Wednesday, March 29, 2006

By Way of Reminder: Subjective Experience is Inescapable

Tony Jones recommended The Hidden Power of the Electronic Culture back on Valentines Day. I decided it was a good recommendation and ordered it. I started reading it right away and then put it down for about a month or so and have recently come back to it. (I put it down because I had other things I had to do and read, not because I wasn't enjoying it.)

In the third chapter Hipps discusses how our phonetic alphabet and the printing press shaped us intellectually, regardless of what we read. It allowed us to think more abstractly, individualistically (since we didn't have to listen to anyone tell us the story, we could read it ourselves) and rationally. As a result,

This detachment (standing apart from the ideas and observing them on the printed page) had a profound effect, as it introduced the belief that we can stand outside something and judge it. In oral cultures, where there is no way to separate oneself from one's ideas, the notion of objectivity almost never emerges.
(After noting this isn't necessarily bad, Hipps continues.) However, when objectivity is taken to its extreme, it leads to the belief that we can read and discover biblical truths with an unbiased clarity of vision. We presume the Bible presents an objective set of propositions that everyone will discover if they just read it properly. This inflated sense of objectivity, fueled by printing, breeds an unfortunate and arrogant illusion of omniscience. It leaves little room for subjective experience and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Subjective experience is inescapable. Whether I know it or even like it, I read the Bible through the inescapable lenses of a privileged white American male who was raised in a Midwestern suburb. My reading of Scripture will be vastly different from that of a Latin American woman struggling in destitute poverty under the oppressive rule of a dictatorship...

This may sound like a descent into meaningless relativism, but it isn't. The fact that our subjective experience colors the way we read Scripture isn't a surprise to God. That's part of the beauty and mystery of Scripture. The stories of the Bible are remarkably adaptable to people in divergent contexts. We must remember that the Bible is not merely a collection of objective propositions...The mere fact that the Bible includes four versions of the life of Jesus tells us that subjective experience and interpretation have places in the life of faith.

I'm hoping I can finish the book in the midst of a gruelling semester at school. We'll see.


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