African-American, Feminist, and Mormon Biblical Studies

Recent discussions here and elsewhere have focused on the role of contemporary critical biblical studies and their relationship to Mormon biblical studies. Many have questioned not only the methods of a “scholarly” Mormon biblical studies, but also its possibility. In some circles, the dominant model for appropriation of contemporary scholarship is denominational, and the Catholic experience is taken as emblematic. I have been critical of such a model here. As a result, I hope to suggest an alternative model for what Mormon biblical studies might look like.

Modern academic biblical scholarship focuses on exegesis. Such an approach has transcended denomination boundaries by attempting an “objective” accounting of the text’s own theological position. Such a view is grounded in the idea that the text says something on its own that the careful reader can discern. This view often implicitly assumes that there is a single correct reading of the text that corresponds to the “author’s intent.”

African American and feminist biblical scholarship has critiqued this view, primarily on the grounds of hermeneutics. The idea of there being a single meaning to a text, not only at the time that it was written, but through its history of interpretation, has been abandoned long ago in the philosophy of interpretation, yet the guild of biblical studies often continues to cling to such a view. There is no objective lens and the supposedly objective methods of biblical scholarship have their own history. Further, the quest for the “original” meaning is rooted in a kind of impluse for truth that makes the fundamentalist Christians and professional biblical exegetes look a lot alike. The hermeneutical framework is largely the same; the only difference are the details.

As an alternative, African American and feminist biblical studies have made “ethics” into a central interpretive lens. Questions of liberation, justice, and power have become the framework for interpretation. Such an approach looks at how different communities have interpreted the text and considers these legitimate, even though, for examlple, African American slave hermeneutics were largely developed by illiterate people who only heard the text, but never read it. This approach further recognizes that all interpretations are selective, choosing to highlight some aspects of the text while ignoring others. As such, these hermeneutical approaches are not concerned with the mythical “author’s intent”, but with the possibilities that are produced by the text.

I propose that Mormon biblical studies follow a similar model. As far as I am aware, such an approach does not yet exist within Mormonism. For Mormon biblical studies, the task is to read Mormons who have written on the Bible and the derive a set of hermeneutical principles that are at work in their interpretations. This is somewhat of a task suited for anthropology. However, for scholarly Mormon biblical studies, the goal would then be to situate these principle as they speak to the “Mormon experience.” This is not a universal reading, but a historically situated reading of Mormons. The goal is not to point out that the text doesn’t “really” say what they think it says, but to demonstrate the principles on which it is based and to cull from it larger reflections about ethics and Mormon experiences.

As I have argued previously, the only important divisions in the feild of biblical studies are hermeneutical, not doctrinal or denominational. While these approaches I think are dying or irrelevant, feminist and African American hermeneutics have become centrally important, often taught even in introductory level courses. We have to give up on the idea that the text is going to resolve doctrinal or denominational disputes. Instead, the hermeneutical divisions rest on whether there is a single meaningful meaning to the text. The opposition I think rightly questions the possibility of such an “objective” understanding of the text, its utility, or both.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “African-American, Feminist, and Mormon Biblical Studies

  1. HP

    I don’t know that the dichotomy that you present here, between hermeneutical and exegetical approaches, is real. Certainly, there is a strong case to be made that historical-critical exegesis is just another hermeneutic. Most historical-critical scholars today realize that their approach is primarily a matter of preference, not a matter of objectivity versus subjectivity. Nobody really believes that they are producing history as it really was (at least, nobody I know).

    So, while I don’t have inherent problems with your suggestion, I do feel that historical-critical methods can and should inform the overall discussion; I would just note that while I would tend to privilege them, I don’t feel it incombent upon anyone else to do so.

  2. diahman

    TT,

    I think another issue that needs to be addressed is how to validate a non-positivist hemeneutic in the Church at large. In other words, I’m perfectly fine with the assumption of multiple readings, historical/cultural contextualization of the exegete, and the inability to truly access the intent of the author; but how do we break down the aversion to it?

  3. Bored in Vernal

    Interesting, and not new to feminist and African American biblical studies. Even anciently, communities were doing Biblical hermeneutics based on their particular communities, as exemplefied by the pesharim of the Essenes, midrashim of the early Jews, and glosses added to medieval Bibles.

    Mormon interpretations of certain Biblical passages such as Ezekiel 37 (sticks of Judah and Joseph) seem to have much in common with the pesharim.

  4. TrailerTrash

    HP: So, while I don’t have inherent problems with your suggestion, I do feel that historical-critical methods can and should inform the overall discussion.

    I agree that the general framework of historical criticism should play a role, as it does with scholarly African American and feminist biblical scholarship. At the same time, though I agree with you that few scholars would admit that they think that historical criticism is the only valid hermeneutic, I think that they treat it this way in practice.

    diahman: I think another issue that needs to be addressed is how to validate a non-positivist hemeneutic in the Church at large.

    I am not sure that this is necessarily my goal. These other scholarly approaches are for the most part restricted to a scholarly audience. They deal with pretty high level issues about interpretation and history. I am not saying that popular teaching isn’t necessary or important, only that it is a different project from the one that I am outlining here.

    BIV: Even anciently, communities were doing Biblical hermeneutics based on their particular communities

    I think that there is a difference from what I am talking about and these practices. For instance, I am not advocating an unreflexive reading of the text that simply reads our contemporary situation as the meaning of the text. Rather, the text becomes a starting point for thinking about our contemporary situation. As I mentioned, so far I don’t think that this approach has ever really been done in Mormonism. The starting point would definitely be the way that Mormons have read the Bible, which goes beyond simply commentaries and would include things like priesthood, polygamy, temple, etc. What we have to do is derive a set of orientations towards the text that exemplify our approach and use these as starting points. For example, the notion that we are living the biblical narrative even today and that prophets, revelation, etc are a part of our experience might point to a certain contingency about truth that is manifest in our hermeneutics. While this is just an example and not necessarily new, the kind of approach I am thinking about is one that examines what is emphasized (and what is overlooked) in Mormon readings as a starting point for looking at contemporary problems. African American and feminist hermeneutics look to liberation as a theme. What is ours?

  5. HP

    TT,
    I think that the reason that historical-critical approaches maintain a wider appeal, even when people admit that they are not getting at The Truth (in all cases, at least), is that the rules for the approach, while not objective, are learnable. African-American and Feminist studies do not feature a concise, learnable set of rules for interpretation in the same manner that historical-critical methods do. In those fields, much discussion is informed by experience and anecdote.

    Furthermore, as has been often discussed, there isn’t A feminist approach or An african-american approach. There still is only one historical-critical approach.

    The overall appeal, to my mind, of the historical-critical approach is not that it is inherently better able to explain history and text than other approaches. It is that it is a wholly artificial method and, therefore, its rules are learnable, its methods are teachable, and its ideas are universally acceptable to those who participate. In fact, these other hermeneutics are developed, historically, as protests against those very rules.

  6. TrailerTrash

    HP,
    Though I think that you and I agree in principle on this larger point, I disagree with pretty much your entire comment!

    African-American and Feminist studies do not feature a concise, learnable set of rules for interpretation in the same manner that historical-critical methods do.

    I am not entirely sure that any part of this is true. The fact that people do actually learn and produce these approaches seems to be self-evident, but perhaps I have misunderstood you? I have taken courses that treat these hermeneutical and methodological approaches and could write a paper employing them without a problem.

    In those fields, much discussion is informed by experience and anecdote.

    I think that this is a massive mischaracterization of both of these fields. Can you provide examples?

    there isn’t A feminist approach or An african-american approach.

    Of course not. But there isn’t A historical-critical approach either, which is why we have dozens of commentaries that all claim to use the same methods but arrive at different results. Besides, I am not arguing for A definitive, singular Mormon approach either.

    The overall appeal, to my mind, of the historical-critical approach is not that it is inherently better able to explain history and text than other approaches.

    I agree! However, I don’t think that the advantages that you list are accurate descriptions of how these approaches are praticed in the academy. These are not insignificant, marginal scholars. Further, the critique of these methods from the “post-modernists” is also in line with African American and feminist biblical studies.

  7. diahman

    I’m a firm believer in multiple viable interpretations of a given text and am admittedly somewhat less familiar with Feminist or African American biblical interpretations; but given the fact that these readings are diverse and done with a particular hermeneutic, on what grounds can we consider any of these readings a “bad” reading of the text?

    What I have in mind (and I think this is driving closer to the issue you raise), is that Mormons seem to employ a “pesher” hermeneutic to the text. You know the often quoted sayings that the BoM is as current as the daily newspaper…. I’m wondering on what basis we can claim any particular reading to be a “mis-interpretation” of the text. On the one hand it brings in a powerful relevance to the text (which I guess would be a pragmatic argument for this reading), but on the other hand this could fly in the face of many other clearly stated portions of the text (here speaking not necessarily of the BoM, but of textual interpretation in general).

  8. HP

    Hrm. I suppose my questions are as follows:

    1. While I am told that men can successfully write feminist critiques and white scholars can write african american critiques, I am curious as to the impact of male and white scholars on those two fields. I don’t consider either field marginal (or at least, I don’t consider them any more marginal than I consider historical-critical approaches). It is just an impression I have (and admittedly only an impression) that the works of female and african-american scholars are given slightly more weight within those fields. I don’t have examples however, as I have received next to no training in those fields and don’t really know who is prominent within them. So, please tell me, would you generally characterize those fields as relying equally upon critical works written by people who fall outside of the named demograhic and upon those who fall within?

    2. There is A historical-critical approach. The standards of evidence vary, but the methods must fall within a fairly narrow domain. Again, I am arguing somewhat from ignorance, as I haven’t been trained in these other methods. However, I would imagine that there is widespread debate over the methodology of contemporary interpretation. In other words, it is my believe that the range of methods would necessarily be wider for these contemporary interpretations because the present offers more opportunities and means for gathering information. Ultimately, to study the ancient past, you have documents and artifacts and only a limited assortment of those. Is my impression grossly inaccurate?

    3. I agree that my approach to the historical-critical method (and all other methods) is unorthodox. However, I believe it is much more realistic than other explanations that I have encountered. While the historical-critical method was developed by (and is to some degree grounded in the experiences of) dead white upper-class men, it was written in such a manner that one did not have to be a dead white man to participate. It persists because it continues to give the impression that everyone (properly trained) is allowed to participate in the discussion. I suppose that this is also the case with the other hermeneutics you mentioned. So my third question is basically a repeat of the first. Are these fields really open to participation by men and whites?

    diahman,
    I agree that pesher interpretation is probably the best descriptor of what we Mormons tend to do. It is also the best description of our manner of interpretation since our founding. I would therefore agree that it is hard to call any interpretation a “mis-interpretation” within our history.

  9. TT

    HP- these are excellent questions and I haven’t forgotten about them, I am just letting them stew. I promise to get to them soon!

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  11. Christian

    The Book of Mormon itself invites an unreliable narrator reading in some places, particularly where some racist narrators clash with God’s message in the book, and where Moroni calls attention to the “mistakes of men” that the book may contain, or to the “weakness” of the writers. The John 12 Caiaphas prophesy episode also shows that a prophet may not even grasp the full import of his own prophesy.

    In that light, Jose Luis Borges’ story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” may be useful here. To most book of Mormon readers, the point isn’t what was Nephi’s point or Moroni’s point but rather what was God’s point in bringing these precise writings (as opposed to others which were apparently plentiful) to light, to the 1800s, to the 1900s, and to our own century.