On Adopting the “Final Form” Approach

Just a quick post, before I get back to my thoughts on Original Sin.

In his Text, Church, and World, Francis Watson examines the way we approach scripture. He notes in part 1 that there has been a shift from a historical-critical approach, which has ruled biblical studies for some time, to a canonical-critical approach. The old approach was to look for clues to what the document or community behind the document had originally said, look for evidence of redaction or editing in the text, and construct a chronological map of the beliefs of the early Christian community. In the new approach, we instead accept the Bible in its “final form”.

What we don’t often ask is, what does “final form” even mean? There are many different translations, each of which has their own emphases and have been influenced by, for example, the historical-critical work that we no longer engage in like we used to. New translations will bring new perspectives. Is there such thing as a “final” form? Stabilized, perhaps, but not final; we’ll no longer add or remove whole books, for example.

Another question we don’t often ask is why we moved from historical-critical approaches to canonical approaches, and whether or not this is more fitting of an approach to Scripture, borrowing as it does from literary studies. Should we have a unique approach to Biblical studies?

Watson gives three reasons for the current approach: first, that the application of literary studies techniques has already proved itself by giving us some quality Biblical scholarship. That’s good. Second, focusing on the final form emphasizes the communal usage of the text: the Bible is, and always has been, used by worshipping communities, and we should take this into account in our approach to it, which is something working with the final form does very well. And finally, he says, “this is the form of the text most suitable for theological use,” and that the “content of the biblical texts is inseparable from their form” (Watson, 17).

While I look forward to approaching the texts in their final form from a theological perspective, in the meantime I’d like to ask you, dear readers: have we really shifted to looking at the text in its final form, or are we still looking for J, E, D, P, and Q? Should we be? Should we be looking at pre-modern interpretive practices, or working from postmodern literary approaches? Is there something unique about Scripture that makes one of these approaches more fitting than others? Should we be combining approaches, and can that be done successfully?

On Original Sin and Being “Dirty”

I’m going out on a limb here to discuss a doctrine that I struggle with, and particularly with the way it is used by some Christians. This blog is a place where I work out my theology, and I welcome everyone to discuss it with me (and help me figure it out!). That said, if you feel tempted to call me a heretic, please back it up thoughtfully, or don’t say it at all. I’m not here to pick a fight, and want to apologize in advance if that’s how I come off, but I feel like this needs to be discussed and I may not be able to avoid controversial statements.

The doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t make much sense to me, and further, I hate what neo-Calvinists have done with it. I wanted to talk about the former, but that’ll be next post – for now I’ll talk about the use of the doctrine to make Christians hate themselves.

I saw this comic floating around on Facebook the other day, and it made me very sad. I don’t think that there’s anything untrue in it (though I think it makes some theological assumptions), but I’m more concerned about its emphasis. There’s a mix of panels and text, so it’s hard to say exactly how long it is, but if you call major text sections a panel, then there are eight panels. Seven out of eight panels are bad news, and even the “good news” in the last panel is a backhanded gospel. Let’s take a look at it. (I’m not going to rewrite the whole thing here, but click the link and follow along as I look at a few key points)

The word “dirty” shows up several times here, which is interesting to me. I’m amazed at how wretched that word can make a person feel. Another word that people have used to make people feel wretched is “nigger”, which is used to mean that a person is inherently unsophisticated or defective (and as a child I was taught that it also means “dirty”). It’s super effective. I apologize for using that word, I know that it’s a trigger for some people and some people might feel that I don’t have a right to use the term, but it so clearly sums up the Christian use of the word “dirty” or “filthy” that I feel it’s appropriate. The message of this comic is that you’re a filthy nigger, that you were born this way and cannot change it, and that you need to accept this. Now, this comic is somewhat cutesy in its portrayal (it’s a comic, after all), so it wouldn’t use such harsh terms. It uses “dirty” and “smells bad” to refer to our nature. But the point is the same.

What’s interesting is that it refers us to Genesis 6 to make this point: “Mankind had become so utterly dirty and corrupt that God regretted creating us.” Now, God does say there that he regretted creating humans, and that this was because of corruption (actually says wickedness, evil), but it never mentions “dirty”. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of any place in the Bible where it talks about us as “dirty”. I just did a search, and the English Revised Version is the only version of the Bible that uses the word more than a few times, and even then it’s rarely as a moral description of humans. The Bible usually talks about unrighteousness, which means not being good, or wickedness, which means being bad – these are moral terms meant to show that we’re wrong, even evil. “Dirty”, on the other hand, is a word that is used to shame people.

I think this is what bothers me about this comic: it’s not just about pointing out that we’re unrighteous, wicked, sinful, even evil. It wants us to feel that way. Oddly enough, at the end of the comic it says “instead of a cesspool of guilt, there is otherworldly freedom in knowing that we are bad and that there’s nothing we can do to fix it.” This is why I say that the “good news” of this comic is a backhanded gospel: it spends seven frames trying to instil a sense of shame in us, and then says “but you don’t need to feel bad anymore.” It spends seven panels calling us niggers, and then says that as long as we know in our hearts that we’ll always be niggers, we won’t be slaves anymore. Try telling that to an African American, whose ancestors were slaves; to them, the word “nigger” from someone outside of their community is a symbol of slavery, of dehumanization, of prejudice. It’s a statement that even though they’re free, they’re no better than slaves. This is obviously not true: human beings have dignity, were created in dignity, and none of us have any right to take that away by calling someone “dirty”.

The argument is, though, that this is a good thing because “this is the fallen state of mankind: the sickness that needs to be diagnosed before the cure will make any sense.” Apparently we’re incapable of understanding good news until we’re fully and completely convinced that we’re the absolute worst.

What they mean to say is that the grace of God is conditional upon repentance, and that sinful human nature (Original Sin) prevents us from doing anything that is good (such as repenting) without serious prompting from God, and that we won’t actually listen to God’s prompting unless we’re deeply aware of just how desperate we ought to be because of our wretched filthiness (and the eternal conscious torment that we can expect unless we repent, though this comic doesn’t mention that part). This is what I mean when I say that this comic has a lot of theological assumptions. (For the record, I don’t know for sure that this guy is a neo-Calvinist, but the comic doesn’t make as much sense under most other theological frameworks. Also, neo-Calvinists love this stuff; I did a search of “original sin verses” and the first site that came up was John Piper’s.)

I was taught this in church, growing up. I’m sure I even supported this evangelism strategy, even in Bible college. What I discovered is that it’s a sermon for the already converted. It makes perfect sense to someone who grew up in the church with this teaching, but from the outside it looks crazy. People in North America who aren’t Christians are not unaware of Christianity and its basic claims, including the claim that they are sinful. This “You and I are bad” comic isn’t news to them, much less convicting. It’s not that they haven’t heard this before, they just don’t believe you when they tell you that you’re evil, and they ignore you when you call them “dirty”, and walk away thinking “wow, that was rude. Who does that person think they are?” There is absolutely nothing attractive about this message.

The argument here, then, is “but it’s TRUE!” I have a professor who always follows an argument, no matter how logical and consistent the argument is, with the retort “but…is it true?” Well, that’s a topic for another post, because this will be way too long. But I often want to respond to that professor with “but…is it useful?” What good is truth if there’s nobody to hear it? Being true doesn’t make it attractive, just like being right doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk. I’ve heard this approach justified many times by people who claim that “the gospel is offensive”; they wear it as a badge of honour, then, when people get offended at what they have to say. (For the record, the “offense of the gospel” is used to mean a lot of different things, but this use is taking it out of context – ask me about it, and I’ll write a post on it). Whether or not the argument is true, there are plenty of other ways to talk about the good news of Christ’s redemption of the world – perhaps by even mentioning redemption! This is sort of a central feature of the gospel. Redeemed, justified, sanctified, reconciled: these words are not mentioned here. After all, in this theology we’re permanently “dirty” and defective, and God’s grace towards us doesn’t change that fact – he only overlooks it.

Here’s some gospel that’s actually good news: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is, without our asking for it or even knowing it, we’ve been redeemed and justified. Being a Christian is about learning to live as if that’s true (and it is!). And the Holy Spirit within us unites us to Christ, and we become sanctified as he is sanctified. While we may still sin, we’re no longer sinners; while we may still get morally dirty, we’re not inherently dirty; while we still work for the devil from time to time, we’re not slaves to sin, and nobody can call us niggers.

The Bible: Text, or Work?

I just started reading Francis Watson’s Text, Church, and World, and already in the introduction he’s dropped some bombshells. He begins by defining the three terms in the title, starting with “text”.

A “text” is not a “work” – both terms refer to a written document, but the term “work” implies an emphasis on the author communicating a message, whereas “text” emphasizes the role of the interpreter or interpretive community. We might refer to a book as the work of an author, but we might also refer to it as the text of an interpretive or religious community; I doubt we’d see reference to a book as the work of a community, unless the whole community had a hand in writing it, and if we speak of the text of an author we’re probably referring to that author’s influences.

Of course, Watson uses very different terms to describe the difference between text and work (he’s a bit wordy), but I hope I’ve captured the idea.

Of course, the Bible is both work and text. Someone wrote it, after all, and they definitely had a point (or else, why would they write it?). On the other hand, we can’t really read the Bible without reading it as a text, in the context of thousands of years of religious interpretation and tradition in our community of faith. The point is that our interpretive frameworks will treat it as one or the other, and it’s difficult to emphasize both at the same time.

Watson mentions the quest for the historical Jesus, which at its base is trying to get to the reality behind the text: scholars in this tradition recognize that the gospels, like all historical accounts, are quite selective about what they report, and want to unearth as much of the reality of what occurred as possible. The whole historical-critical approach emphasizes the “work” aspect of a book. Watson thinks that they’re mistaken about the true nature of the Bible – that is, he sees it as “text”.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who emphasize the Bible as text: we read the Bible as members of the Church, in light of (and even in continuity with) two thousand years of interpretive tradition. For Watson, it means that we must take theology into account in our hermeneutic (he’s arguing in this book for a method of theological hermeneutics), but taken further it implies a Roman Catholic hermeneutic, in which tradition is held up (almost) as high as Scripture as being authoritative for Christian doctrine.

In between these two ends of the spectrum seems to be where Evangelicals camp out. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, which was the textbook for the hermeneutics class I took in both college and seminary, Grant Osborne emphasizes that interpreters need to figure out what a book meant in order to figure out what it means – that is, we need to check out the original author’s intention in their original context in order to discern an appropriate interpretation for our own context, which may include our Church community and tradition. In light of the difficulty of being accurate in our understanding of the original context and message of a work, scholars since the 1970’s have been emphasizing the final form of the Bible – that is, we need to read scripture in light of its relation to itself, reading each book as it relates to all of the others, in the order and collection that we’ve received them (this is called Canonical Criticism). This is a move from “work” to “text”, though how far that move is can depend on where the interpreter sees the Spirit at work: does the formation of the canon to Scripture’s “final form” represent the Spirit at work in the councils of the early church, or does it represent the Spirit at work in Christian tradition up to the present day?

Theological interpretations have more room to breathe if we take a “text” view of the Bible, whereas historiography is more central if we take a “work” perspective. Is either perspective right? What do you think? Is the Bible primarily a “work”, or a “text”?

EDIT:

Reading on, Watson describes the “Church” element of his title, and this also reflects on his view of the Bible as “text”. Those who see the Bible as “work” emphasize the original intended meaning of the author, a point which has much to do with the genre in which the author chose to communicate. But because the Church is the central place in which the Bible is read and interpreted, Watson says, the primary genre of all of the biblical texts becomes that of “holy scripture” – that is, the original genre of the work is subordinated to the text’s position and function in the Church, which is to be read aloud as part of the worship of the church, and interpreted through a sermon. The very fact that it is interpreted by a sermon after it is read suggests that there is interpretive freedom – otherwise, wouldn’t the text just speak for itself and not require a sermon? (This has been argued.)

I’m torn about all of this. If we take seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church and preserving the meaning of the Bible, then we should be Catholics, and embrace this approach wholeheartedly. Obviously we are not all Catholics, and tend to reject the notion that tradition is entirely trustworthy or authoritative, Spirit or no. This fact alone troubles me deeply, and I think it’s a point that Pentecostals haven’t done nearly enough to explore. But if we don’t agree that the Spirit affirms all of Christian tradition, then Watson’s approach seems to be saying “this is right because this is how we do it” rather than saying “we do it this way because it is right.” I’m interested to see how he navigates this balance without arguing for Catholicism.

Popcultured: A Review

Turner, Steve. Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media, and Entertainment. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013. 254 pages.

I grew up with Focus on the Family telling me what I could watch or listen to without becoming demon-possessed or a drug dealer or (perhaps worst of all) sexually active. Well, maybe that’s a bit much, but that’s certainly the impression I had of popular culture. The dominant image I had of the secular world was Lady Folly from Proverbs: popular culture was a seductress, who was actually luring me to my doom. But rather than gaining wisdom or learning discernment, Focus on the Family’s Plugged In publication (which, admittedly, does have some decent analysis from time to time) taught me to depend on an authority – to let a trained professional take the risk of pre-viewing pop culture for me, counting all the cusses and references to sex and drugs, and then suggest a “Christian” band or film that I might like instead, in case this one is hiding any evil influences that could lure me down to Sheol. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold anything against my youth groups, pastors, and parents, all of whom were just trying to look out for me. Their approach probably came largely from the fact that when they were kids they didn’t need to be media-savvy or discerning about what they watched on television, because there were regulations on what could be shown in the media that made sure that there were no cusses, nudity, or graphic violence, and that priests and pastors were always shown in a respectful light. Leave it to Beaver requires no moral filters. In the absence of such regulation from the government and industry, Christians have tried to set up their own regulation, and it’s led to another generation of Christians who are just as naive about pop culture as their parents – and who, like their parents, rebel and secretly do all of the stuff they’re not supposed to anyways, but without discernment.

This is why Popcultured is such a necessary book. It approaches culture as a fact of life and a gift from God, rather than as a gateway to Hell. It’s realistic about the dangers of uncritical absorption of media – Turner’s very clear on the necessity of discernment – but it doesn’t shrink away from the world. It’s focused on developing Christians into people capable of living in the world of culture while still standing out from the crowd, rather than serving as a gatekeeper regarding which elements of culture are okay to be let in to our Christian sub-society. It’s critical of the ways in which Christian subculture has uncritically mirrored the secular culture we’ve supposedly rejected, and provides a vision (and example) of Christians who are not only able to embrace pop culture, but to enhance their faith, lives, and even their representation of Christ through pop culture.

Popcultured is not a unique book. There are many books out there that look at the way Christians interact with culture (e.g., Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture by communications professor William Romanowski, which I’d also recommend), or find Christian or theological themes in pop culture (a host of books on finding God in, for example, The Matrix, Superman, Harry Potter, etc.), or share visions for Christians producing culture (I’m partial to Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art). Popcultured does all of these things. It stands out, first of all, because it’s the newest of the bunch, and pop culture is always changing. But more than that, it stands out from most of these books because most of these books are written by communications scholars, philosophers, sociologists, pastors, etc. And while all of those people are probably excellent at engaging critically with culture and media, very few of them have Steve Turner’s experience in creating culture.

Steve Turner is a journalist, focusing on popular culture. Other writers talk about it, but he lives it. A lot of people can talk about how carefully a star crafts their public image and persona, but Turner’s analysis of celebrity culture begins with

When I was working on a rock magazine in the early 1970s, aspiring singers and songwriters would try to persuade me to see them in concert or hear playbacks in a studio. One of the most persistent was a young man living in Beckenham, Kent. I liked his songs, and on May 5th, 1971, I went to his home for a meal. He met me at the station in a battered old sports car. He had shoulder-length hair, was unshaven and wore jeans. We spent several hours together and had a great time. His name was David Bowie. – p. 97

Not just an armchair critic, when Turner wrote his book The Gospel According to the Beatles, he interviewed them. His experience as a pop culture journalist gives him authority and credibility that years of academic study just can’t compare to (unfortunately, for nerds like me!). I’m a big fan of the CBC, and I love listening to George Stroumboulopoulos because he knows so much about new music – but when you listen to Randy Bachman’s show¬†Vinyl Tap, he not only knows a ton about the music he plays, but he has stories about when he played with the legends of rock and roll! Strombo’s great in his own way, but if you want an authority on music, stick with¬†Vinyl Tap. In the same way, Steve Turner can talk about how Christians should interact with and contribute to popular culture because he’s been doing it for over forty years – and he hasn’t been dragged down to Sheol yet.

Each chapter examines a different area of pop culture: leisure and culture in general, cinematic art, journalism, celebrity culture, fashion, sensationalism, comedy, advertising, technology (internet, with a too-brief section on video games), photography. In each of these areas, Turner examines the culture, points out its pitfalls but also its strengths and beauty, shows that we’re already engaged with this area of culture, and then makes suggestions for how to do it well, with discernment and excellence. Each chapter has recommended readings about that medium, both from secular and Christian sources, scholarly and popular, as well as websites to check out. There are discussion questions and suggestions for action, which would make this book an easy pick for a small group or introductory course (it could write your syllabus for you, and actually be an interesting class).

It IS an introductory book at a popular level. You won’t find the finer points of theology, aesthetics, or cultural theory here (though you get the impression that Turner could talk shop with the best of them). What this book does provide is the answer to Lady Folly – the call of Lady Wisdom to seek discernment and wisdom. It’s the answer to Christian parents and youth pastors who are concerned about what their kids are watching or listening to. It’s a call to Christian excellence in culture and society – something we’re all called to as representatives of Christ in the world.

A+.