Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What are you reading, Neil Baker?

One of my professors gave me Merold Westphal's Whose Community, Which Interpretation? as a "thank you" for some research that I did for him, and I thought it was fascinating! It addresses the subject of biblical hermeneutics in light of contemporary "postmodern" thought. While many in Christian circles are hesitant to adopt this sort of approach for fear of relativizing the truth of the Bible, Westphal is confident that these recent thinkers have something to offer the church in its understanding and use of scripture.

Initially, Westphal sets out to argue that restricting the full meaning of any text to "authorial intent"—
that is, to regard the "true meaning" of any text to be only that meaning that the text's author had in mind when she sat down to write—is both impossible and unhelpful. He does this mainly by stressing the fact that no author expresses ideas that have not been shaped by the prejudices of her cultural and historical context. The problem is exacerbated when a text leaves behind the author's place in culture and history and is read in a significantly different context—and with an entirely new set of meaning-determinative prejudices. This is precisely what happens when we read our Bibles today.

Westphal takes to heart the limitations of "objectivist" hermeneutics and turns to the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer for a way forward. Rather than attempting to determine the precise "authorial intent" of a text with increasing accuracy through rigorous methods of historical investigation, Gadamer suggests an "hermeneutic of experience." For him, reading a text is comparable to attending an opera, or an art gallery. A work of art has the wonderful and somewhat mysterious ability to speak for itself. To be moved by Mozart's work, I need not ask him "what he was thinking" when he created it (and good luck trying!).
Gadamer suggests that we shouldand in fact dotake a similar approach to hermeneutics.

My next book will probably be The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology by Eberhard Busch. I bought it a few months ago and I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

Neil Baker is a Biblical Studies major here at HIU and edits the "What Are You Reading" submissions that you see here on the library blog. He enjoys reading, listening to good music, and writing about himself in the third person.

Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church by Merold Westphal, Baker Academic, 2009.

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