African-American, Feminist, and Mormon Biblical Studies

African-American, Feminist, and Mormon Biblical Studies February 14, 2007

Recent discussions here and elsewhere have focused on the role of contemporary critical biblical studies and their relationship to Mormon biblical studies. Many have questioned not only the methods of a “scholarly” Mormon biblical studies, but also its possibility. In some circles, the dominant model for appropriation of contemporary scholarship is denominational, and the Catholic experience is taken as emblematic. I have been critical of such a model here. As a result, I hope to suggest an alternative model for what Mormon biblical studies might look like.

Modern academic biblical scholarship focuses on exegesis. Such an approach has transcended denomination boundaries by attempting an “objective” accounting of the text’s own theological position. Such a view is grounded in the idea that the text says something on its own that the careful reader can discern. This view often implicitly assumes that there is a single correct reading of the text that corresponds to the “author’s intent.”

African American and feminist biblical scholarship has critiqued this view, primarily on the grounds of hermeneutics. The idea of there being a single meaning to a text, not only at the time that it was written, but through its history of interpretation, has been abandoned long ago in the philosophy of interpretation, yet the guild of biblical studies often continues to cling to such a view. There is no objective lens and the supposedly objective methods of biblical scholarship have their own history. Further, the quest for the “original” meaning is rooted in a kind of impluse for truth that makes the fundamentalist Christians and professional biblical exegetes look a lot alike. The hermeneutical framework is largely the same; the only difference are the details.

As an alternative, African American and feminist biblical studies have made “ethics” into a central interpretive lens. Questions of liberation, justice, and power have become the framework for interpretation. Such an approach looks at how different communities have interpreted the text and considers these legitimate, even though, for examlple, African American slave hermeneutics were largely developed by illiterate people who only heard the text, but never read it. This approach further recognizes that all interpretations are selective, choosing to highlight some aspects of the text while ignoring others. As such, these hermeneutical approaches are not concerned with the mythical “author’s intent”, but with the possibilities that are produced by the text.

I propose that Mormon biblical studies follow a similar model. As far as I am aware, such an approach does not yet exist within Mormonism. For Mormon biblical studies, the task is to read Mormons who have written on the Bible and the derive a set of hermeneutical principles that are at work in their interpretations. This is somewhat of a task suited for anthropology. However, for scholarly Mormon biblical studies, the goal would then be to situate these principle as they speak to the “Mormon experience.” This is not a universal reading, but a historically situated reading of Mormons. The goal is not to point out that the text doesn’t “really” say what they think it says, but to demonstrate the principles on which it is based and to cull from it larger reflections about ethics and Mormon experiences.

As I have argued previously, the only important divisions in the feild of biblical studies are hermeneutical, not doctrinal or denominational. While these approaches I think are dying or irrelevant, feminist and African American hermeneutics have become centrally important, often taught even in introductory level courses. We have to give up on the idea that the text is going to resolve doctrinal or denominational disputes. Instead, the hermeneutical divisions rest on whether there is a single meaningful meaning to the text. The opposition I think rightly questions the possibility of such an “objective” understanding of the text, its utility, or both.

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