Theology on the Way to Emmaus: Performing the Scriptures

I return now to Nicholas Lash’s book Theology on the Way to Emmaus, looking at the chapter entitled: “Performing the Scriptures.” He starts with a comparison:

There are some texts the interpretation of which seems to be a matter of, first, ‘digging’ the meaning out of the text and then, subsequently, putting the meaning to use, applying it in practice. That might be a plausible description of what someone was doing who, armed with a circuit diagram, tried to mend his television set. But it would be a most misleading description of what a judge is doing when, in the particular case before him, he interprets the law. In this case, interpretation is a creative act that could not have been predicted by a computer because it is the judge’s business to ‘make’ the law by his interpretation of precedent. What the law means is decided by his application of it” (38).

Texts, in other words, have genre’s and, if I can put it this way, teleologies. Lash, furthermore, compares interpretation to the performance of a musical text  – a score – stating, “Even if the performance if technically faultless (and is, in that sense, a ‘correct’ interpretation) we might judge it to be lifeless, unimaginative” (40). Therefore, with some texts, interpretation does not properly take place until the texts are truly performed. Lash offers a brief summary: “…Christian practice, as interpretive action, consists in the performance of texts which are construed as ‘rendering’, bearing witness to, one whose words and deeds, discourse and suffering, ‘rendered’ the truth of God in human history. The performance of the New Testament enacts the conviction that these texts are most appropriately read as the story of Jesus, the story of everyone else, and the story of God” (42).

Reading the Bible therefore is not merely a private reading but is fundamentally communal. The biblical texts, Lash argues, is somewhat like a musical score or a script, but, unlike a symphony or a play it doesn’t end. The biblical texts bleeds beyond the boundaries of our private lives into everything we do and all that we are (alliteration is for James).

Lash therefore turns to offer some broad rules to this performance. First, there is a limited range of options when it comes to an interpretation of the text which is constrained by authorial intent. Second, the performance must be true to the questions the texts seek to answer. Lash explains:

To put it very simply: as the history of the meaning of the text continues, we can and must tell the story differently. But we do so under constraint: what we may not do, if it is this text which we are to continue to perform, is to tell a different story” (44).

As an example of how this might look, Lash turns to the Eucharist. It is here where the community of Christ performs the story of Christ, or, as we have seen in my posts on Mikoski’s book, baptism could serve in this function as well. Practicing death, as it were, becomes the basic Christian posture, as we drink the blood and eat the flesh, and as we enter the community by being drown in the waters of death. We perform that which highlights the end of this drama, and the beginning of a new drama; or, better, we point towards the fulfillment, reconciliation and perfection of this drama.

What are the implications of this kind of read? Any thoughts? What are the upsides and downsides to this?

22 thoughts on “Theology on the Way to Emmaus: Performing the Scriptures

  1. I’m reading Lash – from your excerpts here at least – as making the opposite point: 1) there is a genre, a history, from which a text comes. But 2) we are allowed/expected to make our own story out of it. “What the law means is decided by his application of it.”

    Though to be sure, we cannot quite tell an entirely “different story,” still, that might not be to say much more, than to advocate what happens when we read a creative novel: the 1) plot, the sequence of events of course is rather fixed. But 2) then what we make of it, is somewhat up to us.

    Lash seems to describe two different aspects of reading; but which one does he stress? The 1) fixed or 2) the creative?

    I notice that much of Theology is equivocal, particularly around major issues, like fidelity to tradition, vs. theological innovation. Rather than go one way or the other, I think we should hear both voices. Which are often more or less equally weighted.

    Or do you feel that the rest of Lash’s text decides this issue more firmly, one way or another?

  2. To be sure, I’m reasonably sympathetic to the theological idea often apparently found on this blog: that somehow, even our own pursuit of very individual, personal, human, even “flesh”ly elements of our lives (in the sense that Jesus was God “made flesh”), might lead us 1) back to God, or back to the mindset of the classics of religion. If God made us after all, then shouldn’t the deepest investigation of our humanness, our selves, lead us back to God?

    Though to be sure, there are dangers here; surely not all our own personal human impulses, “lusts,” are good. If we follow all our impulses as if they were all equally sacred, then we become like a character in Crime and Punishment. Doing very evil things, and thinking they are good, acting from our self-god.

    Seeing our human selves in religion is increasingly accepted though, too of course. In that 2) much of modern theology probably believes that a) even our classic ideas about God were mostly just human ideas after all (though perhaps, among our best ideas?). And that b) therefore, we as human beings, have the right to criticize and even, add to them.

    Though surely the standard for speaking for or from God, should be very, very, very high? Since many will speak false ideas in the name of God, and mislead many others.

    Reconciling adherence to the script, and creativity: 3) suppose we have say, in religion and life, no more or less leeway than an actor “performing” a script? Even this might be enough for very considerable variation; given the many layers of conflicting understanding, themes, even within the Bible itself.

    [Regarding Baptism with water for example: did Jesus himself want it? One reading of the text (at the beginning of John?) suggests he did not. So far as water, 1) Jesus did not baptise, John said at first, but “wash”ed things. While 2) if he baptised at all, it was not with water, but with the “Holy Spirit.” Which is how the third member of the trinity appears, in connection with baptism. Here, we see many different themes; many kinds of baptism and washing; many different facets of God. Which one should we perform? Personally, I prefer … first of all, washing. The form of “baptism” which I know, really works in a physical way, to save us from uncleanliness and disease. Seeing Jesus as after all, a physician.]

  3. Hi Kyle,

    Forgive me, all, if I sound repetitive in echoing some themes from prior posts on this topic, but I think it keeps bouncing back because of its critical importance, not only to good theology but also to the life of the Church.

    The portions you discuss of Lash’s “Performing the Scriptures” seem to break no real new ground beyond what Vanhoozer has already laid out in Drama of Doctrine. I am especially interested in the “teleology” angle, as I am increasingly coming to the conviction that our understanding of Scripture—even when contextualized for variation in culture, language, history, etc.—may need to begin with teleology. In short, we seek to understand both words of truth and words of meaning, and authorial intent dictates both the telos of the text and the meaning that is embedded in the text to elicit that telos in every relevant dispensation of salvation history. I have discussed this at length here.

    In light of our prior discussion with Kent Sparks on the notion of inerrancy, one wonders how we could meaningfully narrow the range of options when it comes to an interpretation of the text which is constrained by authorial intent? My suggestion would be that if we accord the biblical author full respect for weaving an inspired telos that can “speak” to any generation of the people of God, we may find that the “meaning” for that generation may be surprisingly more easily adduced from the text and more consistently understood by the Body at large. Similarly, the enterprise would be most likely to yield abundant fruit when undertaken “on mission,” thereby enhancing our sensitivity to the “telic thrust” of the text.

  4. Jim, I actually think that Vanhoozer got his understanding of this from Lash. He did his Ph.D under Lash and this book was put out in 1986, so it could be that this was more of a hobby-horse for Lash that Vanhoozer took and ran with into a robust theology. It is interesting that they both tend to avoid a more systematic kind of theology and adopt a more occasional one. For Lash it seems theological – musings fit the medium – while for Vanhoozer it seems different. Interesting nonetheless.

  5. Thanks for the inside info, Kyle. I’m sure Vanhoozer has cited him somewhere in his three volumes on this topic, but it just didn’t stick in my awareness. “Occasional” theology…nice.

  6. But given that 1) the Bible’s language is very complex, can we even be all that sure of its essential teleology? Or to speak English for the sake of transparency: “thrust” or “direction,” or “end goal”?

    2) Is the goal of the author(s) of the Bible, even really even man’s “salvation”? “Salvation history” is an idea from German theologians. But in the Bible? Perhaps salvation means just physically saving people from premature physical death, in the OT particularly. It is not even all that certain that just a spiritual salvation, really is the end the Bible itself had in mind. In the sought-for teleological End, we have both “spiritual” but also physical “bodies” it seems.

    Then too, 3) when we read modern fiction and myth, it is well known that the “author’s original intention” is perhaps impossible to discern or irrelevant; the author is working in a sense, beyond himself; in art or trance. And so the author himself might not know what is “goal” is. Any search for “author’s intent” and “essential meaning” have often been – rightly – attacked by modern/postmodern literary critics.

    4) Insofar as we can see any “intent” in a work? Often a work has multiple The language of the Bible seems at least as literary and complex, as modern fiction.

    Likely the Bible also has many layers … and many goals. Or a complex goal that even the search for “salvation history” is inadequate to describe.

    5) To be sure, we might still respect the original text, to some point; and even respect, to a degree, the attempt to find some roughly “essential” intent or “direction” in it. But only tentatively; and only to a degree.

    Finally, all we can really see are words; a script. But the “meaning” “behind” it? The more I read the Bible, the more different meanings, directions, intents, I find in it.

  7. Joe,

    I’m sorry if you are reading the views of German theologians into my use of “salvation history.” What I’m referring to is a lot more like the three-dimensional picture of salvation and “layers” of meaning it seems you are painting by innuendo with your questions. However, it also seems to me that you too easily dismiss the “orienting” role of inspiration in authorial intent and illumination in our responses to illocutionary force (our “perlocutions”) in the text. Before a reader can really understand “layers” of meaning s/he must first be “oriented” by the text. And I contend one cannot be properly “oriented” without respecting the “author.”

    Of course the author can’t “know what the goal is,” if by that you mean the specific perlocutions that people will perform throughout history. But if the author is properly “oriented” to the revelation, he will have some intuitive sense—at the very least—of the suitable “range” of perlocutions intended by God in the complex process of inspiration, all the while acknowledging that we cannot cleanly distinguish “sources” from “redaction” from “canonical ordering” in that process of inspiration and therefore what might be entailed in the notion of “authorial intent” to begin with. That is a far cry from labeling the notion a thoroughgoing fallacy.

    What Lash and Vanhoozer have done is in effect to take into full consideration the legitimate aspects of modern/postmodern literary criticism and to restore reasonable hope of “meaningful” meaning embedded in the text but not bound by either the excess epistemic constraints of modernism or the virtually complete lack of any epistemic boundaries of postmodernism. They have indeed broadened the “range” of meaning layered into the text, but it is nothing like the “no holds barred” reader-response approach that I almost hear you saying….Are you?

    Have you studied what Vanhoozer did with the modern and postmodern critiques in Is There a Meaning…? Have you read my brief synopsis of the implications of his work for practical hermeneutics in the link I provided in my previous post? I’m glad to hear that you are still reading the Bible, but how are you responding to it without being “oriented” by the text’s illocutionary force? Do you grant that this is part of the “meaning” in the text?

    Just curious.

  8. Sorry: haven’t read Van. Admittedly, I’m just winging it here. Didn’t happen to see any link here, to your synopsis; which I would be happy to read.

    To be sure, too, I don’t remember much of the old (Searle-ean ?) critical language of “locution” and “perlocution” etc.. Offhand though: how do YOU make out the (perlocutionary?) intent? If not just from the text itself? And if the text itself is indecisive, then how?

    How do you know that your sense of things – and the traditional sense of what the BIble “really” was trying to say, was not influenced by one of the many “false” things in religion that God constantly warned about? Like say, “false spirits”?

    It seems to be a major part of the main message (even perlocutionary intent; and illocutionary voicing? If my use of terms is right here) of the BIble, is to constantly warn about “false” things deep in our holiest sources. As for example, when the Apostle/Saint James, says “we all make many mistakes.” “We all” presumably including the apostles etc. who wrote our very Bibles.

    So that “orienting” ourselves to the messages deep inside the very, very deepest intentions of the Bible, we find the intent of the (corporate?) authors of that document, to warn us to remain questioning, critical, even about our holiest figures and writings.

    As Jesus himself often seemed to do. Jesus questioning even his own status: “who do you say I am?” “My God … why have you abandoned me?”

    So I read, deep down in the Bible, at the level of intent, a basis not for blind faith in our local church or its view of God; but a basis instead, for critical and questioning Theology.

  9. Yes, Joe, it all is a part of the main message, in our view. I think you will find most of my response to your post in my paper; it was hyperlinked in green (= “here”) in my next to last post, but I will relink it for you here.

  10. JIM R.:

    OK: just glanced through your summary. Seems OK in outlining a methodology; applying a Speech Act theory approach to the Bible.

    Well done. But beyond 1) outlining a methodology … 2) what specifically would applying your method conclude, regarding the essential message of Ecclesiastes/Quoheleth (cf. “the Preacher”)?

    To play the devil’s advocate, (or God’s?), I’d suggest that Ecc. is not that pious: a) Ecc. is widely regarded by scholars as one of the most questioning and unconventional texts of the Bible. While b) perhaps one of the most pious statements occurs at the very end of the text; the very place most likely, in texts, to contain scribal additions.

    Then too, other specific points in support of a questioning text or genre: c) obedience to the king, is still not quite the same as obedience to God; there are bad kings, after all.

    So that d) what “genre” is this after all? If it is say, “Wisdom Lit,” then after all, THAT genre is notoriously at odds with the rest of the Bible. And would seem to be a genre at odds with, say, conventional piety.

    Yes, e) I might even tentatively agree that this is an example of “Heilgeschichte.” (SP?).

    Yet can we agree however, that the specific way that THIS text intends to save or cure us, to illuminate us, and to move us toward action – is to warn us that many conventional ideas about God and religion, are false. And therefore, we should not be too trusting.

    Or even too conforming to the conventional idea of what is good? For example: f) “be not righteous overmuch” (Cf. Heilgeschichte & heilig? SP? See Heidegger on the latter).

    If then, g) the Holy Spirit inspired this … then the Holy Spirit is telling us to be less blindly faithful; and to be more critical theologians.

    Thanks for your useful outline of a methodology from EDH; can we come to agree on the results of applying that method to Ecc? To find it a very, very questioning text? Indeed, almost an introduction to say, critical theology?

  11. Yikes! Were we both pimping our own books?

    Might swap books with you, when mine is finished?

    I’m currently looking for 1) a good, even free on-line publisher, first, for my own book. Or 2) a POD. Then 3) later on, a print publisher.

    I’ve previously published in the print world; one or two academic pubs, and popular writing too. But I’m new to the Internet; any recommendations? I’m writing accessible theology, I think. Hoping for the larger audience.

    I see you are using Amazon? Do you recommend them? Is there a better on-line, and/or POD publisher? Maybe Logos for a free source? Can they handle an 700-page, 10 Meg. book?

    Regarding Ecclesiastes though, and the (humanistic?) Theology on the Way to Emmaus; I’m pretty committed to seeing it as an unconventional text, critical of the theology of the rest of the Bible. Care to give us any free hints, as to whether you fully intend to “harmonize” it with the rest of the Bible, as conventionally interpreted? Or frankly acknowledge its critical nature?

    Is there something in your application of the Speech Act method that leads to unexpected conclusions? Above and beyond simpler methodologies? Above and beyond harmonization?

    It seems in the Bible we are given a “script”; but of course there are many different levels, messages, theologies in them. I honestly prefer the reading, even the performance, that does not affirm conventional faith. And I’m currently independent enough, to be rather obvious about this.

    To tell the truth too, I’m a little suspicious about heavy methodology; which tends to create its rules, its own turf; thus biasing the result.

    I’d rather slug it out in “ordinary language.” With Wittgenstein.

  12. Unaccustomed as I am to being compared with a pimp, I must admit it certainly feels that way some of the time.

    As far as options for your book, I’m not too savvy about Internet options, either, but I do have Unlocking Wisdom on Logos as well, and they have the advantage of regularly updating the text with any changes you make to the MS to keep it current.

    Amazon is pretty crucial for the availability it affords to all audiences and the potential (at least) for all-comer reviews; I haven’t looked into the pros and cons of their publishing options, but I understand that Kindle has exploded as the alternative to print media.

    As to methodology, after doing this for a bunch of years, I don’t find it at all obtrusive—it keeps me more honest in my harmonization and synthesis. Nor have I at all shied away from the language; in fact, the subtitle of my commentary is A canonical-linguistic exposition of the books of Job and Ecclesiastes (emphasis added). Maybe you should try it.

    As to my interpretive results with speech-act in the book of Ecclesiastes, since “conventional” results are all over the map, just about anything I came up with would seem to “compete.” However, I’m convinced that the argument is addressed to anyone tempted to make life work for them out of sheer self-determination. Speech-act helped me see that the author’s “locution” was a life-reflection-based a fortiori argument against self-determination; IOW, the reader who identifies with Qohelet is tempted like him to try to find an “angle” to life’s labor that will result in a worthwhile legacy. Yet Qoh—who has already trumped everyone on every available resource (especially wisdom)—nevertheless comes up empty-handed, especially in the “commodity” of righteousness. So the only viable alternative for the reader is to cultivate the fear of God; in this respect, therefore, the conclusion is “conventional.”

    The main result of applying speech-act theory in both Job and Ecclesiastes? The illocutionary force embedded in both texts is the dynamic of disillusionment. The more the reader of either book strives to resist disillusionment, the greater the vicarious sense of futility, as the reflections in both books continue to circle back repeatedly to disillusionment, which thereby becomes the “orienting force” for the reader. When the courageous reader finally “gets it” s/he can relax and embrace disillusionment with the protagonists, such that the fear of God becomes the only—indeed, appealing—telos, as futility is displaced by meaning in perlocutions that serve the previously inscrutable redemptive purposes of God.

    If you are interested, I did a short guest post on TF last year on the topic of theodicy and disillusionment in the book of Job.

  13. Joyful fatalism? Giving up with relief? Allowing there is no explanation? Seems plausible enough; and matches other comments on the “Epicurianism” and “Stoicism” of Ecc. especially. While respecting finally, merely power might fit some models too.

    By the way: if the name of Ecc. means “the preacher”? And if our preachers do in fact often seem rather like Q. – above or outside the simplified theologies they teach, in church? Then Ecclesiastes and Job might might, in describing a post-existential absurdist worship of the mere power (rather like Sartre in Nazi occupied France), also describe the real theology of our own religious leaders and preachers today?

    Perhaps, from my experience, the more intellectual among them.

  14. ON a more moderate note: I see in Wisdom Lit – especially Ecc – a rather nonconventional, intellectual theology being approved in the Bible. In effect, I think I see Agnosticism being approved by God.

    In Wisdom lit, various parties suggest that we can’t really understand God fully; his ways are mysterious. They are beyond us. So, God being in heaven, and we merely human beings on earth, “let our words be short”. Which in one reading, and one common theology, suggests that GOd is so complex, that all our mere human words – possibly even inspired gospels – about him, will inevitably be oversimplifications. Hence the “apophatic” prohibition on mentioning his name in public for example.

    So that the “unconventional,” or even “alternative” theology I see emerging in Wisdom Lit, the theology that is hard to “harmonize” with corner-church theology and the rest of the BIble, but that is approved by God nevertheless, is in effect, Agnosticism. There is a God out there, Wisdom suggests. But his ways are so far beyond us, that we should never trust simple sermonic pronouncements about him; his ways are all but unknowable.

    This very respecful theology, has some unexpected power behind it. It might even allow trained theologians and intellectuals to occasionally ask evangelical televangelists for example, to simply stop preaching; since most of their thoughts, pronouncements for God, are inevitably presumptious and simplistic. And in effect, false. They “speak falsely for God.” They presumptuously claim to know far more things about God than can be reliably known. Just like Job’s opponents. So let their words be few.

    Wisdom lit clearly relates a great deal to a simple Existentialism, and an intellectual temper. In that we live in a universe, under a God, whose meaning is never clear; even “absurd” as Camus suggested; all we can do is simply accept life as it is; and in a phrase found several times in Ecc., and also summarize it: “enjoy life.”

    Therefore, I support Wisdom Lit as 1) a basis for a God -approved Agnosticism. And as God’s criticism of all mere apologists for conventional theology (like Job friends).

    Or for that matter, relating to this: what about 2) Wisdom Lit as in effect, the higher”wisdom” approved of in much of the Bible?

    And an escape at last, from being enslaved to the televangelical vote?

    And by the way, looking at Wisdom lit, might be a good test case in how we might take the “script” of the Bible, and come up with quite a different kind of reading or “performance” of it, than the program dictated to us in corner churches.

    And indeed, perhaps we are granted this latitute by God himself: on the road to Emmaus, disciples see Jesus in effect … in a stranger, a mere human being, it seems. When a mere human being reads scripture rightly, and in his words and spirit assume the true character of Jesus, Jesus is resurrected. Resurrected inside another, merely human being. In simple human beings; who act in “persona Christi” (SP?).

    All this gives the mere human being – and a humanistic theology – a central, not peripheral role, in Christian life. And allows some personal freedom, your own individual human involvement, in deciding just exactly what God, Jesus, really said.

    (Incidentally, regarding a few minor points in your remarks on Job: be careful about assuming that Job ever makes any mistake at all. GOd from the start called Job “upright” or righteous; and in the end says that Job spoke rightly about God. So that it is far from certain whether Job ever actually makes any mistaken remarks or actions at all; at least regarding his remarks on God himself. THere also seem to be one or two remarks you attribute to Job, that I believe were actually spoken by one of his friends; will double-check on that, later maybe).

    In the meantime, thanks for your participation in this forum. Do you have any brief remarks regarding our conversation with Kenton, on his book, a few posts ago?

  15. Well, Joe, I can certainly see a lot of wheels turning…

    On the “agnosticism” thing, this is a major theme in Ecclesiastes—there is in fact an “agnostic” reality to life as we observe it, and this should drive us all the more to fear God out of the existential despair that should bubble to the surface of our awareness if we are rational and acknowledge the constraints of life’s uncertainty, but also of our own depravity and mortality.

    Regarding Kent Sparks’ book, I did make a comment above on a notion of inspiration that can embrace all the “sources,” “redactors,” and “those that determine canonical order.” I am neither as “agnostic” nor as “pessimistic” as Kenton appears to be on the reliability of the text as “received.”

    Regarding Job, I think you are mistaken. I deal with your question in the book in great detail, so I’ll let the argument speak for itself. The answers come IMO from the flow of the narrative and the argument embedded therein—with the speeches of Elihu comprising the main “prophetic voice” in the book.

  16. I think the religious world needs a Biblical justification for agnosticism today; maybe this is it. Anyone want to take it and run with it? Go ahead. (Cite me once though if you feel any indebitness to my formulation? “Joe” at Theology Forum, in quotes?).

    Regarding the final message of Wisdom? You seem to agree that it is Agnosticism. But with some reservations and caveats.

    Addressing those stated caveats: there’s an interesting progression of theological conclusions here. To be sure, 1) being agnostic, like Job and the Preacher, not knowing the true, “full” nature of God, 2) gives us a certain amount of “fear” of God. Because we live in a world, under a God, we never fully understand. But – your major caveat? – that would not necessarily make fear of God our final and ultimate theology.

    Though it is certainly a very major theme in Wisdom Lit, in fact, 3) the Preacher especially seems to want to moderate a fear-based theology. And prevent it from being the final message. By counterpoising to it a rather Epicurean, joy-oriented, existentialist, “enjoy life.” Fear God … but go on to enjoy what seems good; whether we understand it full or not. (Seconded in the NT by Paul’s command to follow “whatever is good”?).

    Incidentally, there is a time, a season, for “everything”; hence, my systematically and loyally interdisciplinary and eclectic methodology. Which finds a reasonably stable synthesis outside this forum, to be sure. Though I’m not so fond of “systematic theology”; which I think, overlooks precisely, the variability and indeed, indeterminate nature of God. As invoked in, say, Ecclesiastes. Or simply, in “Wisdom.” (Though none of us should allow ourselves to be “too wise in our own eyes,” of course.)

    Anyway, actually, I think that what we tentatively agree is the main idea here is timely and salable. A quick headline for the news: God allows, approves, agnostics.

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