Reading while White (3)

David Carr

“Methodology is the residue of innovation.” My PhD advisor rattled that off one day as we were discussing one of my dissertation chapters, and I was immediately annoyed that he could so effortlessly spout such brilliant-sounding things. Later, after I’d gotten over my irritation, I thought about that comment. We’d been discussing research methodologies, and he meant that people don’t set out to create methods for the sake of making new methods. Rather, people try to do innovative research in a particular field, and they sometimes need to develop new methods to reach their goals. But the methodologies sometimes stick around and become commonplace in ongoing research and practice.

For example, consider an instrument that we think about a lot these days: the hypodermic needle. I’m neither a scientist nor a medical historian. But I’m pretty confident that what we know as “shots” didn’t result from someone’s fascination with pricking people or making young children cry. Rather, this method, used for testing and delivering medicines, vaccines, and more, undoubtedly arose from innovative research into health and wellbeing. Methods result from (they’re the “residue” of) efforts to learn about something and to achieve certain goals. And then we use them to accomplish those goals.

The same is true for our methods of biblical exegesis (i.e., close reading of biblical texts). Scholars created such methods to answer nagging questions they had at different points in history. How, for instance, can we make sense of ancient manuscripts or try to figure out which version of a text was likely the original? Scholars developed text criticism to gain answers, and it is now a conventional tool. How can we understand the relationship(s) between a given passage and the “life setting” from which it arose? Form criticism was designed to answer such queries. How can we sort out the literary relationships among the Synoptic Gospels and discover what the authors were up to when they edited their sources? Redaction criticism helps us to scratch that intellectual itch. Generally speaking, some very smart people have forged methods to answer questions we have about the Bible and to carry out innovative research. Once those methods are established, we use and teach them to others so that they too can deploy them for Bible study.

What does this have to do with racial identities? In part one of this series, I suggested that the approaches to biblical interpretation we presume to be universal and normative are actually a collection of particular and historically located perspectives and practices. As I’ve illustrated here, those approaches emerged from efforts to answer queries people have had about the Bible. Predominantly, the questions that gave rise to our “standard” methods of biblical exegesis were those being asked by men of European descent.

Now, the mere fact that many interpretive methods have sought to answer questions posed, most often, by white men is not inherently problematic. We should not discard methodologies because of the racial identities of those who created them (“By no means!” as the apostle Paul would say). In recent decades, men and women around the world who study the Bible from diverse perspectives have fruitfully used methodologies that were created by white, Western scholars. My point is this: Plenty of people have questions about the Bible, but not everyone’s questions, or the methods they use to answer them, have the same impact on the field of biblical studies. For white interpreters—who often represent the racial majority in the West—it’s not just that our questions are interesting to us. It’s that over the past several centuries, our questions have largely shaped the field of Western biblical studies. If marginalized people’s questions about the Bible had led the way in biblical research over the past several hundred years, it’s quite possible—indeed, most likely—that what we know as “mainstream” biblical interpretation would look quite different than it does today. In fact, what we take for granted as normative biblical studies has only looked the way it does now for a small portion of the church’s history.

I have suggested in this series that what I have labeled “reading while White” is not an inevitable norm but that it consists of a particular, historical, and contingent set of approaches to the Bible. How might the future of biblical interpretation, even at the level of exegetical methods, take shape if we work hard to recover questions that have historically gone unnoticed by those in the majority culture? How can the concerns of historically marginalized groups today gain lasting influence on readings of Scripture in the church and academy? Attention to such concerns is urgently needed if biblical studies is to become a truly hospitable and inclusive environment for all participants.

I’ll wrap this series up with some closing reflections in my next post.

Posted Feb 21, 2022

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