More on Vanhoozer and metaphors of the hermeneutic task

Vanhoozer and dramatic interpretation

I confess. Around the turn of the century I used Kevin Vanhoozer’s brilliant Is There a Meaning in this Text? as a textbook in teaching a postgraduate course on hermeneutics. The book addresses complex ideas, but is written in such complex language that it is almost impossible to read. I have not paid the attention I should to his more recent work. (My excuse is that I have not taught hermeneutics at that level since that time.)

Yesterday I posted a brilliant two sentence quote. It not only shows that he has available a totally different writing style, but really resonates with me. As Jerry Shepherd  pointed out on Facebook Vanhoozer uses the quoted sentences in introducing his preferred metaphor, interpretation as the performance of a drama. This is a powerful and useful metaphor. Like all metaphors it fails as a complete analogy. It captures the communal nature of interpretation well, so long as each of us accepts being an actor and not the director! It also reflects the given nature of the text. It expresses really well the way in which faithful; interpretation in the 21stC must be different from a performance in the “author’s day”. However, on my early reading it fails to capture one essential aspect of faithful biblical interpretation.

Community and individuality

Faithful reading of the Bible is (almost) never an individual pursuit. Vanhoozer’s performance of a drama gives this powerful play, suggesting the distinct contribution to the whole each player is called to make. In doing this it also suggests a model for recognising when one player’s performance has become too different from the overall interpretation offered by the company that that player is failing.

The metaphor of a play, suggests also that only one performance is ‘correct’ for this company of players. This pictures nicely our experience of a Church divided (the Presbyterians form a different company from the Baptists…). Yet it suggests such companies of players are competitors.

The metaphor of the pilgrimage

Vanhoozer, at least in the little introduction focused on going ‘beyond the Bible’1 also used (in passing) the metaphor of a pilgrimage. I cited yesterday two sentences in which he encapsulates this understanding.

Having talked of the early description of the church as ‘followers of the way’, he wrote

The process of biblical interpretation is itself a means of discipleship. One cannot follow the way without following the way the words go.

This pilgrimage image has similar, but different, affordances. On a pilgrimage each group of pilgrims must follow a particular route. There may however be different routes that lead to the same destination. Just as there are different performances that are true to both play and the players’ context. On a pilgrimage there are routes that lead away from the destination, one should not follow these. Just as there are performances that are not true to the script-writer’s intentions. Though notice that in the drama model the standard is the script, while in the pilgrimage model the standard is the destination.

  1. Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009. []

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