More reception history 2: stating more of the obvious
[UPDATE: I should have mentioned the return of Rafael and Verily, Verily - see also the comments)
1. Some invented speculative questions now. One is on the influence of the Bible and biblical verses. Now that’s a big, big question and gets us back to the old issue of ideas versus more socio-economic ‘forces’. It is also one John Lyons discussed a while back and I develop some of those ideas in this post.
In many Western, obviously enough the Bible is a major cultural reference point, consciously or unconsciously. We might think of literary and theological traditions where the Bible has been integral and the old chesnut that is the weight/anxiety of tradition and influence is, obviously, very much present. Ok, but no general problem here.
But West is far too broad. Let’s take the US and UK for two very distinct views and politics in particular. A nice obvious example, yes, but one which should help make the point that this question is very complex. In the UK it is difficult to see how the use of the Bible has any significant impact on party politics. Certainly some politicians may well be motivated by faith and the Bible but there is not yet a big Bible-belt style vote to be won and things overtly biblical are usually avoided. In the US, well we all know how interpretation of the Bible is a big issue. But even then the problem is not simple. In terms of Christian Zionism and their currently influential interpretation of the Bible, it has only really emerged as a force, post-1967, post Six Day War. And even that shows greater problems of causality: CZ becomes a big influential issue after a major historical event which, for many, seemed to confirm biblical prophecy. And in turn, it is a particularly American issue, with all the history and theology underlying it. While it is relatively easy to explain the various influences on US politics, it is not so easy to make division in terms of primary influence and say just how much the Bible and biblical interpretation play a role and how much itself was a product of historical events or that history and ideology is just so embedded that the task is near impossible. Perhaps all we could do is suggest that the Bible and biblical interpretation is one factor among many, not as influential as wider geopolitical trends and urges but an influence…?
Another good example would be the current problems facing the Anglican Church over homosexuality. On one level there is a debate over interpretation of the key biblical verses and if it could be said that they are fairly explicitly anti-homosexual (or whatever terms you want) then the Bible is having an influence. But again, why now? Why not 150 years ago? Well the obvious reason is that more liberal views towards homosexuality have developed in the past 40 years and so it becomes an issue, with the Bible kind of dormant on the issue, just waiting to be woken. Then there are all sorts of complex local histories that need to be factored in and so on. So again, it starts to become a bit chicken and egg and again we are seeing another example of how broader cultural trends spring the Bible into action but with the influence of the Bible always lurking and perhaps its sheer presence always influencing and only now being reacted against…?
One example which I think shows how the Bible is being used and not a significant influencer is the emergence of liberal democracy. There is common rhetoric that the West is so wonderful and liberal because of the Bible in contrast to the East, Arabs, Muslims, Islam, or whatever. Now I’ll have more to say on the whole clash of civilisations stuff in the following months but I find the idea of the Bible somehow ‘causing’ liberal democracy a problem. For a start it took so long. Another point is that the Bible has nothing really to say on liberal democracy and most biblical writers would be most happy with some form of theocracy. We could invoke other influences, such as the taking up of certain classical Greek traditions as ‘Western’, perhaps add other things such as interlinked geographical and technological locations, among many, many things. Whatever, you get the point. More generally, is this not a good example of how the Bible gets invoked after the event rather than having any serious causal function?
Another twist, is the ‘unconscious’ use of the Bible. It is not difficult to find (as has well and truly hit home in writing a forthcoming paper) plenty of examples of the Bible and biblical language being used by people (esp. in pop cultural contexts) without any care for religion, Christianity, the Bible and so on. Famous words and lines are used for a variety of ‘secular’ and previously unheard of reasons. This takes us back to the general cultural and historical contexts and who knows where using and being influenced begin and end.
2. My own other question: what should reception history be like? Both its strength and weakness is that there is simply so much material waiting to be analysed. One problem for the commentary and a problem that presumably faces the writers of the Blackwells series on reception history is what to include and exclude. Selecting evidence is a problem at the best of times but selecting evidence for a reception-historical commentary is even more difficult, with the probable exception of If the commentary was a mainstream theological type of thing (something like Luz’s Matt commentary or Thiselton’s 1 Cor. commentary, say) then this the boundaries are relatively easy: look at the patristic, medieval, Reformation, modern etc. theologians. What is to be done is then another issue: explain why the given theologian made the interpretative decision they did or see whether they have interpreted the given verse ‘correctly’ or have a particular insight that historical criticism has missed.
But for a reception historical commentary that doesn’t want to go this way then what are the boundaries? A theme could be chosen but a theme for a whole commentary? Some verses might have an obvious route to choose (maybe) and perhaps it might be worth focusing on one tradition, an ideology (e.g. feminism, liberation etc) or what country or something like that. But, ultimately, how does a reception historical commentary of a more open variety avoid the problem of being sort of, well, random? The commentary format is something of traditional biblical studies and theology and there’s no reason (obviously!) why it should be the route for all, many, or most (likewise in traditional biblical studies) but for those working on commentaries there are problems of choice. I know one or two who hang out online and are working on such commentaries, so is this a fair comment?
There is a danger of a reception historical work being little more than cataloguing: this book says this about Luke 6, that text work of art says something else, this singer references this, that and the other biblical verse etc. (though collections of reference works would be very helpful). I suppose there are many ways in which to develop this. One way would be to emphasise the historical aspect and avoid simply the question of this person interprets this way, another that. And by historical…well that could mean a lot of things but how about this… If someone works on the reception of the Bible in art then it would no doubt be a good thing to get into art history and the historical and cultural context of the given work of art and explain why certain interpretative decisions were made in context, in addition to contexts in the history of ideas. Likewise, film, music, literature or whatever. That seems an obvious enough point and may seem banal to those trained in traditional historical criticism but I’ve been to enough reception historical papers to know that serious study of historical and cultural contexts is often avoided. In some ways, it is an extension of many of the methods used in conventional historical criticism of the Bible. Just lots of new detail with which to work.