I’ve been considering competing hermeneutical postures recently.
A few weeks ago I finished The Whites of Their Eyes, Jill Lepore’s brilliant analysis of the uses of the American Revolution. Among other things, she describes the phenomenon of “historical fundamentalism.” She has in mind the failure to recognize the historical distance between the 18th century and our own day. Contemporary Tea Partiers are historical fundamentalists in that they assume that their concerns are exactly the same as those of “the founding fathers.” This assumption fails to grasp the differences between their age and ours. To be fair, Lepore’s work is a chronicle of this error as it is repeated by various groups throughout American history. But this is definitely a negative view of collapsing historical horizons.
I’ve also been listening to loads of U2 lately, though that’s not too unusual. I’m taking my daughter to see them in East Lansing next week. Their seriously underrated last album, No Line On The Horizon, makes explicit reference to their intentional collapse of historical distance. In the album’s title song, Bono situates himself with reference to rock music, or perhaps music in general.
He sees music as a sort of timeless continuum of history that is traversable backward and forward, and from which one can regard all of life. He takes his place as an agent or servant of music as it rebukes, celebrates, ponders, agitates, and laments. With music, time is irrelevant and isn’t linear. The past bears in on the present, and present performances don’t really have meaning without reference to the past. “The songs in your head are now on my mind, you pull me up close, I’m trying to rewind, reload, and replay.”
U2 has been rehearsing this reality throughout their latest tour. They typically weave into their own songs bits from rock’s history, concluding songs with lines from the Ramones and the Everly Brothers. Bono even sings Amazing Grace, just before leading into Where The Streets Have No Name.
I could go on, but my point is just to note these competing hermeneutical postures. Whereas Lepore exposes the deleterious effects of collapsing historical distance, U2 trumpets this as its mission.
It seems to me that Christian readings of Scripture are fruitful when done from both of these postures. On one hand, we do not live in the past. Times have changed. We must understand how the Word of God entered that time back then and did its work of devastation and renewal.
On the other hand, Scripture is a living voice that shakes loose from its historical moorings and invades our present reality to radically reconfigure and redeem it.
Further, this is how Paul reads the Scriptures of Israel. Paul recognizes the historical distance between Israel’s history and the lives of his churches (Gal. 3). But then he intentionally collapses history and Sarah and Hagar and Sinai and Jerusalem become dynamics that are up and running in the present (Gal. 4). Abraham is a figure from Israel’s history, but he’s right there in Rome (Rom. 4). Further, while he can point to events in Israel’s wilderness experience back then (1 Cor. 10:1-11), he can note that the rock in the desert was Christ himself (1 Cor. 10:4).
Barth gets at this two-fold approach in the preface to the second edition of his Romans commentary. We must respect the historical distance as we do our preliminary critical work in the text. Proper Christian reading, however, presses beyond this to a collapse of the horizons so that Scripture gathers, comprehends, reconfigures, and renews our lives. “The Word ought to be exposed in the words” (p. 8).
Both hermeneutical approaches to Scripture are necessary for this to take place.