Canon and Culture: The Scriptures Made Me Do It!

Canon and Culture: The Scriptures Made Me Do It! September 29, 2011

Fundamentalism is the belief that all that the scriptures and revelation say are to be taken as factually accurate. This view is clearly problematic, but I’d like to address its cousin, foundationalism. Foundationalism admits that the scriptures are not factually accurate in all things (though they may be in some), yet argues that they still give us clear moral, ethical, or doctrinal guidance. The scriptures, when properly interpreted, are the secure foundation for our doctrines about the “important” things, like the nature of God, human beings, gender relations, sin, etc, if not science and history. This modernist notion is deeply problematic.

Mormonism actually arises as a critique of biblical foundationalism, which is one reason that it is surprising to find such ideas a part of Mormonism today. The idea was that the text itself was always indeterminate, multivocal, and mediated by human limitation. The solution to this problem was supposed to be direct revelation, a kind of end run around the problem of interpretation. The problem, of course, was that revelation simply provided more texts, imperfect texts that had to be constantly revised and reinterpreted in light of the even newer revelations and texts. Every new bit of data had the potential to radically alter all that had come before. Revelation was given “after the manner of the language of men,” and we realized (or should have) that there was no immediate access, only interpretation upon interpretation. We essentially always selectively interpret our texts because it would not be possible to do otherwise; the texts themselves are not consistent.

The notion of foundationalism, which seeks to recover a secure, eternal kernel of truth in what are recognized as human texts and revelations privileges the “text” as the primary authority, while “interpretation” is secondary. Text is to nature as interpretation is to culture. Scripture and revelation are “given,” while interpretation is degenerative and imitative. Scripture and revelation are the noumena, while interpretation is the phenomena. However, to claim that one is simply basing themselves on the “text in itself” is just the phenomenal realm masquerading as the noumenal.

Of course, let us not lose cite of the fact that the texts and revelations are themselves not only produced in culture, but also their status as authoritative is a cultural product. The ways that we come to recognize one text or person as more authoritative than another is a decision, a communal decision in many cases, but there remain (even in Mormonism) several ways of settling on the “authoritative” that compete with each other. (The number of recent academic articles, newsroom statements, and other forms of discourse which seek to answer the question “what is Mormon doctrine” points to the anxiety of indeterminacy on this question.) The very selection of which texts are authoritative is already a choice of culture, not an immediately accessible access to nature. A canon is already an interpretive act, one which excludes certain options. But this act of limitation has the result of producing an infinite variety of readings. As cultures limit their food options (canon) from among the massive amounts of edible foodstuffs in nature, at the same time they develop cuisine that prepares these limited foodstuffs in an infinite number of ways (interpretation).

As foods do not contain their own recipes, texts do not contain their own interpretations. Texts don’t tell us anything. They can’t actually speak or command or instruct. They can’t even tell us how to read them. We read and interpret according to the ways that we have been socialized to read and interpret. Canon is no more than a closed list. Once you have a closed list, you need an interpreter (hermeneute). He or she chooses from the accepted range of options so that it mediates the communities real needs and the objective lists. These methods can and do change. We read scripture today in ways entirely different from the first century, or the 19th century for that matter.

What readings are logical or possible is determined by the community that reads them. There was a time when the idea that the Bible was a pro-slavery text that justified white supremacy. There was a time when the idea that those of African descent were cursed was considered a perfectly “scriptural” idea. These readings were possible because those who read the text had certain ways of reading that brought them to those conclusions. The kinds of questions we ask, the acceptable methods for obtaining answers to those questions, and the range of possible answers we see to those questions has changed dramatically in the past century, and will continue to change. The kinds of historical questions we ask, let alone questions about power, ritual, archeology, gender, and ethnicity have led to all sorts of creative new interpretations. The same can be said for earlier hermeneutical methods like allegorical interpretation or typological readings. The sorts of methods that are developing now and which will develop in the future will produce yet more new ways of reading scripture.

Isn’t what I am saying a kind of anarchic relativism? Even if it was (and it isn’t), such an argument doesn’t mean that it isn’t an entirely accurate assessment of how some readings come to be established as authoritative, and others then supplant them. Such an accusation is an attempt to persuade by fear, an argument which is particularly egregious since it is those who have been most sure of their readings of scripture who have produced the most violence as a result of their foundationalist assumptions.

My argument is that interpretations are “good” when they are accepted by a community of interpreters. This means that not any reading is equally as good as another, and that there are ways of determining that one interpretation is better than another. But the source of these rules for evaluating interpretations comes not from the texts being interpreted, but from the social constraints in which interpreters exist. Such rules then reflect the society and culture that uses them, and such rules often privilege those in power in those societies. We should be especially critical of interpretations that are invested in the values which privilege patriarchy, racism, colonialism, oppression of the poor, and the maintenance of the status quo. Such theologies and interpretations are political, despite protestations to the contrary. There are no foundations, and no guarantees that we won’t use the texts unethically, but we can at least be sure that foundationalist claims themselves are unethical and disingenuous, so at least we can avoid that.

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