Monday, 27 September 2010

Critical thoughts on the Oxford Psalms Conference

I've just returned from the Oxford Psalms conference, of which Bob MacDonald has provided an overview in a series of posts (along with some photos and a youtube video of the reconstructed Temple Psalmody we heard in the chapel). The experience was enriching, eye-opening, and in particular motivating as far as my own particular strand of work is concerned (Childs' approach to the Bible). Despite a technical hiccup with the publication of my abstract, I had two amazing conversations with two of the Psalms' greatest contemporary students: Erhard Gerstenberger and Frank-Lothar Hossfeld. The beauty of these two separate dialogues is that Hossfeld and Gerstenberger are in fact Gegenspieler as far as methodology is concerned: Gerstenberger representing the "older" form critical approach (an approach whose presuppositions are rightly still foundational for much contemporary interpretation) and Hossfeld representing the "newer" synchronic approach (Sitz im Buch rather than Sitz im Leben). Part of my thesis is that there is, in fact, a bridge over the apparent chasm that separates these two approaches (one that allows for two-way traffic), and that Childs, properly understood, is the man who has brought that reality most clearly to view.

And therein lies the problem I have with an otherwise excellent conference: the complete silence  (beyond a few minor footnotes) concerning Childs' own contribution to the field that, I would claim, he helped shape into its present form. I find this problematic for a minor and for a major reason. Of minor significance is simply the irony that it is ultimately the work of Brevard Childs that has made the peculiar scope of this particular conference possible in the first place. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps - I'm not an expert on the history of scholarship. But before Childs' ground-breaking work, did not "Wirkungsgeschichte" belong in the church/Jewish history department? And wasn't "Jewish/Christian" dialogue a concern of systematic theology? And why should the Psalm's liturgical actualization within a community of faith now migrate from the department of liturgy to that of Biblical exegesis? Aside from the obvious (though seemingly forgotten) fact that it was Childs who put both the Psalm superscriptions and the shape of the Psalter on the interpretive agenda, was he not also the first to insist that the full scope of research questions displayed at this conference was in fact an integral and necessary part of the exegesis of the text itself?

My primary concern here is not, however, about apportioning recognition where it is due. My major concern is with the coherence of the conference itself and, along with that, the discipline of Biblical studies. One impression that accompanied me throughout the conference was the disjointed manner by which the various fields of research were brought into relation. A historical critical reading of a Psalm was simply one possibility alongside an analysis of the history of its interpretation. The musical renditions of the Psalms in the chapel were aesthetic (perhaps spiritual), but not connected in any academically accountable way with the actual meaning of the texts themselves. Even talk of the "convergence" of Jewish and Christian interpretation in the modern period seemed disconnected from actual faith claims made by these communities (can Christian exegesis be non-Christological?) as well the constructive interpretive proposals made by Biblical exegetes, whose primary task is to look at the meaning of the text itself.

It is one thing to present an "array" of approaches to the Psalms, but the very act of arraying presupposes that there is some unity which the diversity of approaches ought, in some sense, to illuminate. Even in a so-called "postmodern" context, a conference such as this one must at least, at rock bottom, assume the presence of a single subject matter: the Psalms themselves. Are they not the ultimate object of research? Ought not the various subject areas thus arrayed function to enlighten our reading of the Psalms themselves rather than something else connected to the psalms? I fear that the very telos of such a conference is threatened when there is no attempt to bring diachronic, synchronic, reception history (etc.) perspectives into dialogue with each other, a dialogue that is about the Psalms themselves.

If the conference was not about the Psalms, what was it about? What was its unifying object of inquiry? If one is to argue - as seems implied - that illustrating the tension between peshat and midrash is interesting in its own right, that questions of the ordering of the Qumran Psalms or Rastafarian reinterpretation or medieval religious usage are all interesting in their own right, then it seems that the only thing uniting these approaches is the phenomenon of human cultural endeavour, as it is engaged in referring to or preserving or creating or inspiring or involving in some manner Israel's psalms. It seems that our Psalms conference was ultimately an exercise in cultural anthropology. If what matters is what humans have done and do then it is perfectly understandable that Rashi is simply juxtaposed with Akhenaten, the Temple archives with Anglo-Saxon Psalters, Qumranic textual variants with postmodern paraphrase. On this view, the proper object of inquiry is not the text itself as a vehicle of some concept or reality but us, humanity in its aspect as cultural being. The consequence is that the intertextual web is expanded indefinitely and Biblical studies migrates to the cultural anthropology department, where it threatens to dissolve upon arrival.

The irony in this is that the conference's explicit agenda was theological, not anthropological. It's title, "Conflict and Convergence," points to a desire to overcome readings by the Jewish and Christian faith communities which are mutually exclusive. The assumption is that the modern university can now, finally, after centuries of conflicting exegesis, provide a context whereby the exegeses of these two religious entities can finally "converge." Yet, can an approach to the Bible which is ultimately anthropological fulfil that task? Though both Jews and Christians confess that God's Word comes in humans words, those human words are also understood to be vehicles of God's Word. This is why Scripture is "holy," it has something to do with God, and not just in phenomenologically sense that they claim this to be so, but in the ontological sense that it really is. Christians and Jews are ultimately not interested in what humans have done or do with the Psalms, they are interested in what they should do because of the Psalms.

I would summarize my issue with the Oxford conference as a question: what constitutes the coherence under-girding the broad (and ever expanding) scope of interests arrayed for our attention? If, as the conference has implied, that coherence is human existence per se, the conference's own theological agenda will be undermined. But is there another way of conceiving the unity of the approaches? Could it be that Old Testament studies' typical Sitz im Leben in the theology rather than anthropology department is not an accidental misjudgement but rather an indication of the true coherence under-girding both the text and community? And if so, what does this kind of coherence mean for Jewish and Christian dialogue? Which is another way of asking, "how do we grasp the meaning of the Psalms?"

It is here that Childs can, once again, provide a pointer for the future (providing he is divested of the distortion that constitutes much of his own reception history). Childs was not only the originator of attempts to appropriate the full breadth of Jewish and Christian exegesis, seen as being intimately connected to the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the text, he did so for the sake of a single object of inquiry: the Biblical text itself. Which is the same thing as saying: he did it for the sake of the subject matter of the Biblical text. Already in the preface to his ground-breaking 1974 Exodus commentary (although admittedly it took a while for the ground to break) we gain hints at his grasp of the potential organic connection between the history "to" the text and the history "from" the text, a history that, despite its temporal extension in our time, turns to rotate on that central hub that is the Bible's own time, which is God's time.

Childs' own proposals for the coherency of the discipline are bound to remain contentious (even when correctly understood), and this is necessarily so because of their unapologetically confessional rootage. But the challenge he poses still remains open to those who would unknowingly walk in his footsteps without taking a glance at the interconnected coordinates he set to map the way: What is the Bible ultimately about? What is the most adequate context for its study? Wherein lies the coherence under-girding the diversity of fields of research displayed and awkwardly correlated  at the Oxford Psalms conference? In other words, and I think this is the decisive question: what constitutes their unity? Can the answer to this question - regardless of where it falls on the ideological spectrum - be anything other than confessional?

My hope is that one day Childs will indeed get the credit he deserves. I do not hope this for his sake, however, but for the sake of Biblical interpretation, which is for the sake of the interpretive community, whether Jewish, Christian, or secular.


Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Phil - it was very good to meet you at the conference - and I like your critique. I am keeping my powder dry for a few more days while I summarize what I have been able to note. I will find Childs on the psalms at the University library tomorrow and not browse any more as I did today - but read all day (as long as I can find it in English).

Thanks for this clear critique - more time needed in a conference like this for hearing the dialogue - perhaps it can happen over the web or at another conference. But such a conference has to allow a cohering of the group in question and answer sessions. At St Andrews 4 years ago the conversations from the floor were spirited and many - and moving towards what must ultimately as you note be confessional - though not necessarily polemical.

Terry L Eves said...

Phil--As a specific coment--these are thoughtful words and important questions. You have given me much to think about. I look forward to reading your dissertation as soon as I can get it.

As a general observation--I frequently benfit from this blog. Please continue to share your thoughts and work with us.

With appreciation,

Terry L Eves

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks both of you for your kind comments. I'm glad that what I think is of value to some.

Bob, I'm sorry that we couldn't talk more. As many said, that was a very packed conference.

mokumalef said...

Thank you for your very indepth and thought-out report of and comments on the Oxford Psalms conference. I'd like to add my own pesky little issue here which has less to do with the content (although ultimately it most likely does) but rather the organization of the conference. If it was the intention of the organizers to foster a dialogue between communities I do wonder what prompted them to schedule the conference exactly on one of the important Jewish festivals, i.e. Sukkot? By this scheduling blunder they effectively excluded and silenced one particular segment of the Jewish academic and clerical community (namely the Orthodox). I do realize that there were some Jewish participants; however these would not represent, speak for and from that particular segment which is also part of the larger Jewish group. This is interesting because it is exactly that absent group that takes the Psalter (or they would prefer Sefer Tehillim) very seriously as a living tradition, both in liturgy as well as in individual petionary prayer. So, as far as the organizers are concerned – for the umpteenth time in comparable circumstances: it’s their loss. Sad thing though is, they probably don’t even realize that they did suffer a loss and will whisk it away as an irrelevant irritant…. Phil, I do now that you have absolutely nothing to do with the organization and that you yourself are very sensitive to this particular issue. So I thank you for allowing me this little rant of a response.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks, Mokum alpeh, I really appreciate these thoughts and have posted them here: