I can’t believe the reaction I’ve gotten to yesterday’s post about the old cliché about “making the Bible come alive.” I’ve gotten some significant response and you readers have got me thinking. So I want to think with you a bit more about how biblical interpretation in the church ought to work.
When I was in graduate school almost 30 years ago, I read an essay by George Steiner that burned down my world as an aspiring scholar. In the quotation below, substitute “interpreter” or “scholar” or “preacher” or “teacher” for the author’s word “critic”
When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could wield an inch of the Karamazovs, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow? …The critic lives at second hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel, or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of others’ genius.… It is not criticism that makes the language live. These are simple truths (and the honest critic says them to himself in the gray of morning).*
At first, I thought, “That’s harsh… a eunuch’s shadow?” I mean, we teachers and interpreters, we “critics” (in the liberal arts sense of the term) are committed to the great texts, like the Bible. We keep people reading these texts, we breathe new life into them for each successive generation… don’t we?
And then I started noticing something. So many aspiring scholars, including preachers who wanted to be serious interpreters, like myself back in the middle 1980’s, seemed less interested in the actual text of the Bible, and more interested in “scholarship.” The preparation for a paper, or sermon, began not with the close, mutual scrutiny of reader and text, but with the generation of the bibliography, the framing of a suitable research question, the need for a sermon idea.
I still notice this. One of the most difficult things I ever do as a teacher or scholar is to get people to look at the text. To set aside, for the moment, the scholarly theories, the chattering voices of the academy or church, and allow the text unguarded entry into their own inmost recesses of awareness. In a seminar, a student hazards a fresh thought about the text, and immediately someone pipes in, “Well, N. T. Wright wouldn’t go that way…” or “You need to look at that from more of a post-colonial perspective…” I know of one professor who actually discouraged students from devoting most of their attention to simply immersing themselves in the text. Not dissing either N.T. or post-colonialism, or scholarship, I’m just noticing that when someone works with the text, a perceptible tremor of disquiet ripples through the room. Stripped of our footnotes, our presumptions, or favorite preachers or celebrity teachers… divested of our powerful friends, just what are we?
Now, the student of the Bible is in a very peculiar spot. Steiner set out a contrast between the interpreter and the creative author, the originator of the “great” texts. Naturally, we’d rather write a good poem than a commentary on a poem. But with scripture, something else, something more primal, is going on. With scripture a life, a dynamism, inhabits the text that we can never duplicate. We are not prophets. We are not inspired by God. We are not apostles. In fact, our role as students and teachers is to allow the text bruising, intimate entry into our very being, then to allow the grace it conveys to render us transparent so that we can re-present its essence, its life and power, to others. In the end, we don’t want our audience to be attached to us, but to the Bible and ultimately, of course, to the God who gave it and who gives himself through it. At our best, we are honest brokers, match-makers, at most, perhaps even impresarios, but at all times, we are servants of the Word, not ambassadors of the academy.
In his book Real Presences Steiner spins a parable about a “city of the primary,” a place where no speaking or writing or presentation occurs except first-order creation. No essays on poetry, just poetry. Lexicons, indices and concordances, certainly… but no essays on “tautness” or “the triumph of irony” or “subversions of gender sub-texts” or the like. No “academic journalism.” No allowing the eunuch’s shadow to darken or obscure the text. Most scholarship and indeed, a lot of preaching and teaching of the Bible, ends up being just that: journalism. We report what others have seen. We ourselves, though, remain unwounded by the sword of the Spirit.
Which helps me think about my role. I happily confess that, compared to the life surging in scripture, I am indeed, a eunuch. Scripture is the sun, and, at best, I am a moon. Or maybe an asteroid, or a comet—a dead clump of ice and space dirt that glows only as I am in proximity to the sun. I am a second-order mind, scripture is a first-order reality. However hard I have to work to understand scripture, however wide the net of research has to be cast, and however many exegetical arts I bring to the task, the primary fact in the end must not be the eunuch’s shadow, but the burning light of sacred Scripture, which itself is the source of the shadow’s existence.
*Quotation from: George Steiner, “Humane Literacy,” in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967) p. 3.