The Bible as Diversified Metanarrative—Hermeneutics within History and Community

For colonialism, hegemony is a practically ubiquitous goal. A colonizing power must convince, if not the larger native population, at least the subaltern elite that the colonizer's interests are its own, and it seeks to do so through not only economic and political control but more subtly through the control of education and media. Colonization is often more than the simple exploitation of another culture's people and resources, it is an ideological struggle, an attempt to shape what a culture perceives as actual reality. Lord Thomas Macaulay's 1835 "Minute on Indian Education" is a classic instance of this, but one could find any number of other examples, as the imposition of European systems of politics, law, church government, trade, agriculture, fashion, sport, etc. in any number of countries would show.

Going hand in hand with colonial hegemony, is the question of metanarratives ("grand narratives," "master narratives"), that is large cultural stories that seek to explain within their borders all local narratives.  Metanarratives are as often secular as they are religious.  Not only are the major world religions metanarratives, but so are beliefs such as the Communist theory of history and the Enlightenment view of progress. It was Jean-François Lyotard who popularized the notion that postmodernism is "incredulity to metanarratives." The problem according to Lyotard and others is that no metanarrative can actually reflect the experiences and truth-claims of all peoples and cultures; therefore, metanarratives are inherently oppressive because they actually mask the attempts at hegemony of particular groups. Very often post-colonial critics make a similar charge. The local knowledge and power of a particular culture is inevitably coopted or made inferior by the larger metanarrative of the colonizer.  Now, it is worth noting at this point that local stories can equally be dangerous and violent, a.k.a. the ethnic and tribal violence that the world has witnessed the last two decades. Nonetheless, this charge is worth considering.  Must a metanarrative, such as the Christian Bible, be inevitably a tool of power and oppression?   Do the claims of scripture eventually lead to violence?

The Christian scriptures have often be used to justify violence and mistreatment of others.  In the United States, slave-owners often quoted biblical passages to support their abusive practice (cf. Luke 12:47, Col 3:22-4:1), including the infamous claim that the "mark of Ham" (Gen 9:20-27, 10:6-14) is black skin. Likewise, men have often oppressed women in the name of biblical submission (cf. Eph 5:21-33, Col 3:17-20) or used Eve as a model of supposed female incapacity. Still to acknowledge that scripture has been used to justify violence does not mean that it must inevitably do so.  I would contend that there are three aspects of the biblical witness that work against this:

  1. the diversity of the biblical canon,
  2. the communal nature of interpretation,
  3. and the call to critical self-knowledge and epistemic humility.

The Bible is a diverse book.  While Christians believe that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is [thus] useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (II Tim 3:16), we also acknowledge the human element in the creation of the scriptures.  God did not simply dictate the Bible word-for-word as one would a letter to a personal assistant; instead, he worked through the multiple personalities and experiences of authors and their communities. II Timothy tells us that scripture is "God-breathed" (theopneustos), a infusion of Spirit-filled life much as Adam received life from God (Gen 2). That infusion acts within the particular settings of people.  The self-disclosure of God is always incarnational--in Christ, in Church, in history. Thus, it shouldn't surprise us that scriptural texts reflect the varying styles, periods, genres, and focal concerns of its human writers. Nor should we be surprised that such a set of works evinces a composite of overlapping themes that correct potential misunderstandings on our parts.    For examples, there are two lines of history in the Old Testament--the Deutronomic (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and that of the Chronicler (Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah), as there are four gospels in the New. Torah is realized through the priestly, prophetic, and wisdom traditions, each which complements and corrects the other. The New Testament communities that received the gospel of John, the epistle to the Hebrews, the Pauline letters, etc. were also diverse with differing emphases in their theologies. And there are biblical elements which stress the value of the king (Judges 21), while others warn against having a king (I Sam 8); passages which stress the elements of justification by faith (Galatians) and those, the expression of works (James); and circumstances which exemplify the importance of questioning God (cf. Habakkuk, Job) versus those attitudes that warn against questioning God (Romans 9).

We should be careful here to avoid language which suggests that scripture is contradictory, for as a believer in the infailabilty of God's revelation I would stress that it is not. However, what we can see is that the diversity of scripture allows, even calls, for an adjustment of our understanding. We can see that God built such correction into the very process of canonical formation itself.  Within the Torah community, God raised up various streams of prophecy, wisdom, and priestly ritual in order to keep one emphasis from distorting God's way. God inspired the authorship of the New Testament in answer to various questions and concerns of first-century Christians. The diversity God uses prevents a totalizing stream of interpretation and life. Multiple voices have to be listened to.

This acknowledgement of diverse correction leads us to the second reason the Bible is not inherently oppressive--it assumes that interpretation is communal in nature. Christians are within a community of faith, the Body of Christ. The New Testament teaches both that divinely-gifted teachers are necessary for the church's maturity (Eph 4:11-13) and that Christians together have an anointing from the Holy Spirit that teaches them the truth (I Jn 2:20-27). [Note: The Greek in this later passage uses the plural second person-"you all," suggesting a focus on the church as a corporate receiver of Spirit-lead truth.] The illumination of scripture is the work of the Spirit of God in our midst. No one person is the keeper of scripture (II Pet 1:19-21). And even a cursory glance at Christian history will show that this has been the case.

We do ourselves a mistake to discount the genuine, God-given plurality of the universal Church. Scripture, as a metanarrative, has what Francis Fiorenza calls a "constitutional role," for it constitutes our communities (Grenz 508). It shapes our self-understanding, our practice, and our complex diversity. The Holy Spirit has emphasized different facets of the unity of his truth through different branches of the people of God. Indeed, as we suggested the first week, God the Spirit is carrying out his creational goal when he does so.  No Christian tradition has a monopoly on scripture and theology.  Instead, we learn from each other how to better unpack the richness that is there.  The nature of the Church reminds us that truth is intersubjective and connective. We come to the truth through a variety of approaches and methods and best uncover it by drawing on the insights of a larger scope of interpreters than ourselves alone. The Holy Spirit has intended that it be so.

The way we interpret a text is deeply a part of our communities and traditions.  We have a heritage of response that shapes our own questions.  Thus, the Catholic, Orthodox, Magisterial Reformation, evangelical, and charismatic communities shape their participants to interpret differently. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has noted, "To think is to thank." In a very real sense, we are dependent on all who have gone before us for understanding. The issues we raise, the questions we ask, even the words we use arise out of a specified time and place in history. And because these communities of faith are not incommensurable to one another, we can avoid the use of our metanarrative as a tool for oppression.

Of course, a community can become oppressive, seeking to suppress difference. Thus, the need for the third area I mentioned above--critical self-knowledge and epistemic humility. The Christian view of humanity stresses our innate propensity for pride and presumption. We are warned that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer  17:9) We have an infinite capacity for self-deception. Thus, we need the mutual accountability of communal, diverse interpretation and the self-correction that scripture offers to our readings of it. Post-colonialists often mistrust metanarratives because they claim perfect and absolute knowledge, and then their purveyors proceed to enforce such knowledge with a sledge hammer. In response we should seek out and remain open to scriptural interpretation from non-Western sources. While scripture warns us against false teachers and there are parameters under which a belief can be declared heretical, we should be wary of doing so without the diverse accountability of the larger church.  Sin has noetic impact. Thus, the call to scriptural truth is not a closed one; we must ever return to a testing of what we believe in order that we not become makers of hegemony. The Bible, if you will, is a post-colonial Bible too.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding