Community and Interpretation, Economy and Desire (Two Book Reviews)

I’ve been busy of late, a work trip to Maryland with Penn State Berks students for Spring Break being the primary cause of business (with my own crazy kids as a constant source).  That said, I am always reading and I have two books to share about today.  Both are from The Church and Postmodern Culture Series, a series of always fantastic books of which I have reviewed a few before.

First, Merold Westphal’s Whose Community, Which Interpretation.  Westphal wrote that he wanted to call this book Taking Gadamer to Church as much time is spent in conversation with the philosophy of Gadamer, a 20th century philosopher who wrote on hermeneutics.  The questions Westphal is getting it all relate to how we interpret the Bible.  As opposed to the high and mighty claims of some who state we can reach universal objectivity, Westphal (and Gadamer) continually emphasize our context as people.  In this context we all have biases and presuppositions and we bring all of this background to the text.  Yet there is no need to fear relativism, and Westphal is not saying this leads to an inability to know anything.  We are able to learn as we bring our biases to the text, though once we learn something new we have new biases which we now bring to the text, creating a sort of hermeneutical circle.  Or, to put it in more Christian lingo, especially relevant to Protestants, we can say we are ever-reforming as we reflect on the text in community with others.

What I most like about this approach is it retains a humility that is often absent from interpretative methods that claim universal and unbiased objectivity.  I highly recommend this book for pastors and any Christian interested in philosophy and interpreting scripture.  When you finish this, and if you like it, I think another book to check out would by Myron Penner’s The End of Apologetics.

Second, Daniel Bell’s The Economy of Desire.  This book is an extended critique of capitalism in conversation with the philosophy of Foucault and Deleuze.  I enjoy books such as this because I have always wanted to read and understand philosophy but have never had the time or patience to wade through the likes of such writers.  Someone like Bell not only explains aspects of philosophy but applies it to real life.  Bell’s argument is that capitalism shapes our desires in numerous ways that we may not even be able to imagine.  For example, Mardi Gras may appear to be a revolt against conformity, a step outside the normal day-to-day of capitalist america, but Bell shows how the very beads exchanged on Mardi Gras are a huge business, created in factories far away.  Capitalism is at work.  What capitalism does is tells us to feed our desire, to become a purchaser.  The hope of capitalism would be that even those who are poor producers, such as the ones working in the sweatshop making the beads, could become purchasers.

Bell contrasts this with Christian faith.  While capitalism calls on us to feed our desire, Christianity calls on us to reform our desires.  What capitalism sees as normal, Christianity sees as sin.  Bell brings both scripture and the Christian tradition to this, emphasizing that Christianity seeks the common good and human flourishing, things that capitalism has little place for.  Bell shows this by much reference to the originators of capitalism (Adam Smith) and its Christian defenders today.  Yet if you fear that Bell, in criticizing capitalism, is embracing some sort of leftist socialism, have no fear.  He resists writing as if our choice is two worldly systems, calling on Christians to recognize a bigger and better system.  For that reason, this is a message Christians need to hear.  Too many have so wedded their faith and culture that to challenge something like capitalism may be to challenge Christianity itself.  Bell shows the problems in capitalism and even provides a way forward for how Christians can live in a better economy.

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