Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis

It's been many years since I've seen the names Scylla and Charybdis.  In fact, the last time I read those names was probably in middle school when I had something of an obsession for Greek mythology.  With so many years elapsed, I had to refer to Wikipedia just to be sure I remembered them correctly and, though the details had largely vanished from my mind, I did still retain the basic idea.  Scylla and Charybdis were two sea monsters situated on opposite sides of a narrow straight.  Sailors making a wide berth to avoid Scylla, a six headed beast, ran the risk of coming too close to Charybdis, a formerly beautiful daughter of Poseidon who became a hideous bladder that sucked in and spit out water in the ocean to form whirlpools.  Being caught between Scylla and Charybdis, then, is to be caught between a rock and a hard place, but with ghoulish monsters to make things more interesting.

So what brought these images back to my mind?  They were used as a metaphor in Brian Malley's How the Bible Works to describe the tension Evangelicals face when transmitting their interpretive tradition:

The interpretive tradition is perennially caught between the Scylla of interpretive freedom and the Charybdis of irrelevance:  to much hermeneutic freedom and the tradition disintegrates, loosing its epistemological appeal; too little interpretive freedom and the Bible becomes merely an irrelevant historical artifact, rather than the ever living word of God. (p. 124)

This is relevant not only to our collective work on tight vs. loose congregations but also to my own work on cultural robustness and evolvability.  On the latter point, I find Malley's observations particularly illuminating and worthy of further research at some point down the road.  According to him, the interpretive tradition received by lay people is relatively devoid of interpretive freedom.  People aren't really reading the Bible to search for new meaning.  Rather, they read the Bible in the search for relevance.  They do become skilled in finding Biblical passages that confirm beliefs they hold, but in terms of their personal reading of the Bible, they mostly seek to find ways in which what they are reading can speak to their lives at the moment.  When they find this kind of relevance, they perceive it to be God speaking to them through the intervening text.  Note that this is a very different relationship with a sacred text than what is common in, say, Jewish tradition in which each generation is encouraged to wrestle with the Torah and Talmud in order to create new meaning that speaks to an evolving world.

So where, then, is the source for new interpretations in Evangelical traditions?  How do they avoid the Charybdis of irrelevance?  Malley locates at least a partial answer to this question in Evangelical seminaries.  Ministers often undergo extensive training at institutions of higher education in which a true hermeneutic tradition is taught.  New generations of pastors, then, have the opportunity to read the sacred text anew and engage in a Biblical scholarship that can open up new possibilities.  Obviously, this is a relatively conservative process, constrained as it is by notions of what the previous generation of scholars, who are the current professors, deem acceptable deviance from the norms.  Nevertheless, it is a fertile ground for at least some innovation and this, then, after undergoing its own kinds of selection processes, can leak its way into the more general population of believers, who will generally accept it without much critical thought.  This dynamic strikes me as an excellent example of robustness and evolvability at work.

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