Saturday, 15 October 2005

Manuscript BS and pomo hermeneutic

The GBU last year used the Manuscript Bible Study method. We've moved this year to the (Observation, Interpretation, Application - same in French!) prepared questions method. Now, I had never really thought of MBS as bad - it just takes ages. In fact, I thought that I was using it in part in my Clifton SLOBS last year. That said, I don't think I've ever done a full MBS study. (With Clifton we used it with a suggested range of questions to consider until we arrived at a main teaching point and aim, and then went to suggested questions to use for the groups, because of time.) So I'd never considered what it actually is. My IFES team leaders here pointed out that what ends up being discussed is the points of the passage which most members find interesting. This may not be the emphasis of the passage. If the leader has prepared well, then it shouldn't be bad interpretation, but ultimately the group is in charge.

It struck me (acknowledging that I've been enjoying reading Vanhoozer's "Is there meaning in this text?") that this is essentially a postmodern hermeneutic: it dethrones the author (whether real or implied) and puts the reader in charge of meaning. Does the text itself have an intended meaning? Does it have an intended response?? These are rhetorical questions - responses would involve a dissertation the size of Vanhoozer's tome... but clearly the answer that MBS implies (even if it is used for better purposes) is that the reader is in charge of the text, its meaning, and the response. The author doesn't call for a response; rather, the reader responds to what the reader has decided of the text. Thus the reader conditions the text, rather than the text conditioning the reader.

As Christians, we have a resposability to be more careful readers than MBS allows/proscribes. We are made and redeemed to be in God's image: personal, communicating, responsable beings who act in covenant relationships with each other. We must be careful readers of each other's communication, and supremely careful readers of God's communication.

Of course, OIA questions don't guarantee this, but would seem to more carefully consider that there is an author with intended meaning and intended response.

(Vanhoozer's thesis is that text is coventantal communicative action. He has a lot more to say about it, and further logs may follow: I'm loving it! There's a lot more to consider about how much the response produced is part of the meaning too, and to what extent the author is responsable for responses - I hope he'll say more in what I haven't yet read. That also has implications for the proposed UK law on incitement to religious hatred: none of us act as if deconstruction is true, but as if we are creatures of real communicative action!)


Caleb W said...

Hia! I came across a link to your blog on the Blue Fish Project blog, and recognising your name from discussions on the UCCF message board came to have a look.

I've just been reading "Is there a meaning in this text?" since I'm doing a module in Critical Theory as of my English Literature & History degree. It's great having some stimulating Christian thinking on the subject - a good counterbalance to some of the stuff being thrown at me in lectures. I'll be interested to read any further thoughts you have on it.

What's the Manuscript Bible Study method involve? Actually, I can probably just google that. But I like comments on my blog, so I try and give them to other people.

God bless - I hope your year in Belgium goes well.


étrangère said...

I've since found that some (eg intervarsity canada) use the term 'Manuscript Bible Study' to refer to the 'observation' part of a Bible study, carefully giving structure to the MBS. Since I'm bereft of my library, I haven't actually been able to find a definitive description of MBS. As far as I know it runs something along the lines of:
- Give everyone in the group the passage printed on paper (same translation all)
- Everyone read through and scribbles on it to mark what strikes them, links, motifs, etc.
- In group, discuss what strikes you, what you don't understand, your response, etc.
Since this is in a group context, I suppose that the idea is that doing it in community stops it going too far off base. But in the name of dethroning the group study leader, you've dethroned the author, real and implied, and enthroned the reader (&/ interpretative community).

I haven't had time for much reading of Vanhoozer recently (although I enjoy it in time off, he's not what I can read when tired!) but I would be interested in your thoughts on Vanhoozer, as I've never studied in the field - just trying to read around it because I think Christians should engage with this key issue. The nearest I got to uni teaching on the subject was some philosophy of language as part of a logic course. Do post on it sometime.

Jon D said...

Thanks for your blog! May I offer an alternative perspective? (I hope its not too long I got carried away!)...

The Manuscript Bible Study seems to have been developed and used most thoroughly by IVCF in the US as a component of their inductive & communal approach to Bible study. An excellent introduction to this can be found by following this link:
This approach seeks to take seriously the concerns of postmodernism (i.e. the impact of the reader on the text through cultural/personal prejudice, sin etc.) without following these concerns to their logical (that objective meaning is inaccessible) and illogical (that objective meaning is non-existent) conclusions. The student is encouraged to read out of the text only what is there by progressing slowly from the text’s particulars to general conclusions rather than reading stuff into the text vice-versa. Hence it is an inductive method.
This inductive method has three components: 1) the text is presented as a manuscript; 2) the study follows a strict progression from observation to interpretation to application; 3) the study is group driven rather than leader driven.
1) The manuscript element simply describes the form the passage is presented to the group. The passage is printed out (usually using an ‘essentially literal’ version, e.g. ESV, NASB) minus verse/chapter numbers, paragraph breaks and headings, and with limited footnotes. The passage is double spaced with large paragraphs to allow note-scrawling. This format aids inductive study, forcing proper engagement with the text by: 1) excluding the influence of previous interpretative judgements (paragraphs and headings) during the observation stage of the Bible study; 2) helping the student receive the text as a coherent whole rather than lots of memory verses strung together; 3) making observations by allowing scribbling and note taking and 4) encouraging hard work in finding the inherent structure of the text.

2) The Bible study progresses strictly from observation to interpretation to application. Interpretation relies on the group’s questions but critically the questions are observation driven not merely driven by what the group is interested in (although these are often the same). So the questions asked should arise directly from observations made e.g. Why does Paul use the phrase ‘in Christ’ so many times? Why does Mark recount the story of Levi directly after the story of the paralytic? I.e. you are seeking to ask the questions the passage itself demands. This stage can be opened to group-critique by listing all the questions the group has and asking which of these questions arise most directly from the passage and which are most likely to have arisen from our own agendas, or asking which questions seem most likely to lead us to the heart of the passage’s meaning. The questions are then put back to the group who seek to answer them by 1) observations made from the passage; 2) the immediate and then larger context; 3) background info in Bible Dictionary etc.

3) Finally, the method emphasises shared discovery rather than leader-centred learning. It aims to equip the group with the Bible study skills that will allow them to find the meaning of the text. The leader’s role is to facilitate and join in with this process.
Having said that summary and application is the responsibility of the leader who will have thought about some potential application points prior to the study. The leader’s summary should be genuine, pulling together the threads discerned over the course of the study by the group and using the group’s own words. Similarly the application should again reflect the emphasis of what has struck the group during the course of the study. So the impact of the passage is group discerned and leader mediated. The leader’s role is 1) to discern both the objective truth of the passage and the subjective work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the readers and then 2) to ground this in a take home-message and life-changing application.

I have found that this exciting and dynamic method of Bible study results in genuine community around God’s word and breeds confidence that God’s truth is accessible and relevant.