The Bible’s Ideal Reader

The literary theorist Umberto Eco has a theory about readers. Every text calls for an ideal reader. The ideal reader of any given text is the person receptive of its content and formed to follow its patterns (see, The Role of the Reader, 1979). In other words, the person who is willing to “see” as the text sees (this is how the world is) and then live accordingly is the ideal reader.

Consider the following picture:


That guy is NOT the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda. He refuses to buy into the Nazi’s picture of the world – choosing not to “see” as they see. And he won’t live accordingly by offering his salute to Hitler and all that his regime stands for, despite the very obvious social pressure. “Nope,” you can hear him saying to himself.

Today, in a class that surveys the entire Bible in one semester (crazy, I know), I challenged my students: “Be that guy.” Refuse to become the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda, and if you find that easy enough then go ahead and refuse to become ideal readers of all the other counterfeit stories on offer today: consumerism’s story (you are what you buy), nationalism’s story (our nation is the best nation), humanism’s story (you have all that you need to become your true self), naturalism’s story (all that matters is matter). Instead, become the Bible’s ideal reader. Read this book and accept its invitation to see as it sees, and then live accordingly. Sure, its a strange world we find in the Bible (to borrow Barth’s phrase). Who can deny that? But in light of Jesus we Christians believe it tells the true story about God, us, and the world.

“Be that guy,” I challenged. With your arms resolutely crossed, say “Nope” to all the counterfeit stories, and read the Bible as an invitation to see the world truthfully and to live accordingly.



Scripture: where elephants and lambs swim

In the sixth century St. Gregory composed a commentary on the book of Job. Upon beginning he realized the task was more difficult than imagined: “[When] I learned the extent and character of the task to which I was compelled, being overwhelmed and wearied with the mere burden of hearing it, I confess I sank under it.” Elephant Swimming

Gregory was interpreting Job according to the Four-Fold Senses which was common in his time (the Quadriga): the historical sense (plain sense), the allegorical sense (typological), the moral sense (tropological), and the anagogical sense (pertaining to the last or ultimate things).  Here was Gregory’s challenge: on one hand, he sought to avoid missing the obvious meaning that stared him in the face in the historical or literal sense; but on the other hand, he wanted to avoid missing the spiritual senses that lie a bit “deeper.”

So, to explain the way in which Holy Scripture is both shallow (easily accessible in its historical sense) and deep (requires spiritually discernment) Gregory used the metaphor of a “river.” The Bible is deep enough that the most devout and skilled among us can never reach the bottom, and shallow enough that the simplest among us can swim.

The word of God, by the mysteries which it contains, exercises the understanding of the wise, so usually by what presents itself on the outside, it nurses the simple-minded.   Continue reading

Biblical Interpretation and Jazz

Read the following remarks on jazz improvisation by Sharon Welch and tell me how much this sounds like biblical interpretation:

Think about the logic of jazz. Jazz emerges from the interplay of structure and improvisation, collectivity and individuality, tradition and innovation. What goes on when jazz is performed? Jazz is not completImageely free form. There are standards, songs that can be played again and again. The score of jazz ranges from a chord progression and melody, or a full orchestration with openings for improvisation. From that core the players innovate and improvise, modifying the chords and melodies and rhythm. The pleasure and energy of jazz comes from hearing both a familiar chord progression and melody and the new possibilities, what can be done from that structure. The ability to improvise is fuelled both by individual effort, creativity and technique and group synergy: the technical skill and creativity of each player is as foundational as is the spark that comes from playing off of each other.

So, what does it take to improvise? A key element is respect for the tradition, learning from it without merely repeating it. This respect is expressed by Miles Davis: ’I played ‘My Funny Valentine’ for a long time – and didn’t like it – and all of a sudden it meant something’ (Walser 1995, p. 165). Another essential element in jazz is respect for other players. Continue reading

‘Jesus Said Nothing about…’

I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue.  This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.

Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day.  First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones.  The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood.  However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).  Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc.  In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.

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N. T. Wright and Method and Matter

I just received the newest issue of JETS and was glad to see that they’ve published the plenary papers from the 2010 meeting (Schreiner, Thielman, and Wright on justification).  As he works through some preliminary points in his paper, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” Wright touches briefly on method in Protestant theology in response to some of his critics:

Now I discover that some from what I had thought were Protestant quarters are accusing me of something called “biblicism.”  I’m not sure what that is, exactly.  What I am sure of is what I learned forty years ago from Luther and Calvin that the primary task of a teacher of the church is to search Scripture ever more deeply and to critique all human traditions in the light of that, not to assemble a magisterium on a platform and tell the worried faithful what the tradition says and hence how they are to understand Scripture.  To find people in avowedly Protestant colleges taking what is basically a Catholic position would be funny if it was not so serious.  To find them then accusing me of crypto-Catholicism is worse.  To find them using against me the rhetoric that the official church in the 1520s used against Luther – “How dare you say something different from what we’ve always believed all these centuries” – again suggests that they have not only no sense of irony, but no sense of history.  I want to reply, how dare you propose a different theological method from that of Luther and Calvin, a method of using human tradition to tell you what Scripture said?  On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist in their official theology, are in fact neo-Catholics (p. 51).

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Choosing a Theology Textbook: Primer on Biblical Methods

Most Christian universities or colleges have introductory courses on the Bible, and this is true for a great many secular institutions as well. In giving students an “introduction” to the Bible these courses take any number of different angles or approaches. Some focus on the historical settings in which the Bible was written, its diversity of literature (genres), the history of its oral transmission, production and canonization, etc. Another approach might be to concentrate less on theories about the Bible and direct students toward the Bible itself, its central themes, story line, etc. Or various combinations of the two.

All this presents the daunting challenge of choosing the proper textbooks. I leave questions about the best angle up to you, but I will highlight a text that could efficiently introduce students to the many methods of biblical study. Even with the most eager students, nothing sucks the life from a room like the words “redaction criticism”, “form criticism”, “ideological criticism”, and “materialist readings.”  On these topics many of the textbooks I have reviewed frustratingly seem more geared toward graduate students than first year undergraduates. So I was pleased to see Corine Carvalho’s new Primer on Biblical Methods. Continue reading

Perspicuity and Postmodernity

I’m in between two parts of a review of Merold Westphal’s introduction to philosophical hermeneutics and have been reflecting on the importance of approaching Scripture according to its peculiar nature and subject matter, whatever may be gleaned from a general theory of texts and textual interpretation.  In keeping with those musings, I came across this comment from Irish Puritan James Ussher (1581-1656) in his defense of the clarity of Scripture:

Scripture is our Father’s Letter unto us, and his last Will to show us what Inheritance he leaveth us.  But Friends write Letters, and Fathers their wills, plain (A Body of Divinity [Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007], p. 18).

Ussher gestures toward something that we would do well to remember in a time when we are keen to avoid the appearance of epistemic arrogance or crudeness, namely, that the Bible is a covenantal book originated and commandeered by someone who actually wants us to understand it and, indeed, as our Creator and Lord, is eminently capable of accomodating his speech to the human intellect.  The subject matter, the divine authorship, and the redemptive, covenantal telos of Scripture compel an admission of its perspicuity, even in an era rather skeptical of human noetic prowess.  To vie for the  possibility of real textual understanding vis-a-vis the biblical texts is not to sink into “modernism” but to think theologically about Scripture and to keep in step with the emphases of classic Protestant bibliology.

Any thoughts?