Thoughts on Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins by Fernando Segovia. This book is pretty sweet.
Segovia’s reflection on twentieth century biblical criticism focuses on the shift from seeing the text as a means, an entry point to reach back to the historical locus from which the text originated, and the text as a medium in which the literary communicative act between author and receiver is the primary focus of study. He tells the story of the development of historical criticism and its loss of field dominance by the advent of literary and cultural criticism. At the turn of the century Segovia is able to exegete the new pluralism of interpretive methods as the coming of a new liberated and decolonized form of biblical criticism that transcends the limitations of any one form of discourse, but includes them in conversation where everyone is free to speak authentically in their own tongue (33).
Historical criticism sprung up early in the Enlightenment and has been the normative scholarly discourse about biblical texts until the 70’s. Here the texts become a means to gain access to the time of its composition. In archeological fashion the text becomes the tool for attempting to uncover the world from which it came the the intention of the author. The reader was understood to be a neutral, informed and objective critic who was able to wade through the evidence and establish the meaning of a text. This methodology has a theological orientation in that, consciously or not, it was assumed that when the original meaning of the text was established it would function authoritatively for the present. In this sense the text was a means to more than a historical insight but was latent with power, a power that has come under threat.
The first alternative interpretative community of discourse that developed was that of literary criticism. It is far from a homogenous form of criticism, but as Segovia points out they share a shift to seeing the text as a medium where the aesthetic and artistic character of the communication is the focus. Instead of a vertical reading that seeks to go beneath or behind the the text, the literary critic takes a horizontal reading which reads the text from beginning to end as a whole piece of literature. In its rejection of the historicist’s atomism the text was assumed to have a coherent structure with a unified meaning. The reader, who remained faceless, still sought the meaning of the text and in the end the plurality of interpretations it made possible were determined by the constraints of the text ‘properly understood.’
For Segovia there are striking differences between seeing the text as either a means or a medium, but what they share in common is essential for understanding his criticism of both and their mutual deconstruction. Despite methodological differences the reader is understood to occupy a position that if successfully occupied leads to a universal and objective conclusion. As the reader became aware of numerous interpretive models and eventually those cultural criticisms that called the reader into question , this assumed objectivity and universality was revealed to be an operative myth of the scholarly community. It was the advance of cultural criticism, the third interpretative method discussed, that revealed the latent power at play in any text. At first the cultural critics focused on the the relationship present within the situation of the text, its author, readers, community, and various relationships at play in the discourse. As interest turned to the function of a particular reading in the present with the help of the neo-Marxist critics a concern for the politics of interpretation came to the foreground. For the cultural critic the text was both a means and a medium and for Segovia the end of an era. The future of biblical interpretation offered by Segovia is one beyond the various attempts for a universal and informed reader that often amounted to an educated european. Instead, his cultural approach sees the texts as a construction. As such one is able to engage in many different critical methods while recognizing that one cannot move beyond one’s own location. Not only can you not move beyond one’s location, but you would not want to for it is there that Segovia envisions the possibility of everyone owning and sharing their own voice in a liberated and decolonized conversation.