06 January 2024

Exegesis Regret


Adapted from a 2021 blog post from software developer Doug Mell:
"The Art of Design Regret"
https://cacm.acm.org/blogs/blog-cacm/254482-software-learning-the-art-of-design-regret/fulltext

In this blog post, Doug reflects on software development decisions after the programming is complete and the product is shipped. "Factors such as budget, resources (in quantity, quality, experience, and personality), technical options, and schedule all affect the decision making process."

Here in my blog post, I adapt Doug's thoughts to consider reflections on exegesis. As theologians, whether formally trained or (like me) God-fearing, well-intentioned practitioners, we regularly analyze Bible and other texts by examining the historical, metaphorical, personal, experiential and other elements surrounding the text or question at hand. As a tech example, Doug considers unknown consequences of a design decision: a programming language provided a capability that allowed easier programming of a complex idea, but resulted in the need for programmers of business applications to spend inordinate amounts of time solving memory and processor resource issues.

For the purposes of this Christian blog, let's say I performed exegesis on a Bible narrative and published an article. I researched diligently, ran it by colleagues, prayed on my very knees. And when the dust lifted and the comments poured in, I realized my work was a mess. Sure, I'm sorry, but how can I learn from this? Here are some ways to consider regret.

Anachronistic Regret

For example, oh why didn't I consider how a Bible verse would have been written if only the Deuteronomist authors had had more empathy for non-binary, gender-questioning individuals? It is certainly useful to consider a range of perspectives when performing exegesis; after all, it is 2024 and it's simplistic to write from a white, patriarchal perspective. However, I shouldn't agonize over psychological and genetic knowledge the ancient authors could not have possessed.

Actual Mistake Regret

OK, so it turns out Jesus wasn't Anglo-Saxon. WELL, EXCUSE ME! Seriously, though, one can never research enough, consider enough verses or pray enough. Sometimes, I am just going to screw up. I need to own my mistakes and set out to repair any pain they may have caused. If I am sincerely repentant, I will be forgiven.

Decision Regret

Hamas and Israel are at war in 2023-2024. Is this really the best time to (ridiculously) try to blame the death of Jesus on the ancient residents of Gaza? Exegesis is always consumed with an attempt to understand the ancients, but I am writing for modern audiences and I need to empathize with their modern concerns as well.

Unknown Consequences Regret

Let's say (a hypothetical example) I describe how Jesus had to be sacrificed and die in order for Jesus to fulfill the non-sacrifice of Abraham's firstborn, Isaac (Genesis 22). My article goes viral and suddenly, weekly churchgoers around the world think they completely understand the need for the death of Jesus. But, many churchgoers have an incomplete understanding of the incarnation of the Word as human and divine, the origins of the hope for a messiah, the historical contexts of David's reign and later Babylonian and Roman occupations, etc. So, my reasonable focus on a limited aspect of the death of Jesus resulted in many people failing to realize they are missing the overall sweep of Scripture. My limited article wasn't "wrong" or "bad", but there is a lesson to be learned in how words may be taken out of context.

Missed Opportunity Regret

I sometimes ask, "Why didn't I think of that?" As software industry writer Doug noted, it is simply the case that I didn't think of that, and that's life. "Iteration [is] important, as the more one practices, the better one can become at pattern recognition." In other words, after continual reflection, eventually I will think of that. Time for the next exegesis!

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