You Are Not Neutral

You Are Not Neutral

Written by: 
Published:
January 21, 2022

Tell me honestly, when you grab your trusty, well-thumbed Bible, do you ever think of how distant it is from you? It’s easy to forget that your handy, bound book is the product of thousands of years of work by hundreds of thousands of people. It’s all too simple to forget that between Jesus preaching on the Mount and your eyes seeing his red words are the hands, voices, and minds of storytellers, authors, copyists, translators, even more translators, editors, and finally you. And then we haven’t even mentioned the distance in time and place between first-century Galilee and twenty-first century wherever you are!

Maybe this huge gap between us and the Biblical figures writers is no surprise, and you have developed some ideas on how we can mitigate it. Maybe you’ve attempted to access the Bible in its original languages, through interlinear Bibles, useful websites, or even years of language study. Many also try to study the history and culture of the Bible, hoping to better understand the meaning of sayings and practices. Maybe you’ve thought about so-called hermeneutical methods, ways to intentionally read the Bible to discover meaning.

Even when you try to bridge this gap, there are still some significant obstacles. Just because you can read the parable of the dishonest manager from Luke 16 in Greek does not make it easier to understand. In fact, as many a theology student will tell you (or at least many of mine!), reading a passage in Greek complicates matters rather than simplifying them.

Accessing the history and culture is an even more difficult obstacle. Almost everything from the past is lost. Really, only very little remains, meaning that a large part of studying history is making educated guesses. And, naturally, what remains is not a fair representation of reality. We know loads about the lives of the rich but very little about the enslaved; lots about men, way less about women. In other words, what evidence we have of the past is distorted. Historians, biblical scholars, and theologians have known all this for centuries, and for many non-specialists this is also not new—a quick search on this website shows dozens of articles dealing with exactly this issue.

Positionality

Newer is the concept of positionality, a phrase that is becoming more and more important in academic circles. The idea behind it is simple: I am not neutral, and I should stop pretending that I am. I am positioned toward the Bible in a way that someone else is not. This is not a problem; it is not wrong. It simply is, and it is unavoidable. Try as I might, I can’t simply stop loving the Bible. I can’t just forget the stories my grandmother told me. I can’t switch those things off, just like I can’t switch off being white or male or African.

When I was a theology undergrad, less than two decades ago, not a thought was given to positionality. Looking back, naturally my lecturers, the textbooks, and I all had positions, but we didn’t examine them or think about how they influenced our work. Nowadays, this is changing. Some of my friends recently wrote a history textbook on Jewish and Christian women in antiquity, an introductory book for undergraduates with no prior knowledge of history or the Bible. It’s excellent, by the way, and I can strongly suggest getting a copy and working through it, alone or in groups. This textbook, unlike those of my seminary days, foregrounds how vital positionality is. They write:

Our social, cultural, gendered, ethnic, and economic statuses and experiences mean that we carry to the text our own views, assumptions, and biases, both known and unconscious. We might be predisposed toward certain conclusions before we even begin searching, and this predisposition will affect which evidence we keep and which we discard, and what we make of it. (Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean, Sara Parks, Shayna Sheinfeld, and Meredith J. C. Warren)

Positionality is important, not only because we all have positions but because they predispose us toward certain conclusions. Think about it, if a Bible passage has two possible interpretations and one of those is supported by Ellen White, which do you think Adventists prefer? Let me give you some examples, and maybe you can get a feeling for your own positionalities.

In Genesis

The very beginning of Genesis tells us about creation. In the second sentence of that book, we run into an issue to do with positionality. The earth is empty, darkness rules the waves, and—to give you a literal translation with a Hebrew word thrown in—the ruach of God was fluttering on the face of the waters. Studying Hebrew is not going to help us here because every Hebrew dictionary will tell you that ruach means “breath, wind, spirit.” So, what was floating? Depends on who you ask. Grab the King James and it’s the “Spirit.” Same in the New King James, NIV, and almost every English Bible. But not all! Look in the NRSV and it says “wind,” or look in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 translation, which has “spirit.”

When I look at all these options, I like one more than the others. I’m guessing so do you. Maybe you like the idea of the Spirit being present at creation, thinking of the Holy Spirit that plays such a big role in the Bible and is part of the Trinity. Maybe you prefer spirit, with a lowercase “s.” Not the Holy Spirit but more like God’s power, the same spirit Samson receives when he does some questionable deeds. Maybe you’re like me, and you like the wind on the water because you grew up on the sea and love the sea wind and miss it and want God to be like that wind. Trust me, there are good historical, theological, and biblical arguments for all three options. Which you prefer is—when we really get down to it—all up to your positionality.

In Adventism

How about an example from the last book of the Bible? In Revelation 1:10, John gets a vision on the Lord’s Day. This is easy to translate but hard to interpret. What day is it? This is where positionality comes in. From a historical and biblical point of view, the passage is quite easy to understand. Revelation 1:10 contains a phrase unique in the Bible that means something like the “Lordly Day.” It is the first usage of what is the common Christian term for Sunday in the second century—even the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary agrees! Admittedly, it’s a bit weird to see this phrase so early in history, but as I said above, most of history is lost.

But when a new Bible translation came out in Holland in 2014, many Adventists were not happy when it said “Sunday” there instead of “Sabbath.” And if you read the entire section in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, it’s clear that those authors have found evidence and arguments to keep Sunday out of Revelation 1. They did exactly what Parks, Sheinfeld, and Warren describe in the quote above—their positionality affected which evidence they kept and which they discarded, and what they make of it. And that is normal. It is true for the authors of the commentary, and it’s just as true for you or me.

Some Problems

I have said a few times positionality is not a problem, and it isn’t. But it can be difficult. I remember when one of my students referred to John the Revelator as the type of person who threatens women with sexual assault. That statement took a moment for me to process. It might take you a moment too. But hearing her out and considering my and her positionalities, I think she has a point. And others agree.

Positionality is certainly difficult, but there is an even bigger problem that we need to look at. What happens when people do not acknowledge their own positionality? History is full of examples where the positionality of a group of people has been made normative for all, when some people assumed that their experiences, beliefs, values, assumptions were not just theirs but everyone’s. They forced their position to become the norm for everyone. Take for example colonialism, where the positionality of Western Europe was pushed upon the rest of the world: European values suddenly became universal values, and “Europeanness” became the goal for all humanity to aspire to.

But we don’t have to go back into history to see this; it’s all around us right now. Women are much more likely to die or suffer serious injury in a car accident—we’ve known this for more than a decade. Now we know why: When men designed crash test dummies based on data from the 1970s and 1980s, they assumed their positionality was normative. The dummies are all, in essence, men. When, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, thousands of people worldwide shared their experiences, large parts of the population disbelieved them, accusing them of overexaggerating. Because, you guessed it, people assume their positionality is normative.

Positionality is tricky in general, but especially for Adventism and Adventists. Enforcing norms is in our DNA. Why else have a 200-page church manual, a 1000-page working policy, and dozens of official statements clarifying the most obscure of issues? Adventist identity as God’s true remnant with God’s true revelation to every tribe, tongue, and nation often overrides positionality. Now, maybe in some cases this is warranted. Maybe the Sabbath truly is a universal norm for all humanity, but is that the case for all Adventist values and beliefs? As a non-American Adventist, many things that Adventists hold dear sound American to me. They seem to me to be related to the church’s positionality as nineteenth century, American, and white.

But what worries me the most is the Adventist love of knowing and preaching the truth. Positionality requires listening to other voices and discovering your own biases. Adventism preaches what it believes to be a bias-free revelation. The way I see it is that Adventists, at least traditionally, can’t believe that they have a positionality. Adventist values, beliefs, and assumptions are not Adventist, they are universal! And this is a problem. 

Assuming the male anatomy would be fine to base all crash test dummies on leads to higher deaths among women. Assuming that the white experience with the police is the norm leads to unnecessary deaths among non-white people worldwide. Assuming that the Adventist interpretation of God’s revelation is a universal norm is equally damaging. Or at least, I think it is. But maybe that is an un-Adventist thing to think. What do you think? Is Adventist positionality “a thing” or not? Is there a problem here? What do you think Adventist positionality is, and what could it be?

But if I’m honest, I’m probably more interested in you and your positionality. How do you think your positionality informs your experience of the world and the Bible? Is Adventism part of your positionality? What are your beliefs and values that color everything you experience? A fun way to think about your positionality is with an “I am from” poem. The I Am From Project is a US nationwide project that attempts to celebrate the diversity and variety of lives. Schoolchildren throughout the country are writing short “I Am From” poems, and these are shared on the project website. I am no poet and will not share mine. But writing one for yourself—you could even share it in the comments below!—might be an eye-opening and therapeutic experience.

 

Notes & References

A large part of this discussion is based on chapter 4 of the book mentioned above: Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean, by Sara Parks, Shayna Sheinfeld, Meredith J. C. Warren. Abingdon: Routledge, 2022.

 


Tom de Bruin is a biblical studies scholar from South Africa, the Netherlands, and the UK. He has been a pastor and union administrator in the Netherlands, and senior lecturer in New Testament at Newbold College, UK. Find him on Twitter or his website, tomdebruin.com

Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

 

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