Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Linking cultural hermeneutics and fundamentalism

Today, I finished reading Michael Brown's survey of African American hermeneutics, Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Interpretation. Overall, I found that the book provided an excellent overview of the main trajectories of African American hermeneutics over the last few generations of scholars. Most enlightening, however, was Brown's assessments and critiques of this interpretive enterprise in his closing chapter. I was particularly interested in the causal ties Brown discerns between the mostly academic enterprise of cultural hermeneutics and the mostly ecclesial rise of fundamentalism in the African American church. He explains,
In my opinion, a great deal of African American biblical hermeneutics is a reaction or response to the perceived advancement of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalism in the African American community... Of course, such an apparently reductionist statement is open to a considerable amount of challenge from those desiring to account for other factors that have affected the development of African American interpretation. For example, many associate the rise of this mode of interpretation with the spread of various liberation theologies, but especially black theology. African American hermeneutics, then, serves as a form of biblical engagement that promotes the larger liberatory enterprise. All of this is true. I contend, however, that the development and spread of various liberation theologies coincides with the development and spread of fundamentalisms as reactions to modernity. Although they may be opposite or antagonistic responses, they are related nonetheless. As moderns, African Americans have experienced an acute separation from their past and thus from their posited collective identity. Fundamentalism is one way to construct such an identity. Black theology is another. In this sense then, African American hermeneutics is a reaction or response to the spread of conservative Christianity in the community. (154)

In other words, the certainty of a fundamentalist reading of Scripture provides a fundamental cultural component denied to African Americans by a tragic history of exploitation. The question remains whether liberatory theologies or fundamentalism are more successful in this crucial cultural function. Do the efforts of academics actually seep down into the pulpit and pew? What are the ultimate effects of academic study of the bible, both positive and negative?

Appropriately, the academy receives a hefty critique along these lines:

African American biblical scholars have begun to challenge the pervasive Eurocentrism they perceive as operative in the discipline. African American hermeneutics then is a counterproposal to a form of scholarship enamored with its European roots. It is the fruit of a critical mass of scholars "come of age," willing to challenge the discipline on something it took virtually for granted. And this is true. I contend, however, that embedded in this critique is a realization on the part of African American scholars that biblical scholarship has to this point enabled the spread of conservative evangelicalism by unwittingly providing scholarship that, when filtered, is used for evangelical advancement, and by demonstrating widespread disinterest in the social consequences of biblical interpretation. Through a certain form of benign neglect, biblical scholarship allows for the proliferation of scriptural readings that maintain an uncritical and potentially dangerous Eurocentric bias. (154-5)
With an insipid and "benign neglect," mainstream academic study of the bible has provided the necessary logical and interpretive fodder to sustain and feed fundamentalism, a result likely unexpected from scholars. African American scholars of the bible are thus seeking to turn the tide of the trickle-down effects of academia.

Whether Brown is correct in discerning a concomitant affinity between cultural hermeneutics and fundamentalism is a fascinating question to me. I absolutely concur that fundamentalist readings of scripture embrace distinctly moderns modes of interpretation and, too frequently, sap the mythic and spiritual dimensions of pericopes like Genesis 1-2 while simultaneously over-spiritualizing ethical demands which cut against the grain of a modern life imbued with nationalism and far too little concern for the poor and marginalized. A hermeneutical tact which recognizes the situatedness of all interpretation is both a clear reaction to and an initial step towards alleviating such a situation.

Ultimately, however, I wonder whether all-encapsulating terms like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" simplify a daedal situation. Can these two terms be used interchangeably? Many of my "post-evangelical would likely demur. Can we speak of an "evangelical" or "fundamentalist" as such? The source of the ecclesial battles now raging in our churches are obfuscated when labels such as conservative/liberal dominate our discussions; morality or cultural values are certainly not central either.

In my mind, the most divisive issues of the day are hermeneutical in nature. How do we speak of biblical authority? How does God speak to us through scripture? These are the fractures which divide us and not the relatively simple ideological rhetoric of manipulative politicians or self-aggrandizing preachers.