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Thursday, February 06, 2014  

On Good Books and Bad Readers

A professor who taught T.S. Eliot at the University of Chicago once told a student that he'd been reading Four Quartets for his whole adult life, and that those poems meant something very different to him as a young man, as a scholar in the prime of his career, and again as he neared that career's end. The poems are great because they change with us, he said. This is the sort of insight that comes with the luxury of a lifetime of study, especially once it's freed from the demand to stake out and defend an ideological reading, but it's available to anyone who falls in love with a work that is rich enough to sustain repeated reading. And it's a comment that I remembered as I read a particularly poignant note on yesterday's "creation debate" between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. Both men were asked what would change their mind about the origin and age of the universe, and while Nye said that fossil or cosmological evidence could change his view, Ham said that basically nothing could convince him that his supposedly Biblically-based view was wrong. As Steve Thorngate, writing at the Christian Century, pointed out, this answer wasn't simply a rebuke to science as a method of understanding the world:

Ham’s answer also presents a discouraging view of what it means to be a Christian and to read the Bible. No one is ever going to convince him to understand the Bible differently than he does now? (I know those aren’t his words, but that’s the implication of how he shuts down the question so entirely.) Not new information about the Bible or the world, or new experiences or relationships, or even new revelation from Ham’s relationship with the living God?

In my relatively short life as a Christian, I’ve changed my mind about lots of things, repeatedly—including what exactly we mean when we say the Bible is true. Lots of Christians have done this, of course (and not just liberal ones). The Century publishes a whole series of articles about how and why. It’s part of the joy—and the responsibility—of a living personal faith.

You can read a thousand critiques, serious and merely jeering, of Ham's performance. It can't account for natural phenomena with any kind of adequacy. It's an irrational lurch toward a philosophical foundation that it can't really provide. And it's worth pointing out that his argument effectively attempts to enshrine his understanding of Scripture as official Christianity for the purposes of law and public policy, such that even Christians who don't especially care about origin-of-life debates should be wary of it. All of this is true.

But I am stuck on this issue with the poverty of reading. Like Thorngate, I'm a Christian of comparatively recent vintage, and like him my understanding of the Bible has changed a lot even in that time. And why wouldn't it? I read Eliot differently than I used to. I found Hamlet to be a brilliant and empathetic figure when I was 17, now as a father and a middle manager in the customs house of life's moral ambiguities I have a lot more sympathy for Polonius. If the Bible is not "merely" a great book--whatever we might mean when we say that--it surely is not less than a great book, not less pliable to our own changing endowments as readers. The story of the binding of Isaac terrorizes and mystifies me more now than it did before my first son was born. The Sermon on the Mount strikes me today as much more a picture of the world as Jesus saw it and urged us to see it than it is a manual for spiritual athletics or a prefatory condemnation of human sinfulness as I may have seen it before. Moreover I don't imagine for a moment that how I read these things today is in any way final.

The same process is at work, perhaps even more powerfully, in Genesis itself. While I've never been one to read it as a day-by-day account of life's beginning, I've also never minimized it as some just-so story about why we don't like snakes and why childbirth is so painful. But I was, like many others, steeped in a theological tradition that saw in the story of the creation and fall the picture of a perfect world and the interruption of something we call "sin," variously interpreted, inaugurating all of our difficulty in refraining from murder and inappropriate intercourse (not to mention self-righteousness, self-delusion, and moral judgment). I don't think that's wrong, exactly, but I've come to see this passage less as about a curse placed on the man and the woman than as a curse placed on the land. It's the beginning of privation, work, the incessant demand for surplus, the root of all distinctions of function and class among people, the great unresolved war over access to life's goods that permeates most of the verses that follow. Some people think Genesis 1 represents a resistance to the Babylonian gods, their wars of creation and enslavement of the human race, and that Genesis 3 (the older part) narrates in mythical form our transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural one--in other words, the beginning of almost everything we think of as history or culture. In that sense, maybe it's a much more "historical" story than even the great church fathers and mothers seemed to appreciate.

This is a minor journey I've been on. But it's nothing the great faithful have been immune to. When he wrote On Christian Doctrine, Augustine solved the problem of obscure passages in Scripture by reading them in light of clearer ones. It's a fine way of reading and very useful; it is commonsensical among Protestants who talk about "Scripture alone" but are less committed to a six-day creation than Ken Ham. It's pretty much the opposite of how we read, say, Hamlet, though. And indeed, as Augustine's career wore on he seems to me to be more likely to read the clearer passages in light of the more difficult texts on election and judgment. Where light once illuminated the mysteries, in time the mysteries impose themselves on the light. It's the same thing with Luther, who grappled mightily with God's hiddenness in Genesis and Isaiah long after insisting on the clarity of God's self-revelation.

So there is a sense in which this debate, if that's even what it is, goes deeper than "the Bible versus science" or "what the Bible really means" into what it means to be a reader of the Bible. I have no particular objection to people believing that the world is 6,000 years old and the seemingly-ancient universe is God's little tromp-l'oeil, so long as they don't seek to impose it by law or custom on anyone else. I believe some strange things too, as do we all. But we should all object, if we treasure the Bible or even books in general, to the idea that it's only true or good or real if we insist on seeing it the same way no matter what changes in or around us. That's not what books do, and it's not what we demand if we truly honor them.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:39 AM
I have struggled with a literal reading of Genesis since I was old enough to reason. I wonder if you've ever read this interpretation that Adam and Eve in The Garden represent our pre-historic past as non-reasoning primates in the African savannah, while the eating from the Tree of Good and Evil is our evolutionary transition into reasoning human beings who know what it means to do good and to sin. It's the most satisfying metaphor I've ever read:
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