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September 2017
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This post continues my discussion, begun here, of Dr. Luke Anderson’s interpretation of Bernard of Clairvaux.

I note three problematic elements in an attempted retrieval of Bernard’s model as Anderson shows it. First, there is the presumed power of the author and their text to evoke this experience of God; it is the text which in its power is thought to make a claim on the reader. This downplays the strong sense in which readers remake texts in the very reading of them, as well as the ways in which the history of forms of experience make texts and readers find each other for particular questions in the first place. In considering this model, we ought consider shifting the terms of imperation from unidirectional metaphors of direction and influence from author to reader, to multivalent metaphors of use, ruse, manipulation by the reader of the writer’s text – and of the social contingencies of experiencing texts themselves.

Second, there is a presumption of a universal experience of God that may be evoked by this text. Yet theology of culture today cannot exempt itself from an analysis of (human) power within the rhetorical economy. However “natural” an experience of God may be, it is never non-ideological.

And third, what cannot be lost in our retrieval of such a model is the possibility of violence in interpretation. One need only think of the history of abusive Christian interpretation of Jewish culture and scripture to justify untold degradations against Jewish people over twenty centuries.

Holding these substantial caveats and correctives, Anderson’s interpretation of Bernard’s model is a resource for a possible tactics for knowledge in theology of culture. Critically retrieving this tactic has several effects: (1) it helps to ensure that our theologies of culture remain “theological”; (2) it indicates that theology of culture can be rendered as poiesis/performance, like a sermon, a play, or a musical performance; (3) it links theology of culture to the history and practice of spirituality by bringing out theology of culture’s spiritual possibilities; (4) it helpfully problematizes the question of what constitutes an experience of God, for whom, and under what circumstances, and makes that question constitutive of doing theology of culture itself. For example, one cannot necessarily exclude something like “fostering the reader’s intervention in their social or political situation” from “foster[ing] the reader’s experience of God,” given the interlinkage of one with another.

Imperation would make of theology of culture an experiment in discernment of the theologian’s own relation to the cultures of everyday life and his/her attempt to render that discernment intelligible publicly, so as to perform an interpretation in such a way that others may poach it toward a deeper appropriation of what Christians might denominate as an experience of God.

Imperation may well help us to understand why certain “ridiculous” or “absurd” uses of scripture in Christian tradition have had and do retain such deep traction with so many Christians, despite how “wrong” (according to modern canons) that use is. In other words, spinning out a model of truth with imperation at its heart may help us to more fruitfully interpret the history and present of a Christian antinomianism.

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