Thursday, August 30, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 10

In addition to reading the Bible through the historical-critical methodology (which in itself was a genuinely new way for me to investigate Scripture), graduate school opened to me other modes of inquiry: ideological criticism, reader-response criticism, autobiographical interpretation, feminist and liberation critiques, narrative criticism and more.

The most powerful of these (to me initially) was ideological criticism, or sometimes called "reading against the text." In my years of evangelicalism, the aim of all Scripture readings was to find the harmonic thread - the way the passage being read fit into the rest of the Bible and validated our core beliefs. One such inviolable belief was that God never changed. That meant the God of the Old Testament who led the Hebrews to defend their lands, to take other lands and to wipe out other people groups had to be reconciled with Jesus, the Son of God who modeled radical notions of peace.

Another belief was that if the Bible said "God said it," then God must have said it. There was no chance that the words in the Bible were somehow the words men had put into God's mouth. If that were the case, then inspiration of Scripture (the version of inspiration that allows for no inconsistencies or errors) would be at risk.

Reading against the text, then, meant to consider that some stories consolidate power, subdue challenges to power or articulate proper hierarchies that control some and establish others as the God-chosen leaders. Ideological criticism, or reading against the text, means to ask questions about who gains what from a particular version of the story and who suffers loss. It means giving a close reading to notice if the text manipulates anyone.

I wrote a piece on Numbers 16 that takes an ideological critical view. Sometimes I think it's easier to understand how something works by experiencing it rather than my telling you about it. So I've included that short essay here.


Question #2; Numbers 16:1-50 (Ideological Criticism)

The Bible is peppered with narratives that shape our ideas about power relationships between people and God, particularly how those power structures are formed and reformed. Who has access to God, is one of the recurring issues confronting the ancient Israelites. Given the gradual shift from the human experience of intimacy with a fully anthropomorphized deity in the Garden of Eden, to the God of Exodus who dwells in smoke and fire on a forbidding mountain, it’s not surprising that the privilege to approach God dwindles from general access to a select few, of God’s own choosing.

Any time a common experience becomes scarce or a select few are given special access, the potential for jealousy, rivalry and abuse of privilege exists. Numbers 16:1-50 represents the skillful conflation of “two episodes involving defiance of leadership” (Blenkinsopp 173). Dathan and Abiram (two Reubenites) join with Korah (a Levite) and 250 lay leaders to challenge how hierarchy and authority are lived in the community.
“Ideological criticism is interested in examining the content and context of these various faces of oppression and their ethical significance” (Postmodern Bible 304). What are the implications of this text as a product of writers who have a power position to protect? How is divinely appointed privilege (that separates laity from clergy) dangerous? I’d like to look at the nature of the content and context of this story first, and then at the ethical significance of this passage for us today.

Korah’s challenge to Moses doesn’t demand more authority for himself, even though that is how Moses interprets it. Korah says, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy; every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (v. 3) Korah criticizes the system of leadership that operates according to pre-established degrees of holiness. He confronts the arrogance and exclusivity of the leadership.

Moses responds by asserting, “You Levites have gone too far” (v.7). He recasts the criticism as originating in a competing hunger for power and uses shaming tactics to underscore the danger of challenging or criticizing his leadership: “Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle…?” (v.9) He assumes that the lay leaders and the Levites want to be full-fledged priests and argues that instead, they ought to be content with their current status in the community.

God confirms Moses’ interpretation and executes a spectacular judgment of Korah and his men; the ground opens and swallows the rebels including all that is defiled by contact with them–wives, children and even entire households (v. 32). No one could be in doubt of God’s meaning: don’t challenge the God-ordained leaders, nor should anyone desire a place in the religious hierarchy that has not been appointed by the Lord.

The judgment took place in the “midst of the assembly” (v. 33) and should have served as a teaching moment. But the congregation couldn’t discern that there had been cause for such a judgment, “You have killed the people of the Lord” (v.41), they protested. Their “rebellious” comments caused the Lord to send a plague upon the congregation, which was only quelled when Aaron (the rightful, ordained priest) executed the proper ritual to reconcile the people to God.

The ideological message couldn’t be clearer–leaders are appointed by God. Complaining about them lands followers in a heap of trouble. And only by the merciful execution of the proper atoning rituals by the elected leaders can the congregation remain rightly related to God and protected from further punishment. Situating this text in its historical context, Blenkinsopp suggests that a struggle for temple control and its revenues, as well as a challenge to priestly hegemony in the Persian period (6th-4th BCE) might clarify the ideological agenda of this story. The priestly writers, in an effort to protect their privileged position, have written a cautionary tale for the Israelites–a place for everyone and everyone in his place.

In my opinion, this story should not be used as an endorsement of authoritarianism. Nor is it a sanction against criticizing leaders. Read uncritically, one might find support for clerical superiority and resistance to criticism from the laity. As a woman in evangelical circles, I have experienced similar lines of reasoning: “Do not challenge male leadership of the church. God gives you your sphere of influence and it is wrong to question God’s hierarchical structure.” An ideological critique of this passage offers us a means for evaluating the dangers of authoritarianism, especially the kind that suppresses criticism of leaders by those who are in power.


An ideological reading of the Exodus account might ask why Egyptians not in power deserved to suffer the same way that the leadership did? An ideological reading of New Testament epistles might ask why such a strong hierarchy related to men and women is asserted when there is no corresponding teaching in the Gospels, or why Paul seems inconsistent in his beliefs about the roles and value of women in Christ.

There are loads of other ways to read the Bible (I've not even touched on half of them here). Scot McKnight, ironically, is doing a series on Jesus Creed right now that is outlining some of them.

Are these new to you? Familiar? Helpful? Distressing? What do you think?


brian said...

Honestly, Julie, I leave those formal "critical" ways of reading the Bible up to the Bible scholars. It's beyond what I've been able to get to at this point in time.

What I can say is I read the Bible critically now as opposed to uncritically before. I also try (as much as possible) to take the social-historical context into consideration. And, on particular subjects (for example What does the Bible say about homosexuality or what does the Bible say about hell, I'll go to a book (usually several)) written by experts. I don't have the tools to be as formal as some are at really digging into the Bible. But, frankly, now that I don't have to justify every jot and tittle, I'm not all that interested. I feel free to eat the meat and throw away the bones as one of my friends puts it.

Also, now that I have adopted the "God is still speaking..." motto as my own I have so many other sources of wisdom to explore I just don't have the time to dedicate so much energy to the Bible. It's one source, a very important one. But, far from the only one.


R. Michael said...


I appreciate learning different ways to view the Bible that are open to challenge, change and scrutiny and yes, these are helpful. It is hard to step outside our own patterns of thinking...I just wish we could have these conversations in a church forum w/o being labelled with whatever is the christian dismissive du jour (liberal, false teacher, heretic, etc.)

julieunplugged said...

Hi Brian.

I don't think these are all as "scholarly" as you might think. The way you talk about reading the Bible, for instance, is called "reader-response" even though you might not know it by that name.

The reason hearing them as options appealed to me is that I think we are too often confined to reading what we consider historical-sociological readings and personal/devotional readings, particularly once we move beyond theological readings.

So hence my interest. I agree, though, that great thoughts are hardly limited to the Bible. See you tonight!

r. michael, amen. Wish we did have a place we could all meet. The Nexus gathering here in Cinci seems to be the genesis of such a gathering. I like these people.

Dave said...

This probably comes as no surprise, but I'm pretty familiar and comfortable with the ideological critical approach, to the point where I pretty much consider this my natural or default stance toward reading most religious/authoritative texts. I've been in the habit of reading to deconstruct and detect the agenda for probably ten years now. The story of Ananias and Sephira in Acts is a good NT parallel to the episode of Korah's rebellion. It just makes sense to me to ask "what motivated this text to be written and to what effect was it applied en route to canonization? What comes of those who are on the receiving end of the disempowering or condemning implications, in particular, of strongly authoritarian texts?" Etc.

I think you've done a fine job of explaining many aspects of your spiritual journey, Julie, in a way that is very engaging and accessible to a lot of people. It challenges a lot of the conventional interpretations. But I think once we come to grips with the fact that the Bible holds a lot of conflicting ideas and theologies in tension (with a strong tilt toward authoritarianism that was characteristic of the times and cultures that produced it) and get past the idea that everything is "supposed" to harmonize, we gain many advantages in getting closer to what the respective writers meant to convey and in my opinion, the overall biblical message becomes that much more relevant, revealing and analogous to the world we live in.

Ampersand said...

Hey Julie, this post is very interesting to me. The various methods of interpretation (Biblical or otherwise) are something that I would like to investigate further.

It also leads me to a question.

I commented on Carrie’s post on Mother Teresa about the number and variety of opinions that are coming forth on the excerpts of Teresa’s letters. It seems to me that these opinions are very reactionary and tend to argue for the author’s pre-existing world view and beliefs. I want to read her letters, as well as other texts, or passages from the Bible to challenge my thinking, and hoping to learn something new. Its too easy for me to read, sifting for what I agree with, what affirms me, and dismissing what seems wrong. And I have very little ability to discern the unconscious influences on my interpretation.

When we have the entire text available, could we use some of these same methods of (Biblical) interpretation for her letters? What are the methods that are best used for something like her letters?

This meaning-making stuff is complicated business. I’m glad there are interpretive tools available to help.

James F. McGrath said...

One of the most important thing that these ways of reading the Bible with self-aware methods (as opposed to reading and interpreting under the illusion that one is simply reading and the meaning is clear) is it helps get us away from the idea that there is a single thing that 'the Bible says' on a topic, as opposed to a diversity of things that various authors wrote, whose works then came to make up the diversity of perspectives represented within the Bible.

When one is dialoguing with oneself and with one's tradition, it is helpful to realize that Biblical authors were dialoguing one with another. I've called the approach of some fundamentalists the "do as I say, not as I do" approach because all the interest is in what the authors wrote while ignoring the important question of what they were trying to accomplish by writing what they did, including at times editing, changing and rewriting earlier stories.

Robert said...

Very thought-provoking and stimulating post julie. I really would like to hear your thoughts on just how the Holy Spirit accomplishes His role in helping us interpret Scripture and how you handle Pauls writing in 1 Timothy i believe where he says no Scripture is a matter of ones own interpreation. Also curious, have you done any study of kant and hegel as well as liberation theology??? You make me opine for my seminary days :)

Kansas Bob said...

I finally got around to finishing the series Julie - well done!!

I did a follow-up at my place today lifting a few passages that I liked from the last few installments.

Hope all is well these days.

Blessings, Bob