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Postmodern hermeneutics and the deconstructed biblical text

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If we were to compare biblical hermeneutics of the not-so-distant past with that of the radical, highly complex philosophical rearrangements that we have today in postmodernity, chances are, not a few of us may conclude that it was, after all, really plain and simple back then.

Several strands of biblical hermeneutics were present then, of course, to complicate the hermeneutical state of affairs. But as to where these differing approaches were coming from could still be neatly divided, generally, into two major camps: classical and modern – the one subject to the authority of divine revelation in Holy Scripture (though sometimes tainted by ecclesiastical tradition) while the other prided itself with the Enlightenment’s autonomy of human reason.

To the classical hermeneutician, reason was functional, not magisterial, subject to either biblical or ecclesiastical authority. It was “faith seeking understanding.” To the modern interpreter, reason was supreme. It was autonomous reason versus faith, subject to no authority.

Classical and modern hermeneutics in postmodernity

That was so during the heyday of the Enlightenment’s project in modernity when distrust of authority, ecclesiastical or biblical, was on the rise in the name of scientific progress. But not anymore in this so-called postmodern world of ours, where authority is not only distrusted but thoroughly dismantled.

Authority, by the way, is not its only prey. The old Enlightenment’s autonomous reason is now also suffering from serious injury almost beyond recovery in postmodernity.

Both the classical and modern approaches to biblical hermeneutics, according to postmodernists, operate through their own respective totalizing interpretive structures and strictures (cf. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives”), each bringing its own ideological and political schema imposed by the “metaphysical-philosophical super ego” (Jacques Derrida) to the hermeneutical process. Both of these approaches tend to be abusive, intolerant and arrogant, the postmodernists complain. Both are also wrongheaded in their attempt to know objectively the author’s intended meaning, which, for the postmodern interpreter, is too remote and is beyond reach, inaccessible if not non-existent.

What only remain then in the postmodern hermeneutical arena are the text and the interpreter. And if ever the interpreter is able to locate the author in the text, what he only sees are the author’s fingerprints, stained with his own prejudices and biases so that the so-called authorial intent must be suspect (see Postmodern hermeneutics). As to the postmodern interpreter, he is humble enough to admit that he brings his own epistemological and ontological baggages to the hermeneutical process (i.e., his personality, preferences, presuppositions and pre-understanding) within the bounds of his own cultural-linguistic “situatedness.”

Authorial intent and the deconstructed biblical text

Now stripped of its claim of inherent authority, the postmodern interpreter treats the Bible as an open book, subject to various interpretations and estimations from every angle. The so-called single meaning derived from authorial intent is summarily dismissed as outmoded right at the outset. For as the structuralists suggest, the biblical text under consideration, like all the other texts, is simply a series of forms that emanate from the linguistic system and discursive codes of a certain culture, which in the final analysis would appear to be not really a product of the author himself.

For the postmodern deconstructionist, however, what the structuralist has to offer is not destructive enough, because it still bears the old logocentric residues of classical and modern hermeneutics that are there to hold the text together. For the postmodern interpreter’s task is not to decode the message of the text out of its socio-cultural linguistic constructs. His job is to deconstruct it, and, following the post-structuralist scheme and beyond, to phenomenologically address whatever he perceives to be ambiguous and self-contradictory in the deconstructed biblical text.

What follows then is a series of communal interrogations, interactions and interruptions, which in Derrida’s terms consist of a never-ending “play of signification.” Granted, the author of the text may have his own intended meaning, albeit aloof to the inquiring mind due to the epistemological and temporal gap between him and the reader. But to the postmodernist, the author appears to be not aware that his text carries with it various assumptions and meanings that he never originally intended but are there nonetheless for postmodern interpretative communities to play around.

Sooner or later, this hermeneutical play will lead these interpretative communities to meaninglessness. And if we are to add to the hermeneutical discussion table the deconstructionist’s quip that there is no such a thing as “final meaning,” it would finally be not only meaningless but also pointless.

Interestingly, Soren Kierkegaard, who is said to be the father of Christian existentialism, branded this rather unlikely behavior long before the advent of postmodernity as hermeneutical procrastination. He must have been right on target in this regard, though not exactly. To be more exact, we may call it a "hermeneutical run-around." For here we find the postmodern interpreter making himself too preoccupied in many ways with his interpretative language game, if only to get rid of the intellectual, moral and spiritual issues that the divinely inspired biblical text does not hesitate to confront head on.

References:

  • Carson, D. A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
  • Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  • Michener, Ronald T. Engaging Deconstructive Theology. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007.
  • Vanhoozer, Kevin. Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,1998.
  • _______________, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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