Reading the Old Testament as a Hispanic (ETS/SBL papers)

I think we all recognize now that who we are shapes how we read the Bible. A white, middle-class American evangelical (me) necessarily reads the text differently than a 15-year old Arab Christian living in Syria (not me). But what exactly does this mean? How does ethnic and cultural context affect our reading? How much should it? And how much hermeneutical diversity are we willing to accept along the way?

Those are some of the questions that Daniel Carroll explored in his paper, “Reading the Bible through Other Lenses: New Perspectives and Challenging Vistas.” And, as a Hispanic scholar, he specifically looked at the question what it looks like to read the Bible from a Hispanic diaspora perspective.

1. The Need for Multiethnic Readings of the Bible

Unsurprisingly Carroll began the paper with a brief argument of the necessity of multiethnic approaches. He pointed out that the church does not have a good track record for appreciating the value of diverse ethnic perspectives, tending instead to identify one approach as the normative one to which all others must conform.

But we live in a different world. At the very least, the rapidly changing demographics of the western world are pressing us to take ethnic perspectives more seriously. It’s one thing to view my reading of scripture as normative when everyone around me is just like me. But when I finally notice that the room is full of people very different from me, it’s harder to think that mine is the only appropriate way to do things. (Indeed, the room has always been full of people different from me, but in the past it was easier to ignore these “marginal” voices.)

And Carroll took the time to make a few comments about how this should affect ministry training. Although he doesn’t think that seminaries need to reshape the entire curriculum such that multi-ethnicity becomes the lens through which we see everything, he does think that seminaries in general need to do a far better job of training students to understand their own cultural biases and to appreciate other ethnic perspectives.

2. Methodological Suggestions for a HIspanic Diaspora Reading

In the second section, Carroll argued that a “diaspora hermeneutic” needs to read the text in ways that are “sensitive to the diaspora experience.” So a diaspora hermeneutic will look for “diaspora texts” in the Bible, those that appreciate the particular needs of dislocated peoples.

And he specifically identified five essential features of that experience and how they shape Hispanic diaspora hermeneutics:

  1. Marginality: Identify characters on the “margins” of the biblical texts.
  2. Poverty: Be aware of poverty/economic issues in the text and society.
  3. Mestizaje: Recognize the ethnically “mixed” nature of biblical characters and societies.
  4. Exile and alien: Understand how central these two themes are to the overall biblical narrative and particular stories.
  5. Solidarity: Focus on things like family and community and the shared life of the global church as the extended family of God.

He concluded this section with an appeal for “hermeneutical charity.” Diaspora readings like this will necessarily produce readings of scripture different form those commonly accepted by dominant cultural interpretations. And he specifically warns against two faulty responses to such new interpretations: exclusion and inclusion. The first is obviously problematic in that it rejects other perspectives entirely. But the latter is equally problematic (possibly even worse) in that it simply incorporates the “minority” interpretation into the already existing paradigm of the dominant culture. Rather than letting this new interpretation speak with its own voice, such an “inclusive” approach actually silences these other perspectives even while ostensibly giving them a place at the table. Neither approach is adequate. Instead, we must respond to new voices with “hospitality and engagement.”

3. Readings of the OT from the Hispanic Perspective

This final section would take far too long to summarize. Here Carroll offered specific examples of a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic at work, focusing on OT stories like Abram and Sarai, Joseph, Ruth, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

Here are two of the more interesting thoughts he shared in this section:

  • In the story of Abram and Sarai, he pointed out that Abram’s deceit was “the kind of ruse employed by the powerless.” It’s easy to criticize him from our comfortable and secure position, but Carroll argued, “If this is what you need to do to feed your family, then this is what you do. Hunger makes too much at stake for easy moral discourse, and women have the most at stake.” So he suggested that a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic helps us see that the line between “truth and trickery” is more nuanced than we often appreciate.
  • Similarly, he read the store of Ruth through the lens of immigration and cultural assimilation. He pointed out that many aspects of the Ruth narrative have to do with a person who comes from one culture to another and has to navigate the (often unfriendly) institutions and relational networks of the new culture. And he noted that the closing genealogy, far from being merely a device for connecting Ruth to the later story of David, serves as a way of demonstrating the diaspora readers that they are part of a larger narrative.

He offered similar examples from the other stories, each time showing how diaspora Hispanic interests draw insights and observations from the text that are often quite different from what we’re used to.

Thoughts

This was a fascinating paper. The first section was pretty standard fare for anyone accustomed to such appeals for multicultural readings. But I appreciated that Carroll took the time to lay out the specific hermeneutical methodology that would guide his particular approach. That is something that is not always articulated as clearly. And it raises the question of whether those of us from “dominant” cultures need to be equally clear about the cultural presuppositions driving our own exegesis – instead of simply assuming that ours is the standard and theirs is the “ethnic” perspective. And the concluding section where he actually put the methodology into practice was very helpful.

I was frustrated, though, that he said nothing about the giant in the room: How do we determine if a particular reading is or isn’t legitimate? Once we’ve acknowledged that different cultures read the text through different lenses and generate different interpretations, are we simply left with one big mass of difference? We are still reading the same text, so shouldn’t there be some way of navigating the difference? The German Christians of the mid-twentieth century also had a particular way of reading scripture. And I’m sure we’d all way to say “Nein!” to that cultural reading. But how do we do that without “exclusion” or “inclusion”? Unfortunately, Carroll’s paper didn’t touch on this question even briefly. (Of course, it was late on Friday night. So it’s entirely possible that I just missed it.)

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on December 2, 2011, in Hermeneutics, Old Testament. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I have absolutely no use for this sort of thing.

    Sincerely,
    A working-class Hispanic immigrant

    • If you have time, I’d love to hear you flesh that out a bit more. Are you pushing back on the idea that we should recognize that our cultural perspectives shape how we read the Bible, or is the specific Hispanic spin that he offers?

      • Though I am a Caucasian Anglo-Irish Brit to some degree, I really agree with Esteban! If anything we must return to some aspect of the Jewish and the Greco-Roman history. Btw, this would be a good place to plug the new: Jewish Annotated New Testament, (NRSV) Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. I cannot follow it everywhere, but it is a much needed tool today! Also the Jewish Study Bible is nice!

        – Romans 9: 4-5 –

        Btw, we should note, that the Caucasold, includes peoples of Europe, North Africa, the Near East, India, etc. and is loosly called the “white race” although it embraces many peoples of dark skin color.

      • And Btw, am I allowed as Irish born, to be proud of Ireland? Land of Saints, Scholars & Kings! 😉 I sure hope so! Let us all be proud of our heritage! 🙂

  2. “… it raises the question of whether those of us from “dominant” cultures need to be equally clear about the cultural presuppositions driving our own exegesis – instead of simply assuming that ours is the standard and theirs is the “ethnic” perspective. “

    I’ve spent too much time on Christian forums in the past and have been appalled by the inability of most folks to think or communicate outside their own experiences or reference points. Myself included. We don’t even realize that our definition of a word or idea isn’t the same as person next to us. Some of this can be explained by lack of exposure or experience, but I think lack of humilty plays its part.

    “How do we determine if a particular reading is or isn’t legitimate? Once we’ve acknowledged that different cultures read the text through different lenses and generate different interpretations, are we simply left with one big mass of difference? We are still reading the same text, so shouldn’t there be some way of navigating the difference?”

    …Tradition? 🙂

    • I’m a big fan of appealing to tradition. The problem here is that once you’ve established the legitimacy of alternate cultural readings, you have a problem with tradition. Isn’t the tradition of the church just a particular cultural reading? And, if we require that “ethnic” perspectives have to fit inside the traditional readings of the church, isn’t that exactly the kind of “inclusion” that Carroll is concerned about? I’ve actually read quite a few people arguing that we shouldn’t try to “impose” the creeds/canons of the early church on other approaches to Christianity for this very reason.

      None of this is to say that I disagree with you, I like church history too much for that. But it’s a great example of what frustrated me about Carroll’s paper, since he said nothing about how he would respond to these questions.

      • In some sense Scripture is itself part of that Holy and Sacred Tradition, passed down thru the Apostles Doctrine ( Acts 2:42 / 1 Cor. 11:2 / 2 Thess. 2:15), but which is based upon the OT doctrine and covenant also. But this is too pressed into the Church itself, since the Church is part of that “mystery”, “the pillar and ground or bulwark of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15-16) And in some sense the Church is also the place of the Spirit, but the place too of the true “Israel of God”, who are those who are a new creation in Christ (Phil. 3:3). So here, in “Spirit and truth” are where we see and find, both in Scripture and the Church, the Incarnate Body of Christ itself…Christ crucified, risen, & ascended. Here is Tradition and also the Salvation history of God!

      • Would you further explain how “once you’ve established the legitimacy of alternate cultural readings, you have a problem with tradition”? I’m pretty sure this represents a whole conversation I haven’t listened to yet. The examples above seem like common sense reminders that I am not the center of the universe.

        I’ve thought about God’s timing of the Incarnation…why to such a time and place? I wonder if He chose the time/place/culture He did because it was the context He wanted Christianity to be understood for all time…and Tradition of the Church to be developed from that particular cultural reading, and somehow it can transcend all cultures.

      • @J: Very nice point about God’s good purpose and providence about the “timing” of the Incarnation! Yes, the time of ancient Greece (Hellenism), and the Jewish Diaspora, who adopted the Greek language.. is simply but profoundly central for the Incarnation and the NT Scripture! St. Paul who wrote most of the NT Letters at least, was a Jewish-Hellenist, and certain Greco-Roman.. the infuence by both Greece and Rome was immense on Saul/Paul! (Gal. 4:4, etc.) Not to mention St. Paul’s Roman citizenship! (Acts 21: 39 ; 22:3) This was one of the charges against Paul by the Judaizers, that he was simply too open to the Greeks (Acts 21:21 ; 28, etc.). But St. Paul places his labor and love as ‘In Christ’, both as a Jew (2 Cor. 11: 22-30) and the Apostle to the Gentiles (1 Cor.9: 19-23). Profound indeed!

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