Yesterday, the ABC, Rowan Williams lectured on the Bible: Reading and Hearing. He spoke of the Bible as the sacred literature of the Church to be heard and received in the context of Eucharist. I'm concentrating here on what he said about biblical interpretation.
Asking first what the church's relation to Scripture is, he pointed out that most people in pews hear the Bible before they read it for themselves. Reading Scripture in church implies 1) that Scripture is not a self-generated reality and 2) what is read needs to be read as a communicative act, that is, as a summons to assemble as a called public community. Just as celebrating the Eucharist together is as a response to an invitation, so hearing the word is a public act of being called together. On such occasions, we are asked to imagine how we are one with a historically remote audience hearing those texts and (when hearing texts that are not directly invitations or summons--genealogies, laments of Job, some Psalms, narratives of the gospels etc.) to ask, ‘What does this text suggest or imply about the changes which reading it or hearing it might bring about?’ As hearers (or readers), our primary obligation is to receive the text. This requires a particular sort of receptivity or openness to the text. We are not going to hear it if we engage it only through our present concerns which may well judge the text solely by its utilitarian value.
First, we need to think through the initial relation of the text to its audience. We need to apprehend the entirety of the text, as part of a whole argument. "It is always worth asking, ‘What is the text as a full unit trying not to say or to deny?’" For example, in the farewell discourses of John's gospel, Jesus' declaration, "no one comes to the Father except by me" is not actually about the fate of non-Christians but, in the context of the discourse, a way to understand Jesus' death as an opening of a way to the Father--a way of self-forgetting and self-offering. This is a change in reading or hearing Scripture.
Another example is from Romans 1. The whole context includes the opening of chapter 2 in which Paul argues that the examples in chapter 1 of the perversity of those who cannot see the requirements of the natural order are in fact "the same perversity that affects those who have received the revelation of God and persist in self-seeking and self-deceit. The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need." The primary point is not about homosexuality but the delusions of the addressed community. Such readings prioritize challenges of the text to a community and asks how these might be received in a contemporary listening community. Hearers are converted to the argument of the text rather than a passive application of a text.
He then cites the example Peter Ochs elucidates in several books about oral Torah being the continuation and elucadation of the argument of written Torah so that a reader sharing a covenant relationship with the first recipients of Torah has to draw out a connection between the initial goal of Torah and the application of Torah now in light of historical catastrophe (the destruction of the temple, the Holocaust).
Finally (for my precis) he argues that "there is an analogous problem at the heart of Scripture. Christian Scripture, the New Testament, is already a work of interpretation, a statement of some very paradoxical connections; it is an attempt to chart what is ‘between’ the texts of Jewish Scripture on which it works." The canon is presented to us as a whole, whose unity is real and coherent, even if not superficially smooth. We are to locate ourselves within this set of connections and engagements, the history of Israel, called, exiled, restored, and of Jesus crucified and risen and alive in the Spirit within the community, not to regard Scripture as one element in a merely modern landscape of conflicts.
I have three points in response to the address. I'm sure there will be many others.
1) Where do we ever hear Romans 1 together with the beginning of chapter 2 in the lectionary i.e. daily office?
2) What is the coherence of canon? This is particularly important if the lectionary presents an incoherent scripture.
3) What about "texts of terror?"
1) The readings of the Daily Office for the week of March 4-10, 2007 this year include for Monday Rom 1:1-15; Tuesday Rom 1:16-25; Weds Rom 1:28-2:11. I remember sitting in chapel on consecutive mornings listening in incredulity to the readings that omit Romans 1:26-27. When we reached Romans 1:28 to be read as the epistle for Wednesday, I asked myself what any reader or hearer would make of the "they" in, "And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God.." You can't understand it without the previous verses. I discussed the omission with Clay Morris, of the Office for Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church, and he could not explain it. The omission stands. If this is the case for Romans 1-2, it probably is not an isolated example. One would have to say that the lectionary is a major obstacle to the hearing of Scripture.
2) If the lectionary presents a fragmentary hearing of scripture, whence is a pew listener to derive a coherent hearing of scripture in order to be able to consider changes in ancient and modern listeners a reading of the whole text might imply? In sermons? In private readings? Answering this question shifts the emphasis from comprehending the text to just obtaining a hearing of it in a(ny) liturgical context.
3) As women scripture scholars (Phyllis Trible, Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza) have pointed out, sacred scripture of synagogue and church contains "texts of terror" in which women are victims: Hagar, the slave used, abused and rejected; Tamar, the princess, raped and disgarded; an unnamed woman, the concubine raped, murdered and dismembered; and the daughter of Jephthah, a virgin slain and sacrificed. How do we hear these texts in the lectionary? Do not texts that inscribe terror and oppression, and that reinscribe the objectification, suppression and marginalization of women's voices raise questions about the coherence of canon?