The Problem Of The Textcontext Interpretive Mode

The dynamics of text-context have gained currency in recent theology and biblical studies. Most scholars are familiar with this paradigm and assume

Paul A. Rule, 'Does Heaven Speak? Revelation in the Confucian and Christian Traditions', in Stephen Uhalley Jr and Xiaoxin Wu (eds.), China and Christianity: Burdened Past, Hopeful Future (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), pp. 63—79.

Erik Zrcher, 'Buddhist Influence on Early Taosim: A Survey of Scriptural Evidence', T'oungPao 66

S.J. Samartha, One Christ—Many Religions:Towarda RevisedChristology (Maryknoll: Orbis ,1991), p. 67. John B. Henderson, Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). The process of canonization of the Confucian scriptures in the time of the Han dynasty is characterized by the intense writing of commentary, see Sarah A. Queen, From Chronicle to Canon: The Hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn Annals According to Tung Chung-Shu (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 206-25.

that a text does not only have context of its own but also has to be interpreted in context. In a way this trend of thought should be readily recognized as it is beyond dispute that any language, history or cultural form which shapes our mindset is contextually formulated. But in the multi-scriptural Asian experience, the text-context interpretive mode has its intrinsic limitations and does not adequately address the reality of the plurality of scriptures and the co-existence of religious communities, since contextual biblical interpretation, as it is currently practised, embodies an ideological bias towards the mono-textual privileged status enjoyed by the Bible.

Taking the context of Asia seriously, George M. Soares-Prabhu, an Indian biblical scholar, invites us to be more sensitive to 'its frightening complexity and startling contrasts'.34 He depicts the Indian context in terms of linguistic diversity, religious pluralism and massive economic poverty. He characterizes the enormous contrasts in this vivid portrayal:

The scandalous contrast between the great masses of India's poor and the tiny minority of the very rich finds a striking visual expression in Bombay's sprawling slums, stretching out endlessly in the shadow of high-rise luxury apartments and five-star hotels. Such economic disparity can lead to amusing juxtapositions of incongruous technologies. Bullock-carts trundle past atomic reactors; fortunetellers ply a busy trade just outside institutes of advanced scientific research and scientists who split the atom and toss satellites into space arrange the marriages of their children by matching horoscopes, and celebrate them on astrologically determined auspicious days.35

The complexity of the Asian context exhibits both the impacts of modernization and globalization as well as traces of the traditional conceptions of the supernatural, human fate and social destiny, which are profoundly articulated in religious classics handed down from the past and still widely practised in daily rituals and rites. Context is not just a setting of the intersection of time and space; it is a conglomeration of texts in the conventional sense of written documents, as well as in the more elusive socio-scientific notion of historical events, peoples' movements, daily experiences and human actions in community as being 'social text'.36

The most acute criticism of the commonly practised mode of the interpretation of text and context in Asian biblical hermeneutics is

3 G. M. Soares-Prabhu, 'Interpreting the Bible in India Today', in Francis D'Sa (ed.), Theology of Liberation: An Indian Biblical Perspective: Collected Writings of George M. Soares-Prabhu, SJ, vol. IV

35 (Pune: Jnana-Deepa Vidypeeth, 2001), pp. 3-13 at p. 6.

A. C. C. Lee, 'Engaging the Bible and Asian Resources: Hermeneutics of the Globalized in the Global-Local Entanglement', Journal of Theologies and Cultures in Asia 2 (2003), 5-30.

expressed in the following rhetorical questions formulated by D. Preman Niles, a Sri Lankan theologian trained in the Old Testament field: 'Is theology always a matter of relating text to context? Is it not also a matter of relating context to text so that the context may speak to the text? Is Asia there to receive? Has it nothing to contribute?'37

Niles succinctly pinpoints the pivotal debate in the Asian reading of the Christian Bible, whose exclusivity and hegemonic status presents itself not only as an unyielding giant, but also as an intolerant iconoclast, bringing massive destruction to Asian cultures and religions. The Asian context is usually pre-empted in its legitimate truth claims and religious contents. To many practitioners of the contextual interpretation of the Bible, the context only functions as the medium through which the meaning of the biblical text is to be understood. Translation of the text in the language of the context and communicating the gospel in terms of the cultural peculiarities become the two major preoccupations of most contextual work. Niles's implied concern with 'the Word of God' in Asian texts is most challenging and enlightening. In the questions: 'Is Asia there to receive? Has it nothing to contribute?' we hear an Asian quest for a full participation as the people of God in the world of God the creator and the God of history. Asia and its long history cannot be conceived as being denied the presence of God and divine revelation. The experiences of the people cannot be dismissed as 'pagan' and 'heathen' and therefore treated as being worthless and ignorant. The religious scriptures and classics which embody the spirituality of the people are not to be simply down-trodden as if of no value at all. To be true to the reality, the 'context' of Asia must be seen in terms of the profundity and richness of the cultural and religious quest of the Asian people in their long historical journey and the present reality of life in its struggle for humanness. In a word, the Asian context contains multiple texts and is itself a text, contributing to the reading and enriching the meaning of the biblical text.38

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