Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Truth and Culture

This is such a good article by Ken Schenck. Here is part of it:

It is an excellent illustration of what I meant in a previous post about "thick descriptions" of things in cultures.  Here are two fundamental insights into meaning:
  • The meaning of language is in how it is used, not simply in defining each word.
  • The meaning of an action or an event is a function of its socio-cultural context.  If an action has a universal significance, it is because of commonality between every such context.
If I say, "There's an elephant in the room," you cannot know what I mean without knowing the context.  I could be a zoo-keeper.  I could be using an idiom.  Or it could be code for my sister to pour Cool-aid on your head.  If turn my hand and make a V in America, who knows what I'm doing (victory symbol?).  In England I am flipping you off.

So it is with truth telling.  I remember being at a church where some of the leaders would get very upset that individuals from another culture would tell them they were going to be at church Sunday and then would never show up.  To me, this was a cultural conflict rather than a matter of them being liars or, worse, it being typical of their "lying culture."  I knew what they were doing with their words.

The use of the words, "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" had a social function rather than an informative one.  "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" meant "I like you and don't want to offend you... even though I don't know if I'll come Sunday or not."  I considered it the cultural ignorance of the church leaders to assume that the meaning of words is always propositional, that the meaning of the words must be straightforwardly and literally defined in order to be truthful (if you disagree with me, don't ever step anywhere near a mission field).  The meaning of words has to do with what we are "doing" with them rather than some propositional content... unless of course what we're doing with them is in fact propositional.

Read the rest here.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

OK, and the implication for theology is that Scripture is not about truth content but social function (one of the dominant Global North theologies today). Yet theology is typically so far behind philosophy and linguistics, as I think is the case here.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

No, I don't think that is what this particular author implies. You need to interpret original text scripture in the light of the original social context to find the truth. What if scripture had said the elephant was in the room and we had no knowledge of the idiom? We would completely misunderstand God.
That being said, I do believe that God safeguards scripture (generally) against serious misinterpretation by genuine seekers (work of the Holy Spirit).

John van de Laar said...

Thanks for the link to this article, Jen. It's a fascinating discussion, and one that, unfortunately, is seldom given enough time or space in most of our churches.

I think what Thomas says is a possible implication of what the writer says, although I wouldn't pose the issue in quite as dichotomous terms as he does. What I mean is that rather than say that Scripture is "not about truth content" but about "social function", I would say it's about both and that the two must be allowed to inform each other.

I'm afraid I'm a little less optimistic about God's safeguarding of Scripture in the way you describe. I suspect that the interpretation of Scripture is our work not God's, and I would be interested to hear how you would describe the way God's safeguarding would work. My sense is that Scripture needs to be interpreted in community - including the community of those who have gone before us in the preceding centuries - and that communities agree together, for better or worse, what interpretations are 'true' or 'false'.

Of course, I do believe that there is an inspiring work of the Holy Spirit happening in all this, but I'm not sure this can guarantee that no serious misinterpretation happens. I don't think the evidence supports this conclusion.

Just some rambling thoughts...

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I'll give an actual example of how the linguistics is put to use. Mount Carmel. There are things in that narrative that are naturally explicable. And then there are things in the narrative that are ... call them extra-natural. But if one merely told the natural story, then one wouldn't have anything to say. And extra-natural things, well those don't happen (as is the view that I refer to in my previous comment). So one weaves the extra-natural elements into the story to indicate the involvement of God, and to raise the story above the mere natural. One cannot do that without introducing extra-natural elements -- so it is said. However, one shouldn't assume that the extra-natural elements are on the same level as the natural -- as do conservative theologians. So in the above sense, we are talking about a dichotomoy. In other ways, truth content and social function are very much intertwined.

Communal interpretation vs. interpretation "falling through the skylight" as a theologian disparagingly called it, is one of the biggest issues of religion, and is characterised in various ways. It is also one of the biggest issues of pastoral counselling.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Thomas and John
I hope I am understanding what you are saying - not sure if I'm getting it right!
I think what Ken Schenck is saying is that it must be first determined whether the language is intended to convey propositional or social meaning. In a contemporary social context that can be found out by observation and inquiry. It is a bit more difficult when applied to scripture. But it seems silly to assume that all scripture is propositional or that all scripture is oblique (social function). So I would agree with you. I suppose it is a similar distinction to that between prescriptive and descriptive scripture - just with a linguistic angle.
My only comment on the Mt Carmel example would be that it is really hard to do that sort of linguistic analysis and disregard your basis of faith. For me (and this shows my bias) the analysis should be done with the option in mind that the supernatural may have happened. I guess there are people who can do that.
About misinterpretation. Yes, there do seem to be people who get it seriously wrong - I did have in mind communities not individuals when I wrote about safeguarding. My impression is that while some leaders and academics may have very creative approaches to theology and understanding of scripture, by and large, genuine Christ-seeking communities stick to the central tenets of what we mean by Christian and actually live fairly decent lives. In general, where there are major disagreements I see that as an indication that God wants us to wrestle with something.
Perhaps it comes down to whether one has a pessimistic or optimistic view of God, faith and church. My view is optimistic and I believe that God always comes through for his church and for those who believe. I cannot believe that he leaves us to our own devices as regards interpretation of scripture.
I hope this makes sense - thanks for the conversation. (And sorry for the late response, I have been by the seaside!)

John van de Laar said...

Thanks for clarifying what you mean by the "dichotomy" Thomas. I am comfortable with the way you describe things here, and found your comment very helpful in furthering my thoughts in this regard.

I also agree wholeheartedly with your point about the impact of Scriptural interpretation in the Church and in pastoral counselling.

Jen, you open up all sorts of questions about how we define "supernatural" etc. But, those are for another day, I think. :-)

I like your idea that when we can't agree God wants us to wrestle. The problem is when some folk believe that wrestling is wrong, and that everyone should just accept their view...