Close Reading: Reading From Different Perspectives
Spend any time in contemporary biblical scholarship and you will encounter this idea of reading texts from variant perspectives, most especially feminist, minority, post-colonial, and queer perspectives (this last category, bizarrely, is not a derogatory term, despite the use of the word “queer” as such in popular culture). In each case, the basic purpose behind reading a text (in our case, a biblical text) intentionally from one of these lenses is really to critique traditional interpretations of the text – to see what kinds of details and readerly attitudes arise from reading “against the grain”, if not of the text itself then of the predominant interpreting culture.
Okay. So let me try to break that down a little. Whenever we read a text (especially a biblical text), we read from a perspective – a body of knowledge, assumptions, and values – that largely determines what we get out of the text. Think about our attitudes and experiences as readers as being the data that is fed into a computing machine (which is the text). Reading the text is like running the machine with new data. The machine outputs a product, which is the meaning of the text (or what we perceive in that moment as the meaning of the text). The role of the reader in producing meaning in a text is what makes it so that two people can read the same text and get different, if compatible and not contradictory, things out of it.
Does a Text Signify Independently of a Reader?
Now, some people think that the perspective of the reader is the only thing that produces meaning – the text is a blank slate, a neutral filter that simply feeds back to us what we put into the text in a slightly modified form. In other words, there are only self-confirming readings of texts. Such a perspective calls into question the possibility of real communication at all.
Certainly, many – maybe even most – of our readings of texts are self-confirming. This is what is elsewhere called “confirmation bias”, and it is indeed rampant in our culture, particularly in political discourse. It isn’t simply the average person on the street who reads or hears political news articles in a biased manner – those who are producing the political texts are reading or hearing others in a biased way. Generally, it is easier to perceive someone else’s bias than one’s own, which is why everyone accuses the mainstream media of a narrative: conservatives accuse the media of a liberal bias, while liberals accuse the media of a conservative bias. So confirmation bias is a real thing, and it is a huge problem in our culture.
But if it is impossible to read a text in a non-self-confirming way, then that is a bleak situation, indeed. We have no meeting places, no possibility of changing someone else’s mind through conversation or of being made wiser thereby. But regardless of our inability to explain how communication happens despite our human propensity to listen in a self-confirming way, experience tells us that communication does indeed somehow happen, functionally if imperfectly. I can call my friend on the phone, or write him an email, suggesting we meet for coffee at 2pm on Thursday. He says that this sounds good and he’ll see me then. If we both show up at the same coffee shop at approximately the same time, I see no other way to explain this than that communication has successfully happened. An idea originated in one mind, was communicated via an imperfect medium to another mind, and it produced coincidental behavior which would not have happened otherwise. In reality, none but the most out-of-touch of postmodern theorists are going to deny that communication happens and that meaning is a shared product of text and reader (or message/author and hearer).
The Importance of Reading “Against the Grain”
Confirmation bias, then, is a problem, but it is not one that cannot be overcome. The above mentioned perspectives – of which feminist, minority, post-colonial, and queer are the trendiest – are in their purest forms attempts to read texts from non-traditional perspectives in order to discern what kinds of meanings the text at hand can produce that may have been suppressed. In other words, they seek to get around confirmation bias by intentionally taking a perspective that is at odds with the traditional interpretative perspective, which is generally understood as white, male, Western European or North American, and heterosexual. The basic premise is one all Christians should be able to get behind. Common sense tells us that we are not the original readers of the Bible and that there are important social, cultural, and linguistic differences between us and the original readers. If we are interested in the meaning that biblical texts had for their original readers, we should be trying to recover the assumptions and values of the reader implied by the text so that we put in the “correct” data. In other words, the implied reader is a role we can take on when reading the text (contrary to some of the earliest ideas about the “implied reader”, it is my opinion that the implied reader is usually a range of possible readers rather than just one). At the very least, the various postmodern reading perspectives help us to read the Bible so that we become cognizant of our biases and of the way we partner with the text in producing meaning. They help us critique ourselves as readers.
A good feminist reading will point out to us how reading from a female versus a male perspective may make us more or less sympathetic with a certain character or situation. What seemed, from a male perspective, to be something to cheer about, for example, turns out to be not so great a situation from a female perspective. Minority and post-colonial readings can make us especially sensitive to the plight of the stranger, of the Edomites and Moabites, or of Israel during the Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic periods. Queer readings can help free us from oppressive gender stereotypes that we might be reading into the text self-confirmingly rather than getting out of the text. All of these things help us to be more self-aware as readers, and the more self-aware we are, the better chance we have of reading from a humble perspective and actually being changed by the text. Biblical wisdom, in many ways, is connected to self-awareness. So I am all for readings from different perspectives, even intentionally “wrong” perspectives, because they are essentially experiments that help us separate reader input from text machinery.
Abuses of Postmodern Reading Perspectives
Too often, however, practitioners of these various kinds of readings are not so much critiquing the readers and interpretations of biblical texts as they are critiquing the texts themselves. A poorly executed feminist reading might just end up being an outlet for someone to express their anger at what they perceive to be patriarchalism and to write off a given biblical text as having any potential application for modern people. Queer readings quite often become merely an opportunity for someone to write vulgar things about the text and to criticize it for assuming too binary a conceptualization of gender (the text becomes a proxy for present day culture’s heterosexual normativeness). Anyone who expresses any concern or distaste about the vulgarity is dismissed as a mere cis-gender male (probably repressing homosexual urges) or a prude. Other pseudo-academics will praise the shocking language as “courageous”, and the author will be able to look forward to a long and lucrative career in tenured academia. But in all the chaos they will have failed to tell us anything about the text.
In my opinion, these kinds of readings are usually performed by people who have no idea what they are doing, and they seem to have no real love for or interest in the Bible itself. They have read a little theory but have failed to understand it or its purpose, and they have inflicted their failed understanding on the Bible simply because it is a sacred text, and criticizing sacred texts, especially the Bible, is extremely trendy and a great way to impress the hiring committees of major universities. In my experience, the bulk of so-called post-colonial and queer readings of biblical texts are just this kind of thing, and they produce no insight into the text whatsoever. Instead, academic papers of this sort serve more to reveal the biases of the papers’ authors than the biblical texts that the papers are ostensibly about.
Differing Perspectives Inherent in Bible Study
Just because postmodern and deconstructive reading strategies are abused by some does not mean, however, that these strategies are (1) without a legitimate usefulness or (2) incompatible with a reverent and faith filled study of the Bible. As I said above, done honestly, intelligently, and humbly, readings “against the grain” will tell us a lot about the Bible and about ourselves as readers of the Bible.
In fact, I would suggest that the Bible itself invites us to read from different perspectives, though these perspectives might be a little different from the typical postmodern categories (how ironic that one can even talk about “typical postmodern categories”!). As I have been studying the book of Amos and preparing a series of lessons for my church, I have become aware that I am shifting my readerly perspective intuitively in order to find the maximally meaningful approach to a given text. Even within the span of a few verses, I might read from two or even three subtly different perspectives. To explore these perspectives, however, and what they mean for our Bible study, even how they are connected to the pattern of Christian discipleship, will require another full length post (… to be continued …).