Babel And Derrida: Postmodernism, Language And Biblical Interpretation -- By: Craig G. Bartholomew

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 049:2 (NA 1998)
Article: Babel And Derrida: Postmodernism, Language And Biblical Interpretation
Author: Craig G. Bartholomew

Babel And Derrida:
Postmodernism, Language And Biblical Interpretation

Craig G. Bartholomew


This article assesses the challenge postmodernism constitutes for biblical interpretation via an analysis of Derrida’s reading of the Tower of Babel narrative. Derrida’s setting of the text in play is found to be an unhelpful model for biblical interpretation, but his foregrounding of language in the narrative and the implications of philosophy of language for interpretation are useful. The contours of Derrida’s Babelian philosophy of language are explored and its insights noted. It is argued that the ultimate issues in philosophy of language are theological and that Christian scholars need to articulate a Christian view of language.

I. Introduction

From its height Babel at every instant supervises and surprises my reading: I translate, I translate the translation by Maurice de Gandillac of a text by Benjamin who, prefacing a translation, takes it as a pretext to say to what and in what way every translator is committed—and notes in passing, an essential part of his demonstration, that there could be no translation of translation. This will have to be remembered [Derrida].1

Long ago Tertullian asked, ‘What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?’ From a Christian perspective, sensitized as it is to idolatry, it is always tempting to reply, ‘Nothing!’ However, historically the Tertullian-type approach has often had devastating consequences for

Christian scholarship. Tertullian rejects Athens as bankrupt philosophy and yet like a Trojan horse he cannot keep philosophy out of his discourse where it, undetected, exercises its influence. This danger is instructive for a Christian response to postmodernism. Before rejecting postmodernism out of hand because of its overt and real idolatry we ought to examine it closely lest we miss lessons and opportunities it provides for us.2 Postmodernism, I suggest, is not without its insights.

I am cautious of the large-scale analyses of post-modernity that are found in some literature. Working with them is often like trying to do analysis with a club, where one requires a scalpel. The postmodern landscape is diverse and assessment of its significance for biblical interpretation will mean close examination of particular thinkers and their hermeneutic(s). Derrida is undoubtedly a major player in postmodernism, and in this paper we will assess the challenge postmodernism represents for biblical interpretation via Derrida’s reading of the Tower of Babel narrative and his reflec...

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