Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Evangelicals and the 'Flat Text Society' - how not to read Genesis

C. Ben Mitchell argues that evangelicals treat the canon as a 'flat text', that is, reading it without any regard to context or genre. Needless to say, this guarantees exegetical imprecision:
More often than not, words are stripped of their brilliance and turned monochrome by our decontextualization. They are flattened by our isolation from their surroundings.  The sheer ubiquity of words in our culture tends to strip them of their texture. 
This reality has led many of my students to read the words of the Bible the same way they read the words of a blog or the words of a text message on their cell phones.  Words are words.  
Not long ago I assigned a student an essay by a famous Marxist moral philosopher. The assignment included both elucidating the text and submitting it to critical reflection—a standard academic project. When he offered his considerations to the seminar class, he completely ignored the date, location, and background of the essay, not to mention neglecting to read a single biographical sketch of the author. He read this text just like any other text he had read. Consequently, he utterly missed every code word of Marxism in the essay, along with other important features of the argument.  In other words, he failed to contextualize the words on the page and by doing so missed the force of the author’s argument. Worse, because he did not understand what the author was saying, he was at a loss to respond critically.
The relevance to the evolution-creation saga is clear. When special creationists, particularly young earth creationists, view the creation narratives as flat texts, they  tear them out of their original context, and read them as science texts, rather than the fierce polemics against ANE mythology that they really are. Not only does that debase Scripture, but it sets up literalists for a totally unnecessary battle with science that they will never win. As Mitchell warns:
Before we can accurately understand what the Word means today, we must first understand what the words meant to their hearers. Our inattention to context sometimes leads us to universalize texts that were meant only to apply in particular times and places. Putting ourselves in the political, cultural, and even geographical context of those who first heard or read the text is not always easy, but it is necessary to being good stewards of the Word of the Lord.
  Full article is here.