What Fun, a New Hermeneutical Question!

with-the-clouds-of-heaven

As I read through James M. Hamilton Jr.’s Book, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology I found myself asking a new hermeneutical question:

“How many other passages of Scriptures were the authors of Scripture thinking about (and how often) when they wrote their own Scriptural passages?”

As it turns out, the way a person answers that question makes a massive impact on the way they interpret what Scripture says and how they think Scripture is saying what it is trying to say. So, for example, if you think Scripture writers were constantly thinking about other Scriptures as they wrote their own Scriptures, then you will tend to see signs of intertextuality more often than if you believe Scriptural writers weren’t constantly thinking about other Scriptural writings when they were writing their own Scripture passages.

As far as this reader is concerned, Hamilton shows how Scriptural authors are almost ALWAYS thinking about other Scriptures as they write their own Scripture – or at the least, this is true in the case of the book of Daniel. In my view, Hamilton sees intertextuality everywhere, “on every page” and “under every nook and cranny” so to speak. It’s quite remarkable, actually. Reading Hamilton reminded me a lot of what it’s like to read G.K. Beale. As one of my Old Testament professors once described Beale to me in a personal conversation as a man who controversially “finds Christ under every rock” so it is with Hamilton and Scripture. In interpreting Scripture, Hamilton doesn’t ever seem to simply look at the words of one isolated sentence of Scripture, and then interpret as such. Instead, as he reads he is constantly searching (and finding!) for other Scriptural correspondences that relate with that particular sentence, so that he can further understand not only what the author is trying to tell us, but what the author is assuming the audience already knows.

Hamilton explains that our interpretations of Scripture should be shaped by the way Scripture interprets itself as well as understanding generally how literature functions. Among other things, “being sensitive to the literary dimensions of biblical texts requires us to discern how the authors structured their work, what kinds of things they assumed the audience would know, and the perspective from which they intended their work to be interpreted.” (23)

Hamilton believes that Scriptural authors can be referencing other Scriptures without ever having to invoke, allude, quote or even echo other passages. I read that and was like, “say whaaaa?” Initially it seemed to me a potentially dangerous assumption – almost certainly stated too strongly – but now I may be convinced. He asks, “how can such a suggestion be made?” Well, Hamilton says the validity of the suggestion depends on how we understand the culture in which the biblical authors wrote. For this suggestion to stand, that culture would have to have been saturated in the Scripture that was available…which takes us right to the question of the interpretive perspective of the Biblical authors. Especially to the question that I started with, “How many other Scriptures were the authors of Scripture thinking about (and how often) when they wrote their own Scriptural passages?”

A contemporary example will illustrate the way Hamilton believes authors and audiences share unstated information. He says,

“I wrote the first draft of these thoughts on Tuesday, February 5th, 2013. The previous Sunday, February 3rd, 2013, was “Super Bowl Sunday.” The Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Championship Game. Consider for a moment everything assumed about readers of this book in the use of the abbreviation “NFL,” the mention of the “Baltimore Ravens”, and the reference to the game that was played as both the “NFL Championship” and “the Super Bowl”. No flock of birds comes to mind at the mention of the Ravens, no one (in the USA) needs the explanation that the Super Bowl is the National Football League Championship game, and everyone knows that Baltimore and San Francisco are both cities.

These things are so much a part of US shared culture that they require no explanation. In fact, they are so much a part of our culture that we can talk to others about the events – and write about them – without overtly mentioning them. Consider the way that I [Hamilton] referenced the game during the announcements before the worship service of Kenwood Baptist, the church I serve as pastor, on the morning under discussion. One of our elders was hosting a Super Bowl party at his home. I did not have to use the words “Super Bowl party” to make that announcement. Overt mention of the event was unnecessary. The announcement went something like this:

“Warren and Jody are opening their home this evening to all and sundry. Evidently there’s something happening on television tonight, maybe you know the details, apparently some commercials are going to be aired. If you’d like to watch the proceedings with others from our congregation, you’re welcome to bring a bag of chips, a jar of salsa or a two-liter to Warren and Jody’s house.”

At the words, “Evidently there’s something happening on television tonight, maybe you know the details” there were smirks and snickers in the congregation, and there was a wry look on my face. Everyone knew what was referenced, even though the words “Super Bowl” and the phrase “football game” were never used.

Hamilton goes on to explain that this is exactly what happens when comedians share jokes  with an audience – for many jokes to make sense, the assume shared information must be there without having to be explained.  What Hamilton said next surprised me. He said,

“The biblical authors make similar assumptions, and the task of Biblical theology is to identify and demonstrate such assumptions. From the way the biblical authors have written, it appears that awareness of earlier biblical texts could be taken for granted in their culture the way awareness of the Super Bowl can be in ours.” (Page 25)

Catch what Hamilton is saying there. He is saying: In the same way that a person living in America is familiar with all the trappings of the Super Bowl, so the Biblical authors were familiar with other Scriptures. He later states, “authors intend to be understood. If they have not explained themselves, they probably thought no explanation necessary.” So, in one sense it is an argument from silence – but the implication is enormous. You don’t have to point to a particular allusion in order to prove that a connection with another Scripture is there if everyone in that world is already immersed in the world of Scripture already. The assumed level of background knowledge and familiarity with Scripture is very, very high. But I’m curious how true this is especially considering the fact that most of the immediate audience could not read. In an oral culture such as the Ancient Near East, would the vast majority of people be as steeped in Scriptural history as Hamilton suggests?

Hamilton makes a similar analogy at the very end of the book when he is talking about Daniel’s use of the story of Joseph both as a “point of contact” and as a “background pattern.” Hamilton says that for Daniel “to call one piece of the pattern to mind was to invoke the whole” in a similar way to how we modern Americans respond to the all-familiar song, “Amazing Grace.” Hamilton says,

“In my own context, the tune to ‘Amazing Grace’ is so pervasive as to be recognizable to believers and unbelievers alike. Play the first two notes of the song, or sing its first two syllables, and even if the music stops at that point the song will continue in the minds of many. Play the first few measures together and the melody will be embedded, to be hummed, sung or whistled to the hearts content… Mention of Joseph into slavery and then exalted over Egypt would be like striking the first few notes of Amazing Grace, a sweet sound that will have wayfarers whistling the rest as they await fulfillment.” (222-223).

Hamilton is saying that for Daniel to evoke a part of the Joseph story is for Daniel to evoke all of Israel’s history at the same time. In his own words, “to suggest a correspondence between Joseph and Daniel was to activate in the imagination the whole paradigm that culminated in exodus and conquest.” (224). Hamilton later says that the Biblical writer would often rely on “subtle, allusive indicators that were like power switches turning on the electric current that caused Old Testament expectation to throb and surge with life.”

My questions to all of the above are the following: “Is Hamilton right?” “Was the original audience of Daniel that steeped in Scriptural history?” “How about the rest of the audiences of Scripture outside of Daniel?” “How should these answers affect the way we hear Scripture, or even, how we preach it?” More thinking…must happen.

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3 Barriers to Hearing God’s Words

hearing-gods-word

I’d like to highlight three barriers to our being able to properly hear God’s words. I found these barriers as I read through Peter Adam’s book, “Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality.” These three barriers include our personalities, our cultural conditionings, and our unintentional illiteracy.

1) Our Personalities:

In discussing the parable of the soils, Peter Adam examines how our unique personalities can hinder our capability to fully hear the life-giving message of the Gospel. This, because:

  • Emotional people can easily deflect the Word by turning the hearing of it into an emotional experience. They test the word (or its preaching) by its emotional impact, and then focus their response on that emotional experience. But once the emotion has passed, so has the Word.
  • Cerebral people can easily deflect the Word by turning the hearing of it into an intellectual exercise. They substitute understanding it for responding to it, fitting it into their theological grid so that it does not impact their lives.
  • Ministry people can easily deflect the Word by receiving it as a message to be passed on to others. They can always see the application to others, but not to themselves.
  • Practical people can easily deflect the impact of the Word by reducing it to something easy to understand and then, to do. They will have no time for anything not immediately relevant. They reduce the Bible to a set of instructions for daily living, and develop a legalism that blunts the power of God’s Word
  • Superficial people will pay as much attention to God’s Words as they would to anything else, and thus will never be able to receive the Words that can change them.
  • Reactionary people are those who always want to contradict what anyone has asserted about anything. They too will find that their habit of life makes it very difficult for them to receive the Word of God and let it bear fruit in their lives.

2) Our Cultural Conditionings: 

It is difficult to fully hear God’s Word in our current cultural climate because of what Jacques Ellul calls the “humiliation of the word.” James Diane writes of the common view of words today, “Words are puffs of air, mere sounds that die on the wind, lacking inherent power…mere symbols, meaning whatever their user wants them to mean.” Os Guinness writes of this phenomenon as follows:

“We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of the anti-word and which potentially is the age of the lie.” (Quoted on page 139)

Guinness points to the three main maxims that underlie advertising, which itself expresses the trends in communication in our society. They are to:

  1. Simplify thought
  2. intensify emotions
  3. magnify symbols

The author makes an apt argument. While there are simple thoughts, intense emotions and important symbols in the Bible, the prevalence of this mode of communication makes it difficult for modern people to grapple with the whole message of the Bible since the form of Scripture is words. We do not have an authentic Jesus DVD, nor have we personally seen the visions of John recorded in Revelation. We have the words of the Bible. So, the form of Scripture is a form we are not used to digesting and thus, “the move away from listening to words to looking at signs explains much of the religious appetites of our generation.” We have lost sight of a true understanding of Scripture because we have forgotten how to maintain a sustained concentration to words. This is a problem. I like how Susan Sontag says it when writing on photography:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy. Only that which narrates can make us understand. (Quoted on page 141)

Perhaps this is why Walter Brueggemann describes the kind of preaching that works in our modern age as NOT patriarchal, hierarchical, authoritarian, monologic, flat or universal, but [should be] marked by ambiguity, playfulness, openness, irony and contradiction. He writes of the need for a rhetoric that conveys a counter-truth subversive of dominant, commonly accepted givens, and which has a different style or mode of articulation. This rhetoric will be “Not excessively solemn or rationalistic or final or given with too much sobriety. Rather it is an utterance that is playful, open, teasing, inviting, and capable of voicing the kind of unsure tentativeness and ambiguity that [the people of God] must also maintain.”

For whatever else reasons we should preach this way, I can see at least one additional benefit: It may help us pay more attention to the Word of God – which is full of words – again, a mode of learning we aren’t used to digesting all that much any more.

3) Our Unintentional Illiteracy:

I’m sure this point is somehow related to point #2. Essentially, our frequent and unintentional misinterpretations of Scripture inhibit us from truly hearing Scripture. This happens when we read and interpret Scripture out-of-context. Unfortunately, I see this happen on an almost weekly basis in the church (oftentimes the perpetrator being, myself). This is devastating because whenever we hear Scripture out of context, we aren’t actually hearing what Scripture is saying about itself, and thus, we aren’t really hearing God’s Word as God’s Word.

We do this in lots of ways. As Peter Adam states, we often “hold to the shadow and miss the substance” (101). As Revelation 22:18-19 makes clear,

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophet, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

What matters to God is our response to THE WORDS, adding to or taking from the words is the opposite of KEEPING the words (cf. Revelation 1:3; 22:7). Nothing is more important than the exact hearing and keeping of the Word as we know it.

One of the reasons I love the series of which this book is a part (New Studies in Biblical Theology) is because each book in the series models a careful reading of entire books and themes of Scripture. Allen models this principle masterfully on pages 81-86 where he exegetes Luke Chapter 24. It is remarkable. He shows how typically this chapter is used for three purposes:

  1. As proof of the empty tomb (based on history)
  2. To show what it’s like to encounter the risen Christ (based on experience); and
  3. To establish a model of meeting Christ in the breaking of bread (based on the Last Supper)

Yet, none of these three aspects of the chapter speak to its’ main reason for existing. Each misses the main point. Actually, the main point of the chapter is not the resurrection of Christ, but that the resurrection of Christ is a part of the whole Gospel story. And actually, the basis for faith is not the empty tomb, an experience of the risen Christ or even the breaking of bread, but the trustworthiness of both the Old Testament AND Jesus’ teaching. I shouldn’t need to map out the full argument for the reader to see my own main point which is to agree with Adam that if we don’t read Scripture in context – we will miss out on the fullness of its message. If we don’t hear Scripture in its proper context, we won’t actually hear what Scripture is trying to tell us.