Traveling through the Text-Part 1: Mile High Bible Society

Genreally, Biblical hermeneutics is about how you read the Bible. Here I want to talk about how fast you read the Bible. Metaphorically, the mode of transportation you take determines what you see. This is the first series of posts on traveling through the text. The metaphor I am exploring here is flying. Please fasten your seat belts and put your trays and seat backs in the upright position:

A Bird’s Eye View

Recently I took a flight to see my grandfather in Alberta. My wife and kids weren’t with me, which meant I had the rare privilege of a window seat. I watched as our plane lifted off the runway and ascended, eyeing landmarks and favorite hangouts. Before long the plane was high in the sky and the sights become harder to distinguish. I no longer saw people walking their dogs and the morning traffic. Instead I saw a grid of roadways and farmland, the topography as we passed mountains and valleys. I noted significant changes in the environment. On an overcast day, all you can see out a plane window is a blanket of white; however on my plane ride I had a clear bird’s-eye view of the entire landscape below. And over everything, the vast expanse. The horizon stretching out far beyond my view in all directions.

When we were making our final descent into Calgary, I noticed the change in the land from Canadian Rockies, to the rolling foothills of Prairie Alberta. I also saw the trees. I had left behind the tall green cedars and Douglas fir of the Pacific Northwest and saw bellow me sparse patches of Aspen and Spruce. Autumn had not come to my part of the world (this was late September), but here the yellowing trees checkered the landscape bellow had already greeted her arrival.

The thing about air travel is it’s fast. A distance that would be a twelve-hour drive was traversed inside of a couple of hours. A few magnificent views aside, you don’t really get in a jet plane to go see the sights, you get in a plane to get somewhere fast. And that is the gift of that mode of travel. As someone whose family is spread across the continent, I know that I would not see them much if I lived in a world without planes. But because of it, I get to connect with the people and places I love, traversing distance and time with relative ease.

How to Fly Through the Bible

So what does it mean to fly through the Bible? How is reading quickly, like looking out the airplane window?

The quickest I ever read the Bible cover to cover was two weeks. I read in every spare moment, obsessed with getting through the entire Bible, all 66 books as quickly as possible. Nobody told me I should do this, but I am glad that I did. Here are some of the things I experienced on my Biblical flight:

1. While flying, you don’t get tangled in the brush.

    When you fly to a different city, you fly over the buildings, trees, railroad tracks. Other than waiting for other planes and a place to land, all impediments are far bellow. Similarly, when I was flying through the text, I didn’t get caught up in thorny theological matters, controversies, or dead ends. I just kept reading without stopping Genealogies, details about the sacrificial system, lists didn’t entangle me. Basically I just flew over them as fast as I could (anyone who has decided to read the Bible cover to cover and got stuck and got mired down in Leviticus can see the value of pressing through!),

    Flying high and not getting caught in the brush means you keep reading no matter what. Mile High flyers don’t linger places. When I saw something interesting or questions came up, I noted them and planned to circle back to them later, but I kept reading. Of course flying above the fray meant I wasn’t reading with an eye for details. How can you see details at 23,000 feet? Yet what you do see is worth seeing. Some of what you see out the window of a plane, you won’t see any other way.

2. A bird’s-eye view reveals topographical changes

    In my flight over the Canadian Rockies I saw changes in the topography. The bare high rocks were different from where I had come from, and different from the rolling prairies where I landed. Similarly, when I flew through the Bible, I encountered various genres. The historical books, gave way to the poetry of the Psalms; The oracles of the prophets were a different terrain from gospel stories and Pauline epistles. Noticing this switch in the landscape gave me clues on what sort of place I found myself in (in the text) and what grew there. It is with a bird’s-eye view, you see the lay of the land.

3. Flying connects distant places together

    Air travel allow you to visit distant friends and relatives, return home, go to weddings and funerals or go on exotic vacations that you otherwise would not be able to go. Because of this modern technology, our world feels more connected. Closer, somehow.

    On my own flights through the Bible I have noticed the connections between different passages I wouldn’t have otherwise. Hebrews came alive to me when I just read through the Pentateuch and the prophets the week before. Flying through the Bible showed me the connections between different passages. If I hadn’t flown there, I might not have made the journey; yet having made the flight, the connections between the testaments, the covenants and distant relatives are much clearer to me. Closer, somehow.

4. Flying gives us a look at the big picture

    Just like the view from the plane reviews the vast expanse, so a flight through the text reveals the big picture. By starting at creation and making the journey with God’s people from there to new creation, I got a sense of the whole story. The horizon extends far beyond our view in every direction; I only saw this when I flew through the Bible without getting lost in the details.

So I commend flying through the text as one way of reading the Bible. Care to join the Mile High Bible Club? Tell me your thoughts.

Walter Wink’s Hermeneutic

I picked up this slim volume at a used bookstore in Bellingham only to discover the book in its entirety is available for free online at religion-online.org. Here is the link: http://www.religion-online.org/showbook….
Wink-Bible

I have appreciated Wink’s critique of the institution and powers over the years and since I have an interest in hermeneutics and what the Bible means I happily scooped this up to see what Wink would contribute to this discussion. Bearing in mind that this book is almost 40 years old, I expected it to be someone dated and not up to speed on the various directions the discussion has gone. This is true, but in a lot of ways Wink was a shaper of the dialogue.

Wink begins this book with an assertion that the Historical Critical Method is bankrupt. By this he doesn’t mean that is of no value, but he proposes new management, allowing it to serve a different end. he sees as problematic the fact that Biblical criticism ignored the intention of texts,retreated to the false consciousness of objectivism, only asks questions which its discipline (and disciples) can answer, has been cut off from the wider community, and harkens back to polemical context which no longer exists.

On each of these points, Wink’s critique seems to be incisive, though he does seems to speak of “biblical criticism” in absolute terms which goes beyond warrant with particular practitioners (a face he will circle back to in conclusion when he addresses the academic guild as ‘a power’ that scholars have to oppose).

Wink proposes an alternative paradigm, which owes something to Ricouer’s naivety, suspicion, second-naivety. Wink’s schema is as follows:

1. Fusion
N(1) negation of the fusion through suspicion of the object
2. Distance
N(2) Negation of the negation through suspicion of the subject
3. Communion (p.19-20)

Phase 1 involves moving beyond the unity of western culture and traditions and the Bible to the objectification of the text. It is here that Biblical criticism does its work of getting us behind creedal statements and dogma, so that we can examine the text dispassionately and discover what it really meant.

Phase 2 involves applying our critical lens to ourselves where we confront ‘our own emotional predisposition not to be unsettled, our easy acquiescence to contemporary questions, languages and perspectives.(34)”

Phase 3 involves bringing these two phases into critical dialectic to discover what the biblical world in its particularity has to say to our human condition. The end result which Wink envisions is a sort of post-critical reading of scripture which transforms individuals and their communities.

In order to accomplish this Wink draws on the insights of psychotherapy and a sociological and ideological lens to help us identify the places in which the Bible confronts us and our world.

What I appreciated most about this book was Wink’s critique of where Biblical criticism has brought us. As mentioned above, he does cast this critique in absolute terms. This means his claims are exaggerated in some quarters, but he names issues that every Biblical scholar of faith must wrestle with.

In his positive program, he correctly addresses the two horizons of interpretation: text and reader (here given the names of object and subject, respectively). Where I am uneasy with Wink’s program is that he seems to critique the tradition, more than his own starting point. Wink is a theologically liberal New Testament scholar who taught at Union. He expects human transformation in the text. He does not necessarily expect to encounter God. Traditional beliefs about God are redefined in psychological and sociological terms (Wink buys in to Bultmann’s demythologizing program after all). In one fascinating account of a group bible study session, the Holy Spirit is redefined as ‘life-transformative process’ (59).

This antithesis to the tradition and traditional theology is exasperated by the fact that Wink fails to recapture a theology of church. It is true that he wants to bring his training in Biblical criticism back into the service of the church, but he doesn’t advocate reading the Bible by the rule of faith. He wants to get behind doctrinal and creedal statements and not impose them on the Biblical account. In a sense, this is a guild concern. Biblical studies exists to study the Bible not theologize, but the theological tradition does frame our understanding of texts and shouldn’t be so easily cast aside.

Still Wink is insightful about how the Biblical text can challenge individuals, social and political institutions. I would be pleased if more Biblical scholars of whatever theological bent were as committed to listening to the personal and structural implications when we allow ourselves to be encountered by the Biblical text.

Readings- By Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter. New York: Ecco Press, 1978, 10.

Readings

You asked me what is the good of Reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of Caesars
On coins are different today. Yet still it is the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
There are plenty of persons whom the text calls
Diamonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
Or, if you prefer, bedeviled (as for the “possessed”
It’s no more than the whim of a dictionary).
Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
Were not considered signs of talent.
The demonized had no access to print or screens,
Rarely engaging in arts or literature.
But the Gospel parallel remains in force:
That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
Which exasperated by the sudden clash
Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
Jump into the water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
And thus on every page a persistent reader
Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
In a world which one day will come to its end.