Interpreting Sea Change
This has been a rough six weeks for all us progressives living in North Carolina. Back on May 8th, we became the 31st state in the union to restrict the rights of same-sex couples through a constitutional “marriage” amendment (NC Amendment One), and this week the state legislature voted to allow “fracking,” a largely untested form of natural gas drilling which will have untold environmental consequences across the state. These conservative moves by a Tea-Party-controlled legislature are especially bizarre from my perspective because of the fact that I find myself in such a liberal part of the state. Durham and Orange counties, home to Duke and UNC respectively, voted to defeat the recent “marriage” amendment by nearly 40 percentage points.
But two weeks ago, the state legislature took (perhaps) their most baffling step yet, hoping to stem the tides––pun intended––of the global warming debate by passing legislation which outlaws the scientific prediction of sea level increase, except in the case of straight-forward, linear extrapolation. This legislative decision produced several entertaining responses (including this absolutely brilliant segment from Stephen Colbert), but in the spirit of satire, many of the liberal pundits covering this story have averred that NC Republicans are simply ignoring the problem by making it illegal for the seas to rise. While this may be an entertaining punchline, I fear that it may miss the deeper––and potentially more troubling––significance of this decision.
Here are the two sentences which form the crux of the legislature’s argument:
These rates [of sea-level rise] shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.
One of the primary groups behind this measure from the legislature was NC-20, a conservative advocacy group comprised of representatives from local businesses and governments as well as private citizens occupying the twenty coastal counties of the state. Tom Thomson, chair of NC-20 and vocal supporter of this bill, had the following to say about scientists’ propensities for using these “accelerated models.”
“Science, according to Michael Crichton, is not about agreement, it’s about facts, [and] there is no record of acceleration anywhere in the world that we know of.”
There are plenty of troubling things in this short quotation––such as, why does famous climate change denier and science fiction writer Michael Crichton get the final word with respect to science?––but perhaps the most important aspect of Thomson’s statement is what he does NOT say. According to the liberal caricature in many of the responses to this legislation, one would expect that a conservative organization like NC-20 was simply dismissing science out of hand, perhaps in favor of a more Biblically-oriented approach. But in this quotation, not only does Thomson NOT dismiss science, he actually uses a (pseudo-)scientific argument of his own to justify the legislation. As this quotation and the excerpt from from the legislative document above make clear, this bill does not prohibit the collection of scientific data, it simply forbids the interpretation of that data. It maintains that science is about the collection of facts, NOT the fostering of interpretive agreement.
This attitude is particularly upsetting to me because of the ways that it parallels so many of the conversations that I had with my conservative friends and neighbors during the statewide debate over Amendment One. My wife and I took part in several events with a group called “People of Faith Against Amendment One” in which we sought to articulate an alternative Christianity (or Islam or Judaism) that would be welcoming to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. In these conversations, we laid out well-rehearsed, cogent arguments from scripture to support our position, using the gender(less) logic of Galatians 3, reading Paul’s statements in Romans 1 alongside his prescriptions of marriage in 1 Corinthians to achieve a more thorough understanding of the socio-cultural context from which these texts emerged. But time and time again, we found that our most conservative Christian friends rejected these arguments, often stating, “Well that may be your interpretation, but I’m just reading what the Bible says.” What these folks objected to was not our interpretive strategies, but rather interpretation as such. They rejected the idea of interpretation itself.
Beyond these two narrowly defined political conversations here in North Carolina, one can find this anti-interpretive logic all over the place: in Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone,” CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” and the nearly endless “fact-checking” of Politifact.com and FactCheck.org. An obvious extension of evangelical hermeneutics, this view sees the interpretation of texts (broadly defined) as always already a misinterpretation, a contamination of their purity by the interpretative agendas of the fallen world. But what these “hermen-nazis”––it doesn’t quite work, but I’m keeping it anyway––fail to mention is how their literal reading of scripture is just as much an interpretation as anything else. In the introduction to his brilliant book on gender and sexuality in Biblical interpretation, New Testament scholar Dale Martin says:
The text cannot interpret itself. I sometimes illustrate my point when asked to speak about “what the Bible says about homosexuality.” I put the Bible in the middle of the room or on the speaker’s podium, step back, and say “Okay, let’s see what it says. Listen!” After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence and some snickers, I say, “Apparently, the Bible can’t talk.” This is not the frivolous gimmick it may initially seem. Our language about “what texts say” tends to make us forget the expression is a metaphor. Texts don’t “say” anything: they must be read. And even in the reading process, interpretation has already begun. And if we want to move on from reading the text out loud, say, to paraphrasing it or commenting upon what it “means,” we have simply moved further into human interpretation (5).
This question of interpretation is perhaps especially pressing for me because of the ways in which our church here in Durham has placed it at the center of our congregational life. Our pastors, Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes, have written a wonderful book on the subject called Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community. In it, they argue that what we need is not a “correct” reading of scripture, linearly extrapolated from the data in the text, but rather a more fluid discernment of scripture grounded in and resultant from our particular interpretive community. Now this certainly does not mean that all perspectives in our community are treated equally or that interpretation is done solely by consensus, but it does mean that we take the process of interpretation seriously as something that is centrally constitutive of who we are as a Christian community.
All of this is simply to illustrate that the gap between the most conservative and the most progressive arms of American Christianity may be wider than many of us would like to admit. Before we can even begin to articulate alternative visions of the Gospel, we must return interpretation itself to the conversation, not merely as a necessary evil or an inconvenient contingency plan, but rather as one of the central tasks of Christian discipleship. Instead of arguing against an interpretation of sea change, we should be arguing for a sea change of interpretation.
Joshua Busman is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a BM in music theory and composition from Middle Tennessee State University as well as an MA in musicology from UNC. His current research deals with music in religious communities (specifically in evangelicalism), music and politics in the twentieth century, musical postmodernism, and critical theory. Alongside his academic interests, Joshua works with Durham CAN, a multi-racial, multi-faith, grassroots political organization in Durham County. When he isn’t reading or writing, Joshua enjoys hanging out with his wonderful wife and hound dog at their home in the Bull City.