New

I’ve been wondering about the insatiable desire to say something new, especially in the Christian academic and publishing worlds.

If you want to get a PhD, for example, you probably want to discover something new, or at least present a fresh angle. Likewise, if you want to get noticed as an author or academic. Sometimes, it seems to me, this sort of drive leads to the kind of hyperbole which can come across as self-parody. At other times it can lead to biblical scholars presenting work which could have been presented as another helpful angle, instead as the solution to the Church’s last 2000 years of bumbling about in the dark. (I think of N.T. Wright here, who’s work I otherwise enjoy).

I’m reading Richard B. Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament at the moment, and I’m finding it really worthwhile. But, I did just come across this paragraph (on page 199), where Hays responds to the suggestion that his ethical framing of the New Testament is “dependent on the mainstream Christian tradition of canonical reading that goes back to Irenaeus”. You can almost hear the huffing and puffing when Hays responds.

“Second, my readings and my proposed synthesis are not merely repetitions of a traditional perspective. They offer a new interpretive ‘performance,’ the product of a fresh encounter with the texts that poses questions not necessarily asked by the tradition.”

In other words, this is not merely the same stuff you’ve heard before. This is new. Isn’t that interesting?

Of course, every generation of Christians faces the challenge of translating the gospel for their culture. Innovation and creativity in doing that can be a really good thing. Not to mention, as children of the Reformation, it would be a bit hypocritical to pretend that God might not shed fresh light on his Word. These things are always going to sit in a kind of tension with holding to the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3).

I suppose I am simply suggesting that when considering the latest solution to all the Church’s woes, we take some time to question the impulse for the new, and give a little more credence to the fact that the Holy Spirit may actually have been at work in the Christians who have wrestled with these things for 2000 years.

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15 thoughts on “New

  1. Good point Rhett. I might add that (after lots of really positive things) one of the critiques of my Ph.D. was that it was “too beholden to the tradition.” I kind of thought that was a positive, really, but apparently not.

    • Thanks Greg. I’d see it as a positive too. I was listening to a sermon by Will Willimon recently (who is by no means a bastion of conservatism), and he made the comment that people who are doing art degrees never think in terms of, “This new work of mine is really going to set right the wrongs of Picasso!” Artists tend to esteem what has gone before them, and use it as an influence. Modern work isn’t “better”, just “different” (and in some cases probably worse!).

      I much prefer that way of thinking.

  2. “Beholden to the tradition” is surely good, but merely parroting the tradition is surely bad. Everything is incarnate in particular contexts, context changes, therefore expression needs to change.

    • Tim, I feel like there’s so much that could be read into both being “beholden to tradition” and “parroting” tradition that it’s impossible for me to comment on that, without a concrete example of what each looks like for you. But in principle I agree that while gospel content is unchanging, contextualising that content always looks different in different ages and places.

      • My problem with your reply (and I don’t mean to sound negative, but short texts so easily sound that way) is that it seems to overlook that “the gospel” is already enculturated. We hear the gospel in the Gospels and Letters etc. but they are incarnate in a set of cultural and experiential values and assumptions etc.. so, to finally (in this long and convoluted sentence) to start to answer your request 😉 For me “parroting the tradition” is repeating in other words the words of the tradition (whether scriptural or church) without “translating” the culture. “Beholden to the tradition” takes the source cultures into account (as far as possible) in the “reading” and then seeks to “translate” the intent (not merely the words) into today’s church and world. Basically goo old Bultmannian demythologising except without the materialist assumptions and ideally conceived and practiced as remythologising into a different mythic system. Kind of like “performing” a Shakespeare play today, only with less freedom since Shakespeare does not have the sort of authority that Scripture does – though I think the analogy may fit better with actualising tradition.

        • Tim, what you’re talking about – “take[ing] the source cultures into account (as far as possible) in the “reading” and then seek[ing] to “translate” the intent (not merely the words) into today’s church and world.” – is basically exegesis 101, isn’t it? In that sense I totally agree. In fact I’m talking to our young adults about how to read the bible well on Sunday night, and that’s one of the main things I’ll be saying.

          When you say, “We hear the gospel in the Gospels and Letters etc. but they are incarnate in a set of cultural and experiential values and assumptions etc,” I tend to agree, but for me the key question in practice is exactly how that works out, and how much is “up for grabs”, so to speak. As much as parroting the tradition might be an unhelpful end of the spectrum (and yes, people can tend to “freeze” a certain theological moment in history – like the Reformation – and treat what came out of THAT period as infallible), on the other end of the spectrum is a kind of moulding of God, or the gospel message, or whatever, to fit our current needs and preferences, while shaving off the bits that offend us culturally. That, I reckon, is even more unhelpful.

          • Yes, but… Yes, I agree, but this is what makes it all difficult and interesting. Not just biblical interpretation but also applying the tradition too. It may be 101, but too many people either never learn 101 (it’s not taught as much in church as it should be), or they forget it, or it is just easier to take a shortcut and say: “The Bible says…” or “Tradition teaches…”

            • Agreed, and I do come across that from time to time. Probably less than I expected to, though, but perhaps I’m just lucky.

              The tricky thing is that the terrain beyond that statement (which we have been talking about) is so vast and varied that it’s hard to have a conversation about it without case studies. “Remythologising into a different mythic system” could mean doing our best to convey a timeless principle in a way our culture can grasp, or it could mean jettisoning everything “supernatural” in the bible because modern people don’t believe in that stuff anymore.

              So I don’t think we’re saying very different things at all. I’m just inclined to be a little cautious!

              • No, I don’t thin we are, otherwise conversation would be difficult. But what worries me is not so much the rather silly academic search for “new” that you started with (because it seems to me the fact that we are appealing to ancient Scriptures and old or ancient traditions there is always some “new” needed) as the fact that most Christians (like beginning theology students or the twelve women I was talking with yesterday) can not give a good answer why Paul’s clear instruction to women who pray or speak in church to cover their head/hair does not mean that they should wear hats in church. The fact (and in my experience it is a fact) that less than 1 Christian in 10 (those with Bible college training excepted) can deal with such a simple and everyday use of Scripture decently is a terrible warning.

                The technology of printing and of chapters and verses gave the Bible to everyone and produced the Reformation (to oversimplify a little). Electronic technology and the “technique” of citing “verses” to settle Christian arguments risks sending the Bible (and tradition) away again into the arcana of the professionals. Fundamentalism with an authoriarian elitist face 😦

                I am not frightened by the academic desire for “new”, though I’ll laugh or weep at its sillier examples, but I am frightened by the popular desire for simple.

                • I’m happy to think they’re both things to be aware of. I’ve seen the negative impact of both approaches.

                  …Do I score brownie points since I’ll be using the “women be silent” verse as a case study in how to read the bible this Sunday night? 🙂

                  • 🙂 In my book any time a pastor tries to help their congregation to use the Bible better, Brownie points should be awarded!

                    After all such an approach will generate new readings – at least for those people 🙂

  3. Hey Rhett, I’m also reading ‘The Moral Vision of the New Testament’ and am into the final chapter. I’ve really enjoyed it. I wish it had been available when I did theological ethics at Bible College; it would have made the class much more interesting. I love what Hays says about metaphor and analogy, and the chapter on anti-semitism is proving a good foil for thinking about tribalism & nationalism.

    • Hi Stu, that’s fantastic! I am not yet up to the bit where he looks at specific ethical issues, but I’ve heard his treatment of them is really good, so I’m looking forward to it.

  4. Pingback: Killing the Bible with kindness - Sansblogue

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