If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, September 28, 2009

Idealogical Criticism: The Politics of Reading

The following is an excerpt from a seminary class I taught on preaching peace and justice. It is my conviction that preaching peace and justice requires more than using peace and justice as a topic for the sermon. Rather it is a comprehensive practice that includes how we approach worship, liturgy, prayer, hermeneutics, ethics, ecclesiology, and practical ministry. Idealogical criticism is a tool for the preacher of peace and justice.


Preaching peace and justice calls for a hermeneutic (1), an interpretive methodology, which correlates with its prophetic and ethical agenda. A homiletic shaped by peace and justice requires an emancipatory hermeneutic that supports the liberation of oppressed and marginalized peoples. Correlated with the tendency to make peace and justice simply themes for special occasions, preachers have been inclined to preach on peace and justice using the Bible primarily with a thematic approach. By that I mean that they have preached on peace and justice by looking for texts that have peace and justice as their subject, while using interpretive methodologies that are not themselves emancipatory. This is not to say that using the Bible in a topical or thematic mode does not have its place. But, I am proposing that how the preacher reads and interprets texts is critical for preaching peace and justice. Preachers of peace and justice need to move beyond literal, devotional, and traditional historical critical methods in biblical interpretation and to learn to use emancipatory hermeneutical methods (2).

The dominant hermeneutical methodologies for reading the Bible have been Western, white, European hermeneutical approaches (e.g., textual, historical, source, form, redaction criticism). They are rooted in Enlightenment assumptions (e.g., 1) knowledge is rational; 2) truth is universal; 3) individual is central; 4) progress is inevitable). Enlightenment ideology has served to reinforce unjust social, gender, political, economic, and cultural constructions of power by assuming a superiority of Western civilization and its perspective as being neutral and universal. Enlightenment reading methodologies fail to recognize that the formation of texts, the production of meaning, and reading strategies are socially and ideologically constructed. They are historically contingent and reflect their own racial, gender, economic, cultural, and political biases.

Postmodern thought has revealed that meaning is not stable and universal, but is contextual, that is, meaning is shaped by worldview, tradition, history, culture, social and economic location, and ideology. Ideology has to do with a body of ideas, beliefs, values reflecting the social needs, power, and aspirations of a group, class, or culture (e.g., capitalism, democracy, fundamentalism, liberalism). Ideology is inscribed in signifying practices, such as myths, representations, language, and texts. Terry Eagleton, Marxist literary critic, says of the ideological nature of texts: “Ideology pre-exists the text; but the ideology of the text defines, operates and constitutes that ideology in ways unpremeditated, so to speak, by ideology itself.” Texts are implicated in representation and reproduction of ideology. Further, readers, texts, and contexts are all embedded in particular ideologies.

Emancipatory hermeneutics recognizes that there is no neutrality in interpretation or life. Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will no appreciate your neutrality.” In the same way, there is no disinterested , value-free, or neutral reading of texts. Ched Myers, in his political commentary on the gospel of Mark, says, “I also hasten to affirm, with the Marxist tradition, that the study of ideology is for purposes of determining not only how symbolic discourse functions socially, but also on whose behalf.”

Interpretive methodology has served to re-inscribe or resist the dominant social constructions of power. Thus, the act of reading texts is an ethical practice. Texts operate either to justify and fortify existing systems of power and privilege, or they function to dismantle and transform them. There is no neutral production of meaning or reading strategy for texts. Ideological reading, as defined by the Bible and Culture Collective, is “a deliberate effort to read against the grain---of texts, of disciplinary norms, of traditions, of cultures. It is a disturbing way to read because ideological criticism demands a high level of self-consciousness and makes an explicit, unabashed appeal to justice. It challenges readers to accept political responsibility for themselves and for the world in which they live.”

Ideological criticism is a form of resistance reading. This mode of reading has an acknowledged agenda. So, when it comes to reading and proclaiming the meaning of biblical texts, the preacher must be aware the ideologies of the readers, within the text, and various reading strategies. For the preacher there is both the need to acknowledge ideology and to be critically aware and expose our own ideological agendas, while recognizing we are not able to do this completely.

Forms of Ideological Criticism

Socio-political hermeneutics

First, this form of biblical interpretation takes into account the social and political contexts in which biblical texts were written. Second, it seeks to read the biblical texts with a liberative lens. A good example of this type of reading is Ched Myer’s book Binding the Strong Man.

Social location hermeneutics

A postmodern observation is that all texts are read from particular social locations, which color their reading. The dominant social location for reading the Bible has been from the location of the dominant Western, European culture. This approach takes into consideration the very specific social locations of other cultural, gender, economic lenses in reading the Bible.

Feminist hermeneutics

Feminist hermeneutics has been around for a long time, going back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Women’s Bible from the 1800’s. Various hermeneutical strategies are utilized to read the biblical texts, which have been shaped by a patriarchal agenda.

Black hermeneutics

Although forms of resistant reading (reading against the dominant white interpretation) was evident since the days of slavery, black hermeneutics emerged as a disciplined form of biblical interpretation during the 60’s and 70’s. The Bible is read through the lens of the black experience.

Postcolonial hermeneutics

One of the newer forms of ideological criticism is shaped by the global context of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the domination and oppression of indigenous peoples. There are some radical implications for reading texts with this methodology, for example, how one reads the conquest story of the Old Testament.

Girardian hermeneutics

This interpretive approach draws from the cultural and literary theory of Rene Girard. It is a complex, and yet revealing, theory which seeks to understand the nature of human violence and is being used in biblical studies. Michael Harding, who is now a Mennonite, has a website on preaching peace from a Girardian perspective (www.preachingpeace.org).


(1) The term hermeneutic is derived from the name of the Graeco-Roman god Hermes, the messenger of the gods.

(2) Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza outlines these hermeneutical “schools” or traditions as :1) The Doctrinal-Revelatory Paradigm- The Bible is understood as divine revelation, the Word of God. This ancient and medieval method seeks to establish the fourfold sense of Scripture: literal (historical), tropological (moral), allegorical (spiritual/symbolic), and anagogical (future oriented); 2) The Scientific-Positivist Paradigm- The Bible is approached through scientific and rational methodology seeking the one, true, objective, value-neutral, historical meaning of the text. It denies any socio-political, patriarchal, or Eurocentric Enlightenment perspective; 3) The Hermeneutical-Cultural Paradigm- The Bible is understood as a rhetorical text with multidimensional meanings and is read like classics of Western literature. It’s postmodern perspective tends to lead to a relativism of multiple textual meanings; 4) The Rhetorical-Emancipatory Paradigm- The Bible is understood as a rhetorical and political document that is read with an understanding that biblical texts influence structures of power and domination. Ideology shapes both the text and its reading. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), 37-49.

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