Where Many Paths Are Crossing: A Reflection on “An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible” by George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh in JBL, vol. 128, no. 2

Two journal articles have “got me thinking” this summer. The first will be discussed in this post and the second in the next couple of weeks. I greatly anticipate some of the dialogue this post may create so that the discussion may advance and so that I may grow more in my understanding and my ability to articulate both sides of the debate.

I believe that the autWhere Paths Are Crossinghors in the aforementioned article have identified a road that biblical scholars as well as pastors may soon be (or already are!) crossing. The authors offer an invitation to their readers – an invitation to a dialogue between historical critics and postmodern critics. The article begins with a call to reason together in order to set forth a mood for the dialogue. Nietzche’s quote is appropriate to mention here as well, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

The articles is presented with five subdivisions: 1) Embattled Camps, 2) Making Myths, 3) Historical-Critical Mythology, 4) Postmodern Mythology, and lastly, a call for a 5) Postmoderm Historical Criticism. The authors quickly call out “the elephant in the room” of current biblical scholarship. Historical Criticism has been the dominant paradigm in biblical scholarship for quite some time; however, one of its children, the postmodern approach, is ushering in not only a new way of looking at the text but also an altogether different set of values and assumptions. The goal of the article is clear: let’s bring both sides to the table and wrestle with some of these differences.

Next, the authors seek to compare and contrast the two approaches by illustrating their respective relation to myth-making. Myth is qualified by the authors as that which,

“is not merely a community’s charter; it is the community’s taken-for-granted common sense and the hermeneutic through which the community defines life, truth, rationality , and justice. Myth is the metanarrative  (and attendant perspective) that establishes and defends the communal status quo” (388, JBL, vol. 128, no. 2).

Thus, the myth of the community becomes the standard by which it includes something as true or excludes something as false or as the “mythic contrast.” Historical critics are presented as Romantic in their mythology as they seek the “originals”: the original text, the historical Jesus, and an orthodox Christianity. Postmodern critics, arising out of an “unsettled” and “disturbed” modernism, are presented as suspicious in their mythology, and instead of supporting some grand metanarrative to guide the community, “little narratives” of a plurality of communities are preferred. A great summary of the Postmodern approach to myth is given by Crossan in the 1970’s,

“postmodernism seeks parable rather than myth. According to Crossan, myth is a story that supports the cultural status quo (the dominant) while parable is a story that challenges the finality of that status quo without supporting another stand-alone story or counter-myth” (398).

Thus, parable lives along the boundaries of myth, challenges it without suggesting something to replace it, and causes a person to “hesitate mythically.”

Lastly, the authors call for a dialogue and for considering the possibility of a “Postmodern Historical Criticism.” The difficulty of such a creation is acknowledged by the authors, because where historical critics romantically seek originals and ultimates, the postmodern critics expects neither and focuses on the things found in between. However, I do agree that such a conversation between the two camps could be healthy in that they may help give clarity to one anothers’ blind spots. The authors offer five areas of discussion in which the two camps may benefit from one another: 1) Physical Aspects of the Text, 2) Intertextuality, 3) Ideology and Translation, 4) the Author and Her or His Intentions, and 5) the Semiotics (Signs) of Canon. In my next blog or two, I would like to dialogue about the five areas as well as discuss another article that I believe is related to this invitation, particularly to textual criticism in recent historical and postmodern discussion. I pray that I have represented this JBL article fairly, and I look forward to any insights that you all have to share as we think about historical and postmodern minds sitting at the table together.

  1. #1 by rexhowe on July 11, 2009 - 7:48 pm

    This article has come up in discussion over at SvigeLand (www.svigel.blogspot.com) as well.

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