When the TEXT is the Problem – A Liberationists Analysis of Sacred Literature and Social Legacy

When the TEXT is the Problem – A Liberationists Analysis of Sacred Literature and Social Legacy July 7, 2013
R3 Contributor

As a pastor, I deem it a superior sin to cultivate an environment conducive to shallow theology, religious buffoonery and ecclesiastical theatrics.  The legacy of my religious tradition (prophetic Christianity) has sustained countless people through the most paralyzing and perplexing of circumstances of slavery, oppression, economic instability and even death.  Being nurtured and reared (albeit often times indirectly) by such a rich tradition has enabled me to prioritize the necessity of a well-balanced life of faith and reason.  My relationship with God is the most irrevocable and incomparable element in my life.  As a pastor part of my responsibility is to cultivate and nurture the hearts, minds and souls of my parishioners (and potential parishioners) in a way that improves their quality of life.  If ministers would be honest, we would confess that this task is daunting.  There is an indescribable, grinding, prevailing and penetrating tension found in the ministerial mainstream that makes it difficult to navigate between honoring the legacy of our ancestors and the tradition of the faith via its dogma, doctrine and text and being honest about the inconsistencies, contradictions and incompatibilities of that legacy with contemporary reality.  Nevertheless, for those who seek to be faithful to the essence of the faith we must march on anyhow!

My commitment to faithful hermeneutics and practical theology lies in my deep desire that our faith be relevant and impactful not merely relative and impressionable.  I want to empower people to make rational and faith-based decisions on how they view God and what that means for the lives that we choose to live.  I’m not convinced that we can have a faith that we proclaim but do not practice.  I don’t subscribe to the theology of convenience.  We must do the heart-wrenching, soul-stirring WORK that is required for us to embody the beliefs we affirm.  Moreover  if or when we are met with the choice to endorse a sacred text or social legacy that stands in opposition to our deepest and most archival experiences, we ought to have a sense of self (and thereby a sense of the One who Created us) to stand and proclaim that no text is more sacred the my own life story!  I have come to firmly believe that we ought not ever bind ourselves to sacred literature and social legacy so much that we are prone to miss God’s Sovereign Liberation in the midst of it all.    

But that is exactly what we have done (and have been conditioned to do).  We have sacrificed the soul of our existence on the altar of social conformity and acceptance.  Most of us have been brought up and conditioned to devalue and ignore our experience when we approach sacred texts.  When the sacred text doesn’t affirm our current and cultural context we are led to ignore what we have experienced and allow the text to impose its will and way on us, thus mythologizing the authority of the text and disconnecting the text from its political, social and historical context.  We have confused inspiration (which is still subject to human error) with infallibility.  For a text to be inerrant (whether it is a social or spiritual text) is understandable in relationship to the intent of the author – authors want to communicate a message and the commitment to the message doesn’t have to be comprised the facts or truth.  But whether or not the text is inerrant, or inspired we must admit that often times, in our current context, the text (both social and spiritual) is the problem. 

This is the premise of Boyung Lee’s article, “When the Text Is the Problem”.  Lee highlights the conflict of text and contextual relativity in respect to Divine Authority and distinctive or detached autonomy.  She illuminates the necess
ity of a postcolonial hermeneutic and what one scholar (Kwok) refers to as a “demythologizing” and “demystifying” of sacred literature (although this is used in the article in respect to biblical interpretation, I am suggesting that it ought to be applied to all sacred literature). 
What stifles us from being able to wed ancient texts and contemporary practice is the stop light we’ve placed in the area of authority.  Since we believe these texts to be authoritative (which I believe they are) we have been, heretofore, by-and-large, unable to adequately engage the texts enough to ensure their relevance based upon our interpretative approaches. 

In regards to authority, Lee describes a methodology that can honor the essence of authoritative legacy in a way that is less oppressive.  Lee argues, “…dialogical and relative authority invites the addressee to commitment and engagement. The authority invites respondents to investigate the truthfulness and morality of claims before making any commitments. Therefore, the validity of the claim is tested and evidences for the authority of claims are pursued. The validity of the claim is not permanent because whenever new evidence is presented, the credibility and authenticity of a claim can be overturned. Schneiders argues that the authority of the Bible is a relative and dialogical one; it calls for commitment and engagement rather than imposing obedience. It does not use physical force or intimidation, but, rather, it arouses reaction from the depth of one’s being.”

It is in this vein of authoritative honor and legacy that I believe we must begin (or some would argue, continue) to reinterpret the aims and implications of our approaches to sacred texts (again, both social and spiritual).  The conflict between how we have seen and interpreted text and how we ought to do so is undeniable if we are concerned with serving humanities best interest.  Some texts, with a longstanding history of impact (both positive and negative) have not necessarily served humanity well as a whole.  No where do we see this tense tug-of-war between social and spiritual texts and contemporary context than in our cultural and communal spheres.  Often times, we as People of God, are compelled to mediate, the law of the Land and the Law of the LORD… we gather our concepts of law from sacred texts, both religious and political.  In spite of this fact, I contend that if sacred literature or social legacy promotes hatred and injustice… I don’t believe it is “Godly” I think it is GREEDY!

There were two recent Supreme Court decisions that are pivotal. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) ruling, in my estimation, was inspirational and inclusive.  And at the same time the Voters Right’s Act (VRA) was insensitive and exclusionary.  The reality of these, nearly bi-polar, decisions based upon the merit of personhood, which came from the same governing body, exacerbates the harsh reality of gifts and curses coming from the same mouth (or in this case, the same texts). 

As we embark upon the new reformation that I believe we are living in now, it serves us well to allow ourselves the privilege of interrogating any text or social normalcy to see if it serves the greater good of humanity moving forward. Progress can no longer be a luxurious term used to vilify those who oppose us as conservatives and mystify those who seem bound by no morals in the name of liberalism.  Progress ought to speak to the commitment to work towards the type of change that uplifts those who are most vulnerable.  We must begin by admitting that in times past and present we have neglected to meet that mandate from pulpits, policy halls, courts of (in)justice, neighborhoods and individual homes. 

You can follow Earle on twitter @pastor_earle
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