restricted access Response to Ron Hendel
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Response to Ron Hendel

A “scientific” interpretation of the world … might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning.… We cannot reject the possibility that it [the world] may include infinite interpretations.1

Ron Hendel’s article, “Mind the Gap: Modern and Postmodern in Biblical Studies,” is a response to our coauthored JBL article “An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible,” as well as to the book by Stephen D. Moore and Yvonne Sherwood, The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto. In addition, Hendel discusses The Postmodern Bible.2 The article is a thoughtful attempt to further the conversation that we called for in our article and for that we are grateful. We are happy to find points of agreement with Hendel. [End Page 451]

However, he attempts to extend the conversation and to “bridge” the gap between modern and postmodern biblical studies by making a distinction between strong and weak forms of postmodernism.3 His distinction recognizes varied meanings of the word “postmodernism,” a matter we acknowledged in “An Elephant.”4 We rarely use the term ourselves, except as a catch-all for a variety of approaches that are suspicious of “the modern” or “modernism.” As Hendel does, we use “postmodernism” to acknowledge (an often squabbling) family of practices. For us this diversity is not a problem. Rather, it is a matter to celebrate.

In contrast, Hendel finds this diversity a “minor” problem inherent in post-modernism’s tendency to eschew fixed meaning. Then the minor problem escalates into the issue of how much diversity is acceptable in biblical studies. The impetus seems to be to rule out unacceptable diversity. This trajectory differs markedly from our own.

Further, Hendel leaves postmodernism’s bewildering diversity behind and begins to assert more commonality in postmodernism than we would. After acknowledging that his discussion of postmodernism is indebted to the works of Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, and others, Hendel cites Benhabib, “If there is one commitment which unites postmodernists from Foucault to Derrida to Lyotard it is the critique of western rationality from the perspective of the margins.”5 Hendel unpacks this “commitment” and orders his article using three categories offered by Benhabib: (1) the illusion of a self-transparent and self-grounding reason; (2) the illusion of a disembedded and disembodied subject; and (3) the illusion of an Archimedean standpoint, situated beyond historical and cultural contingency. This describes three French philosophers as though they embody postmodernism, but there are many differences in the works of these three. These thinkers and other postmodernists do critique Western rationality, but from this it does not follow that they reject the power of reason, and one would have a hard time making a case that any of them does.

Hendel depicts strong postmodernism as marked by radicalism, by “all or nothing” and “either/or” statements. He cites Foucault’s article “Nietzsche, Genealogy, Knowledge”:

The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice (that there is no right, not even in the act of [End Page 452] knowing, to truth or a foundation for truth) and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind).6

For Hendel, this example typifies all-or-nothing postmodernism, which he constructs as rejecting all rational practices. However, Foucault’s words do not seek to dispense with the “will to knowledge,” but to assert that it is not benevolent. Foucault’s essay describes the power inherent in the uses of reason, and it criticizes the ideal (suggested by Hendel) of any rational methodology as a gradual accumulation of “self-correcting” truths.

Hendel’s weak postmodernism acknowledges reason’s cultural embeddedness, entanglements with power and interest, and embodied, practical nature. We agree. But then he asserts that reason is self-correcting and that it advances “one plank at a time.”7 Here we can agree only with the “(strong) postmodern proviso” that the one plank, once put in place, can always shift or break. For...