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So work the honey-bees . . .

12 July 2013

… seeking truth from the scriptures in our cultural context, says John Saxbee

Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics
B. H. McLean
CUP £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT771 )

ARE interpreters of the Bible botanists or bees? The argument of this big, bold, and sometimes difficult book by a Canadian New Testament scholar is that these two options define the trajectories of biblical hermeneutics in the modern and post-modern eras respectively.

A botanist dissects a flower, analyses it, and locates it within its natural habitat. A bee alights upon a flower, which transfers pollen to the bee's legs, and the bee then carries the pollen to other parts of the field. Both the flower and the pollen are to some extent changed by this transaction; and, more importantly, recipients of the pollen are touched and changed accordingly.

Biblical interpreters influenced by Enlightenment ideas of objective research, and so found questing for the historical Jesus or Paul or Moses, reflect the method of the botanist. But post-historical hermeneutics, promoted by McLean and influenced by 20th-century Continental philosophy, recall the bee. While botanist and bee both have a part to play in relation to the flower, only the bee brings existential added value to the rest of the field.

So the question addressed by this book is: what difference does it make to the discipline of biblical studies when scholars are less botanist and more bee? McLean focuses on hermeneutics as a mode of questioning the meaning of both the "founding sense-event", such as the crucifixion, and the "present sense-event" - the significance of the founding sense-event for us in our own place and time. To do so, he mines the hermeneutical tradition associated with Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Ricœur, Levinas, Deleuze, and Guattari.

The book is in three parts. Part One describes how biblical studies devoted to establishing what actually happened, and what the various authors intended, have simply served to show how irrelevant scripture is to today's very different cultural context.

Part Two includes a brilliantly sustained account of Heidegger's Being and Time as setting the scene for biblical hermeneutics to be forward-facing and life-changing rather than backward-looking and enervating.

This opens the door to an exposition in Part Three of post-historical hermeneutics, in which Gadamer's emphasis on dialogue with tradition is contrasted with Habermas's more critical view of historical texts as ideologically suspect. Cue Paul Ricœur's "hermeneutics of suspicion", which has done so much to promote post-modernism's assault on over-arching narratives.

Finally, having put historicism in its place as necessary but not particularly edifying, McLean calls upon Deleuze and Guattari to map a future for "the 'embodied' biblical interpreter enacting a present-sense event within an ever expanding global ecology of relations". This seems to mean turning biblical interpretation into a nomadic, Abraham-like quest for personal transformation in ethical solidarity with, and accountability to, others. The bee, rather than the botanist, commands the field.

This is not an easy read, and is aimed more at theology and philosophy students than the general reader. But judicious illustrations and examples do serve to lighten and enlighten the argument when the going gets tough.

It is characteristic of most post-modern philosophical hermeneutics to be marked by more than just a whiff of subjectivism. But Levinas believed that "the risk of subjectiv-ism is a risk the truth must run" - and McLean is clearly in no mood to argue.

The Rt Revd Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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