Proclamation

My excitement about Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s commentary on Revelation only grows. In her Introduction she argues for rhetorical analysis over against hermeneutics, critiquing the latter as fostering a false sense of value-neutral epistemology and apolitical readings of texts. We can ask a ton of questions about her approach here, but for the moment let’s leave these to the side and let me quote at length her introduction of a really fascinating term:

Competing interpretations are not simply either right or wrong, but they constitute different ways of reading and constructing socio-historical and theo-ethical meaning. What is appropriate in such a paradigm of Biblical scholarship is not detached value-neutrality, but an explicit articulation of one’s rhetorical strategies, interested perspectives, ethical criteria, theoretical frameworks, religious presuppositions, and socio-political locations for critical public discussion. … Questions such as how meaning is constructed, whose interests are served, what kind of worlds are envisioned, what roles, duties and values are advocated, which social-political practices are legitimated, or which communities of discourse are considered responsible become questions central to the interpretive task.

The distinction between hermeneutic and rhetoric thus has far-reaching practices for the theo-ethical practice of proclamation. By proclamation I do not mean just preaching, but all theo-ethical inquiry that is concerned with the uses and effects of biblical texts in contemporary society, culture, and churches. Such a broad understanding of theological biblical interpretation is necessary because biblical texts such as Revelation affect not only the perceptions, values, and imaginations of Christians but also those of Western cultures and societies on the whole. [She goes on to detail this with contemporary reference to the first Iraq war in almost exact parallel to current-day events!] In such a contest of words and symbols, a critical rhetoric, rather than just an appreciative hermeneutic, is called for.

                                                                            (3-4, my emph.)

My amateur translation: In a community that hopes to be spurred by the biblical texts we read to real commitments, we have to take careful note of how reading and interpreting the text interacts with the places we make those commitments. Reading and interpreting are affected by and affect where we stand and how we act socially and politically (in the broad sense of the polis). Interpretation that pays attention to this is the only kind suited to readers who want to forge real commitment in those realms.

I love her attention to developing ways of reading that are suited to committed social and political impact of the text and I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out in her commentary. I’m not ready to totally jump on board with her entire program but I’m hoping her perspective will provide a real toolkit for involved reading.

And I love this word proclamation. (Her commentary is in the Proclamation Commentaries series, btw.) I know she says this goes beyond preaching, but I think there’s an interesting implication here for just that. As I was telling my homegirl the other night, I hear many people refer to the Sunday morning sermon (very deliberately, I think) as ‘teaching’ rather than ‘preaching’. (Speaking only from experience, this is something I have, I’m proud to say, never heard in the churches I’ve been a part of which are broadly under the Holiness umbrella.) She and I think we can make a pretty good argument that the pastor as sermon-giver should not be considered a subset of the teaching function of the church. ESF gives even more reason to reserve ‘preaching’ as something different from ‘teaching’. Good preaching can be proclamation — the sermon (not each individual sermon, but the whole sermon-life of a congregation) pays attention to the church’s location in the world, its commitments, its involvements, duties, roles and values. It can critically examine of how the church is using scripture to these ends and it has special opportunities for this if it doesn’t feel obligated to try to be detached, value-neutral ‘teaching’.

Presumably good teaching can do this too, and certainly this sort of stuff goes on even in places where ‘teaching’ is the preferred word. But thinking of the sermon as ‘teaching’ seems to me to leave the congregation much more prone to assuming we are doing our ‘learning’ in a detached, value-neutral way, something I think she is right to critique, and robs the preacher and congregation of real opportunities and tools for proclamation.

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5 Responses to “Proclamation”


  1. 1 periphery January 15, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Yes, “proclamation” is a really helpful concept. I especially appreciate how we can see the work of Richard Hays in *Moral Vision* as serving a distinct end from the work of even LTJ in the two commentaries we read by him.

    Just out of curiosity, is “homegirl” supposed to indicate that I hail from the same ‘hood?

  2. 2 periphery January 15, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Or are you drawing attention to our shared social class, profession, or what?

  3. 3 withastone January 16, 2009 at 8:38 am

    It’s multivalent here — shared home of our souls, kindred world of opinion on the topic, common history of discussion on related topics, general preference for your company, brother- and sisterhood in Christ…

  4. 4 periphery January 17, 2009 at 12:17 am

    By “shared home of our souls,” are you referring to Massachusetts?


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