Saturday, August 20, 2005

Karen Armstrong on Solitary Reader Paradigms

Jim West calls attention to an article in Mail & Guardian Online by Karen Armstrong. The following part caught my attention:

“Historians have noted that the shift from oral to written scripture often results in strident, misplaced certainty. Reading gives people the impression that they have an immediate grasp of scripture; they are not compelled by a teacher to appreciate its complexity. Without the aesthetic and ethical disciplines of ritual, they can approach a text in a purely cerebral fashion, missing the emotive and therapeutic aspects of its stories and instructions.

“Solitary reading also enables people to read their scriptures selectively, focusing on isolated texts out of context and ignoring others that do not chime with their own predilections. Religious militants who read scriptures like this often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. Christian fundamentalists concentrate on the aggressive Book of Revelation and ignore the Sermon on the Mount, while Muslim extremists rely on the more belligerent passages of the Qur’an and overlook its oft-repeated instructions to leave vengeance to God and make peace with the enemy.”

As usual, Armstrong only gets half the story right. Selective scriptural reading is not the domain of fundamentalist militants. It’s everyone’s problem, even those with benign interests. Furthermore, if there is one group of people less prone to the solitary reading paradigm, it’s those from Islamic cultures where the Qur’an is engaged orally and frequently, in classrooms and on the radio. Certainly those living in third-world oral cultures, not least the ancients, are capable of understanding God as condoning violence.

Philip Esler has recently blasted solitary reader paradigms with more precision in New Testament Theology. The problem with reading-based cultures involves not only selective reading (in oral cultures, selective teaching may just as well be a problem), but more generally, the self-indulgent process by which individualists see in the text whatever they want, and supplant the author’s view with their own. The postmodern love-affair with “intertextuality” doesn’t help matters. We’re too caught up in making distant and alien texts “speak to us” this way, and to suit our agendas, however intolerant or benign. The more odious groups simply highlight the problem.

Armstrong notes that “the Qur’an insists its teaching must be understood ‘in full’ (20:114), an important principle that religious teachers must impart to the disaffected young”. Fine, but what exactly does that mean? It's possible to understand something “in full” and still end up supporting a jihad. More important is that the Qur’an, like the Bible, be assessed critically, with the expectation that parts will not -- and should not -- speak to us in the way they were meant to.

UPDATE: After reading the below comments, see Pete Phillips’ follow-up post on Postmodernible.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Pete Phillips said...

As I've suggested elsewhere, Loren, you might want to think of some actual examples of readings in ancient cultures. Have you read the arguments over the oral law in the Talmud? Have you read some Cicero as he discusses what is being taught in the oratories? What of the various dramatists' (variant) interpretations of mythology - especially Euripides and Aristophanes as they interpret mythology within the context of Athenian social and political life - twisting it any which way they can! What of the Essenes?

Esler is quite wrong to suggest that intertextuality and the (quite separate) ability of an individual or group to interpret a text differently was caused or exacerbated by Gutenberg and his poor press!

And what's all this about solitary reading leading to people focussing on one text they agree with and ignoring others? That has always, always, always been a truth of human interaction - it has nothing to do with solitary reading. It is not a modern or postmodern thing to see in a text what you want to see in it. It is simply the way that language works and that has always been the case since the first attempts to communicate between individuals. Do you really think that everyone in an oral culture agrees and is pacific about things! I am sure you don't.

Pete

8/20/2005  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Esler is quite wrong to suggest that intertextuality and the (quite separate) ability of an individual or group to interpret a text differently was caused or exacerbated by Gutenberg and his poor press!

Needless to say, I disagree.

And what's all this about solitary reading leading to people focussing on one text they agree with and ignoring others?

My point, meeting Armstrong halfway, is that solitary reading certainly lends itself more to this, though you’re right, the phenomenon has always been around. But in oral cultures, the selective interpretation of scripture occurs more along “group-think” lines. They hear what’s read to them in group settings. And there’s the reader/instructor, who provides more controls.

It is not a modern or postmodern thing to see in a text what you want to see in it. It is simply the way that language works and that has always been the case since the first attempts to communicate between individuals.

The question is how much of this is inevitable and to what degree we go along with our naturally selfish inclinations. In reading and studying Lord of the Rings, my favorite literary work of all time, I’ve had seriously to revise my ideas of what Tolkien was getting at. “What I wanted to see” in Lord of the Rings was in fact not there. People like Barthes and Ricouer would tell me I’m wrong, because if I see it there, it is there, regardless of authorial intent. But that’s baloney, and Tolkien deserves better. So do the biblical writers.

Do you really think that everyone in an oral culture agrees and is pacific about things! I am sure you don't.

Certainly not, which is why I took issue with Karen Armstrong, whose remarks do imply this. I suspect Esler would object as well. Orality has nothing to do with pacifism. Neither does the ability to understand one’s scriptures “in full”, as she says. Bernard of Clairveaux was well-versed in scripture and by all indications understood the Bible comprehensively like other theological giants. Yet he preached the Second Crusade.

Thanks for keeping me honest. You postmodernists do get my blood pressure going. But it’s low to begin with, so this ends up being a healthy exercise.

8/20/2005  
Anonymous Pete said...

Hey Loren,

Nice response...but you avoided all the examples of ancient cultures where 'group-think' with the reader/instructor present simply did not happen.

And be careful...you don't know whether I am a postmodern person or not!

Pete

8/20/2005  

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