The Strange Bedfellows of Literary Epistemology
One of the books that I began reading earlier last year was N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God. Though I was really enjoying it, due to its rather dense nature, it demands a certain amount of commitment so I decided to put it down until the new year. With 2015 upon us, I have picked it up again and started slowly plodding through it.
Still being in the early stages of the book, I am currently working through Wright's epistemological groundwork. In other words, Wright is expanding on the particular worldview and form of literary criticism he will employ as he approaches a text like the New Testament. In doing so Wright confronts several different schools of thought concerning literary criticism, one of them being post-modern or deconstructionist criticism. Put simply, this form of criticism argues that one cannot really learn anything "objective" about the subject matter a text is addressing (say historical events) but only about the author or about one's self. This theory states that we can't really learn about the event being described but only about the author of the the text. A more extreme example might say we can't even learn about the author but only about what we (the reader) is learning about ourselves. Texts can only serve as a mirror (or slanted mirror) and never as a window.
This form of criticism would almost universally be frowned upon by most all conservatives, especially Biblically conservative Christians who "hold a high view of the scriptures." However, Wright makes a profound point by showing that many fundamentalist and evangelical traditions actually promote this very type of post-modern or deconstructionist literary criticism to their adherents when they teach them to read the Bible in order to hear what it "says to them."
The following excerpt from The New Testament and the People of God gives the gist:
Most Bible-readers of a conservative stamp will look askance at deconstructionism. But its proposed model is in fact too close for comfort to many models implicitly adopted within (broadly speaking) the pietist tradition. The church has actually institutionalize and systematized ways of reading the Bible which are strangely similar to some strands of postmodernism. In particular, the church has lived with the gospels virtually all its life, and familiarity has bred a variety of more or less contemptible hermeneutical models. Even sometimes within those circles that claim to take the bible most seriously—often, in fact, there above all—is a woeful refusal to do precisely that, particularly with the gospels. The modes of reading and interpretation that have been followed are, in fact, functions of the models of inspiration and authority of scripture that have been held, explicitly or (more often) implicitly within various circles, and which have often made nonsense of any attempt to read the Bible historically. The devout predecessor of deconstructionism is that reading of the text which insists that what the Bible says to me, now, is the be-all and end-all of its meaning; a reading which does not want to know about the intention of the evangelist, the life of the early church, or even about what Jesus was actually like. There are some strange bedfellows in the world of literary epistemology. (pg. 60, emboldening mine)
In summary, the pietist tradition (evangelicalism) would be shocked if they looked closely at how they tell their followers to read the Bible and found out that they are actually advancing a post-modern and deconstructionist form of reading. The insistence that we approach the Bible to find out what it "says to me" opposed to a historically informed reading is heavily influenced by postmodern thought; regardless of how much evangelicals might deny it.
All in all, Wright is correct in saying: "There are some strange bedfellows in the world of literary epistemology."
Food for thought.