” I asked, “there is no right and wrong answer, “on what basis are we handing out grades?” My professor, who apparently never read Animal Farm, without a hint of irony replied, “There is no correct answer, but some are more correct than others.”
Hermeneutics, outside the Christian world, has now sunk this low. Deconstructionism, that theory that suggests that we rightly understand a bit of writing only insofar as we can recognize and in turn condemn the politically incorrect notions of the author, while being leftist, mean-spirited, backwards and silly, at least had the courtesy of treating the text with some respect. To tear the text to shreds one had to at least recognize it as a text, and to find handles in it. Even this process, however, has proven far too difficult and demanding for our day.
Deconstructionism has slowly been being pushed out to make way for sundry forms post-modern theories wherein the text, before it is ripped to shreds, is robbed of the dignity of being a text. It has become for us a mere mirror. We deny that there is any meaning inherent in the text, seeing it as a blank sheet. Meaning comes from the reader rather than the writer. Thus, one of my professors giddily explained to us neophytes- “A laundry list is as much literature as Shakespeare.” Wow. I’m afraid I didn’t have the courage to ask him these two questions- first, why do we then have to read Shakespeare? It’s a great deal more work than reading laundry lists, or comic books, or Danielle Steel novels. And second, how do you sleep at night knowing you have given your life to the study of laundry lists? I know the professor’s life has a great deal going for it, but is it worth it if none of it means a thing?
These theories, by their own admission, do not actually help us to understand the texts we are reading. This hermeneutic is not helpful if our goal is to understand what we read. They instead serve another purpose that apparently is more important to us- they focus our attention on ourselves. They serve our narcissism. How cool is this, that in our seminar on Melville we actually get to take turns talking about ourselves? Who cares what Melville thought? What I think is far more important. My knowledge does not increase, but my ego does. My understanding does not grow, but my self-importance does. My mind is not expanded, but my appetite for self-indulgence does. And all I have to give up for all this is the notion that there really is something out there to know.
Though this same mindset undergirds the faux humility of the whole emergent movement, though the whole turtleneck wearing, jazz playing market segment could have crawled right out of my grad school classes, the true relationship is even more damning. That is, the problem isn’t that this one peculiar wing of the church has chosen to follow the world here, but that the world is actually following the evangelical church. However worldly we might be, in the end the church leads. Such is the case here. That is not to say that evangelical scholars promoted sundry theories of interpretation that were grounded in narcissism. Nope, it was all far more banal than that. We have this kind of nonsense in the world because we first studied and read our Bibles in the same way.
The Bible, which is supposed to be a mirror showing us our sin, became a mirror whereby we saw our own wisdom therein. We open God’s Word to find out what it means to us. We use it to justify our own weaknesses and sins. We then encourage each other to do the same when we gather together. We sit in our Bible study circle and ask each other, “What does this text mean to you?” with soothing tones that communicate that of course there is no wrong answer.
This is one reason the First Corollary to the RC Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics (whenever you see someone in the Bible doing something really stupid, do not say to yourself, ‘How can they be so stupid?’ Instead say to yourself, ‘How am I just as stupid?’) is so important. The corollary goes like this- when you want to know who you are in any given Bible story, you are the sinner. If there is more than one sinner in the story, you are both. If we are going to be thinking about ourselves when reading the Bible, or any text, let’s think about the kinds of people we are. Let’s be eager to see our sins, rather than to justify them. Only in this sense is it all about us.