Reviewed by: A.G. Holdier (Colorado Technical University)
Over the last decade, the legacy of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutical strategy has entered the interdisciplinary arena in full force, interacting with theology, the natural sciences, and literary studies in various ways; Gregory J. Laughery’s Paul Ricoeur and Living Hermeneutics: Exploring Ricoeur’s Contribution to Biblical Interpretation now turns a critical eye to Ricoeur’s relevance within the field of biblical studies to produce a helpful volume that promises to introduce Ricoeur’s hermeneutical phenomenology to students in yet another tradition.
Such a project is unsurprising: Ricoeur himself frequently wrote on matters situated at the nexus of hermeneutics and religion, often using the Bible itself variably as both example and tool to demonstrate his philosophy. Laughery aims to follow in Ricoeur’s footsteps by recursively subjecting the Frenchman’s own work to the same treatment he once paid to the Bible in order to mine Ricoeur’s corpus ultimately for insight back into biblical hermeneutics in the contemporary world.
To this end, Laughery’s work provides a succinct summation of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics before applying said philosophy to a field (and, by extension, a culture) he describes as hamstrung by conflicting interpretive models. With the rise of poststructuralism and postmodernism, a reader is caught between one approach that “under-reads” and praises the de-materializing over-spiritualization of a text and another that “over-reads” and rigidly waters down the complexity of a text via a plethora of reductionistic concerns. Readers are paradoxically expected to maintain a perspective which is both “inside” and “outside” of a text simultaneously, a conclusion that cannot avoid discharging the text of any value, for “whether readers are left “outside” or “inside” the text, it has no meaning in and of itself. It is either unable to resist a ruling readerly imposition, or it spirals oﬀ into an endless spin of non-meaning” (5). Laughery argues that Ricoeur’s approach offers a reconciliatory path forward that can restore genuine meaning to a reading (of the Bible or of anything else) by avoiding the twin dangers of reading too much or too little in the text.
Laughery structures the book along Ricoeur’s tripartite mimetic process by prefiguring his argument with a brief biographical sketch of Ricoeur’s life alongside several of his key philosophical positions. Particularly for readers unfamiliar with Ricoeur, this section alone offers a valuable introduction to Ricoeurian studies, explaining many of the concepts and texts which made Ricoeur’s name within academia. Additionally, Laughery here sets up the oft-maligned modernist-postmodernist conflict as the primary adversary of his book before arguing that Ricoeur’s “living hermeneutics” eschews both the polarities of modernist certainty and of postmodernist uncertainty to maintain a hopeful optimism about a text; it is a hermeneutic with clear boundaries, but ones that “do not necessarily connote a loss of meaning” (17). This “both/and” approach to a text, Laughery suggests, offers the most flexible perspective possible for discovering real sense in a reading.
The second section – Configuration – comprises the majority of the book and sees Laughery lay out Ricoeur’s hermeneutical philosophy that prioritizes a text as an objective element of a culture. Offering a middle path between a dry, modernist reading that focuses exclusively on the words of a page and a whimsical, postmodern approach untethered from objective referents, Laughery emphasizes Ricoeur’s concern for “re-regionalizing” a text – that is, to treat a text as a real window into another, specific (regional) way of life. Properly understanding the Bible, then, means to allow it to present itself and the world it speaks from to the reader as a functional window into another culture; as Laughery puts it:
A Ricoeurian biblical hermeneutics is an attempt to allow the text to unfold its proposal of a world, letting speak what has been “said” within biblical discourse. The “said” has been inscribed in a diversity of forms (structures) directly related to their contents (sense and referent), which in the biblical text, among other things, is called a new world, new covenant, and the kingdom of God (88-89).
This approach thereby marries the objective presentation of modernism with the heartfelt emotion of postmodernism to create a meaningful statement which appeals simultaneously to both fact and emotion.
Laughery suggests that over-specialization in the discipline has led to such an approach rarely being taken in biblical studies, where instead a researcher’s preconceived categorical concerns preclude the text’s opportunity to speak for itself; to demonstrate this, Laughery contrasts Ricoeur’s methodology abstractly against the dominant perspectives of structuralism and the historical-critical method, as well as concretely across powerhouse figures within the field (such as Bultmann and Crossan). In the former case, Laughery plays a fair game, presenting a reserved description of both Ricoeur’s dialectical appropriation of each methodology’s strengths, as well as his ardent criticism of their weaknesses. As already described, Ricoeur considered both structuralism and a harsh literalism to make fundamental interpretive missteps, albeit it in opposite directions; rather than simply reject them wholesale, he sought to discover an “inherent complementarity” (132) within them to create an approach that neither wholly submerges a reader inside a text (as in historico-criticism) nor resists all submersion whatsoever (á la structuralism). The result is a “living” hermeneutical approach which treats texts as calcified forms of discourse inextricable from “an actual event, related to a subject and a referent addressed to someone” (110). Decoding this rooted message is the hermeneutical project.
In the case of the latter, he juxtaposes Bultmann’s demythologizing project with Ricoeur’s definition of myth that does not seek to strip a text of its mythological elements, but rather views mythology as the “attempt to express another world in the language of this one” (78). Similarly, Laughery includes an extended application of Ricoeurian hermeneutics to one of Ricoeur’s favorite biblical genres – parable – and brings Crossan’s pessimistic treatment of the ultimate indeterminancy of parables into the light of Ricoeur’s optimistic reaffirmation of the beneficial textual boundaries (both literary and cultural) which function to disclose the text’s world in an objective fashion. In short, Laughery argues that Ricoeur’s hermeneutic allows a reader to explore a parable’s polyvalence, seeking insight from the structural underpinnings of the text, while maintaining hope that the reading overall is still heading somewhere specific (as rooted in the historico-cultural world of the text). In this way, Ricoeurian hermeneutics manages to employ various interpretive models while avoiding allowing any one methodology to morph into an ideology – a danger Ricoeur called an “interpretive ‘dead end’” (139).
Of course, no treatment of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical philosophy would be complete without a consideration of his work on narrative; Laughery brings this key theme of Ricoeur’s thought into conversation with the work of David Carr to consider the differences between the experience of living and the later telling of that experience in the form of a story. To Ricoeur, narratives entail the plotted description of a series of events structured intentionally to make various points or teach (often implicitly) various lessons or themes. A historical narrative is not identical to a life, but can only tell of that life retrospectively with the insight of where the story leads. Said another way, narrative allows one to view the story of a life – including, importantly, one’s own life – from a distance with an interpretive structure that must be decoded and learned from.
This becomes particularly useful for biblical hermeneutics, given the Bible’s blend of fictional and nonfictional narratives. Ricoeur had a particular interest in historical narratives and observed that if the referents of the biblical narratives are wholly inaccessible, then there is no way to distinguish fiction from nonfiction. The postmodern tendency to over-spiritualize and over-“literary-ize” (188) the text of Scripture makes the hermeneutical project impossible. However, the modernist assumption that knowledge of historical events is equal to accessing the events themselves is likewise mistaken. Instead, Ricoeur’s focused emphasis on discovering the rooted world of a text “contributes to biblical hermeneutics by embodying a fine balance between the récit of fiction and the récit of history” (190), given that it is able to accommodate the unique concerns of both genres.
The book ends with a short third section wherein Laughery rounds out Ricoeur’s mimetic process by Refiguring the lessons of the book as a whole to conclude the work with some summative thoughts. He muses on Ricoeur’s notion of appropriation to suggest that the project of reading a text inherently leads to a change in oneself – as he says, “the motion from the world of the text to the world of the reader must be carried out a step further by being lived out into the animate world” (218) – which is certainly a point that devout readers of the Bible frequently describe as well. In fact, it was in this small section – the shortest of the three – where Laughery offers the most pointed insights for biblical studies, as well as devotional Christian theology. On the final page preceding the book’s conclusion, Laughery finally makes plain the point which has been implied frequently throughout much of the work: if the true goal of interpretation is to uncover the world of a text, then the world we inhabit is something which can, and should, be interpreted to learn about both God and ourselves, in precisely the manner that the faithful readers of the Bible often speak. In short, when he characterizes Ricoeur’s project as one of “living hermeneutics,” Laughery means this literally.
On the whole, Ricoeur scholars will likely find little material in Paul Ricoeur and Living Hermeneutics that is unfamiliar: the majority of the book consists of an explication of Ricoeur’s basic hermeneutical philosophy in a manner that highlights Ricoeur’s theological examples while offering several pointed case studies from the realm of biblical studies. However, Laughery’s summary is comprehensive, accessible, and fair to Ricoeur in precisely the manner that an overview of a philosopher’s system should be. Notably, Laughery is not hesitant to critique what he sees as the weaker parts of Ricoeur’s methodology, such as his lack of emphasis on exegesis (something, again, especially relevant for biblical studies). Unfortunately, some readers may be disappointed in the significant emphasis on Ricoeur’s philosophy at the expense of a deeper consideration of academic biblical studies: though it is well-done, there is far more Ricoeur than Bible in this book.
Overall, Gregory J. Laughery’s Paul Ricoeur and Living Hermeneutics: Exploring Ricoeur’s Contribution to Biblical Interpretation is a very fine undergraduate introduction to the person and work of Paul Ricoeur, if that introduction would benefit from emphasis on biblical studies and, by the end, Christian theology. Of course, if the reader should think that an introduction to Ricoeur would not benefit from such things, then one will largely be disappointed in the work of Ricoeur himself, given how frequently he wrote on precisely those topics.
 As Laughery points out: “We argue that parabolic polyvalence is not entirely open to a gratuitous free-play. Texts, even parabled ones, have interpretations that can be considered more or less probable, in spite of those interpretations not being absolute” (121).