Wednesdays in the World: Barth and Bart, Part 2

Homer’s attitude towards Scripture is evident throughout the series and among a wide array of characters from the show, Heit demonstrates this well. The town’s relationship with the Bible finds them ignorant of its contents and its contents irrelevant for their lives; yet, because there is a historical value remaining on it people continue to appeal to it as an authoritative source. The manner in which they make this appeal turns us on to both the influence of the postmodern hermeneutic applied to Biblical interpretation and an honest, if humorous, critique of it.

            It has been suggested that Karl Barth was the most important theologian of the 20th century. Anyone would be hard pressed to argue differently. It is particularly in relation to his development of the doctrine of inspiration that Barth has earned this title. For what he developed and promoted eventually paved the way for a new hermeneutical approach to Scripture and one that we will see humorously exemplified in The Simpsons. Barth was trained by the modern German liberal scholars of the 19th century, but repudiated their instruction and refused to buy into the deconstruction of the Scriptures and orthodox theology which they promoted. He did not, however, come to submerge himself in the conservative theological camp either. Barth has been hailed as the father of Neo-Orthodoxy (a term Barth himself hated). He was on many points orthodox, but it was on the foundational and fundamental issue of the doctrine of inspiration that Barth parted from his conservative friends. For this reason, then, he was not accepted as Orthodox among his Evangelical contemporaries. Barth’s view on inspiration is somewhat complex, I will attempt a brief survey of it to clarify our analysis.

            Barth’s term for his theological position was “theology of the Word.” But what he meant by this was not a theology that affirmed the plenary, infallible, inspiration of divine Scripture. Barth did not believe that the “Word of God” could be possessed by the church, that it, in fact, must be free. He terms it this way:

 The word of God is God Himself in Holy Scripture. For the God who once spoke as the Lord to Moses and the prophets, the evangelists, and the apostles, now speaks through their written word as the same Lord to His church. Scripture is Holy and the Word of God as by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the church the witness of God’s revelation.[1]

 What Barth does here is to argue that the Bible is not itself the revelation of God, but is only a witness to revelation. It becomes the Word of God only as the Holy Spirit reveals it to readers. So the inspiration of the Scriptures is tied intricately to the faith experiences of the reader. Now this is important because Barth did not want to open the door to a subjectivist reading of Scripture among Evangelicals, yet that is very much what the future of this theological derivation did. The future of evangelicalism would include a use of what became known as the Postmodern hermeneutic and the reader-response hermeneutic, whereby a person’s “faith experience,” their cultural context, dictated the interpretation of Scripture. So, then, for example, the Feminist reading of the Bible became the Word of God for feminists; and the Homosexual reading of the Bible became the Word of God for homosexuals. One cannot necessarily fault Barth with these evolutions but they do seem to stem from the door that he opened with his “neo-orthodox” doctrine of inspiration.

            So how does this connect with The Simpsons? Throughout the show we find the characters’ use of scripture falls prey to this reader-response hermeneutic. That is to say that the characters routinely interpret Scripture to fit their own experiences. Often this is done in the form of justifying particular behaviors, at other times it is done out of ignorance of the original context. In either case what happens is an interpretation of the Bible based on the reader’s experience, and it is that interpretation which becomes authoritative for the characters. The creator’s and writers of the show may not have known that they were connecting their story to this hermeneutical debate, but they are offering a critique of the habits of religious people to interpret their authoritative book to fit their own context. Some examples will help demonstrate this assertion, and again Heit offers some great examples from which to pick.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Vol. 1. 

Trackbacks

  1. […] this see my articles “Barth and Bart: The Simpsons as a Call to Biblical Reformation” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Also see Jamey Heit, Reformation in Springfield: The Simpsons, Christianity, and […]

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