Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part III: On Belonging to a Reading Community

The first and seconds parts of this series -- in which we are listening to the witness of David Plotz, a secular Jew, concerning his experience of reading the entire Hebrew Bible start to finish -- addressed Israel's example of having Yahweh alone with whom to do and the non-hagiographical memory of God's people in Scripture, respectively. In this part we will address (with, I hope, increased brevity) the questions Plotz raises about interpretation -- that is, reading the text outside of or underneath "authority," alongside or sans scholarship, within or apart from community.

Plotz makes clear that his reading of the entire Old Testament was a solitary, individual affair. He did not read under a rabbi, and, as far as I can tell, he was not directly or intimately involved in the life of a local Jewish faith community. (This question is more difficult than that of a Christian, since "to be a Jew" involves the entire life of a person in a way that, unfortunately, most Christians do not similarly embody. David Plotz is, of course, a Jew, and his habits and affairs are tied up into the life of the Jewish people, which necessarily entails "religious" aspects. I do not seek to downplay those aspects, only to emphasize that, in my understanding of Plotz's account, he was not walking with a "texted" community or regularly attending synagogue as a part of his Bible reading. If he was, that certainly changes how we might view his reading, but it shouldn't change the lessons we learn from his reflections.)

Plotz describes his upcoming book on this subject (entitled Good Book) as "an effort to bring a new, curious, irreverent perspective to a book that has been made inaccessible and difficult by clergy and academics." He says the reaction of some fellow Jews is somewhat negative, since "there is 2,000 years of scholarship about the book ... so it's perverse of me to ignore it."

In response to a direct question from a reader about consulting outside sources, this was his response:
I consulted no sources while I was reading it. That was intentional. I want to be a completely empty vessel, an average Job. I wanted it to encounter the book as rawly and directly as possible, even if that meant misunderstanding context and making mistakes.
In response to a question about why people don't read the Bible for themselves individually, Plotz's first of two primary reasons is: "Clergy have mostly discouraged us from reading the Bible, insisting that we should only do it under their tutelage." He goes on in a later answer:
Not surprisingly, the clergy ... generally discouraged the idea of reading without guidance. I get where they are coming from, but I think that's a narrow view. Look, either a sacred text stands or it falls. If it takes a professional with a graduate degree to explain the book to you, or to tell you that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean, then perhaps the sacred text isn't cutting it. I know I would have learned a huge amount had I read the Bible with my rabbi. But I also would have missed a huge amount, and I would have been guided down the narrow paths where the rabbi led me, not the paths that I chose for myself.
In order to place it in as stark juxtaposition as possible, I wonder how Plotz might react to these words from Stanley Hauerwas:
Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important that for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eighth-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own. (Unleashing the Scripture, p. 15)
As is typical Hauerwas fashion, the claim sounds exaggerated. But let's take his polarity alongside that of Plotz and see where we find ourselves. I'll walk through this minefield myself by way of a series of Wendell Berry-esque collected thoughts.

I. It matters profoundly what traditions and communities we belong to. Plotz seems to assume or have experienced clergy discouraging individual Bible reading; Hauerwas (and I with him) takes for granted that individual Bible reading is one of the foremost encouraged practices of American Christians.

II. I personally belong to a tradition happily situated within Plotz's line of thinking: either the text stands or falls, and no education or ecclesial authority or religious community can or does have the power to assert itself between the "I" and "Thou" of the text. Churches of Christ stem from the 19th century Restoration Movement, in which Enlightenment ideals (mixed with other forms of thought) counteracted against hierarchical bodies of Christians determined, through creeds or parachurch organizations or whatever, to dictate "extrabiblical" doctrine onto ordinary members of congregations. Campbell and Stone were not fans of this.

III. Because I speak out of a tradition that would affirm Plotz in his individual reading, I can also gently critique what is inherently wrong with it, having seen firsthand its effects, both positive and negative. Churches of Christ are at least somewhat different, insofar as they are radically committed to the life of the local church community and, in ways direct and indirect, that mere fact mitigates against the rugged, bare bones individualism of its purported interpretation of Scripture. However, the very existence of so much great and terrible division in churches of Christ -- they of the Restoration Unity Movement -- speaks a word friendly to Hauerwas's critique.

IV. The truth is that, while I commend Plotz for his courageous reading and his witness is immeasurably valuable, the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) categorically was not written for individual reading. That is not to say individuals ought not to read it, nor that individual reading is not an important practice. It is only to say that the Bible was written by and for a community, God's people, and the Bible only makes sense in the context of the life, worship, and reading of that community.

V. To further qualify what I do not mean: neither is there in the Bible a vision of some kind of magisterial authority to which all readings must be submitted for approval. Walter Brueggemann -- rightly, for our purposes here and for his wisdom, a professor of the Old Testament -- speaks in his consummate and brilliant Theology of the Old Testament of "Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy." There are biblical texts that testify to the powerful and mighty acts of Yahweh and the story of his people Israel. Yet this testimony, within the canon itself, is disputed by other texts, such as Job or Ecclesiastes or Jonah. In the midst of this disputatious struggle various viewpoints and worldviews about God and God's world struggle with one another, advocating a particular perspective over against the others. Here is no caricatured Pope speaking daily ex cathedra; here is no Bible-discouraging clergy promising gnosis only in the context of minister-led study. This is the contest of interpretation played out before the world in the life of the people of God.

VI. Which leads us to Hauerwas, who seems to advocate a kind of restored authority in the hands of the church's leaders. That may be true, but the deeper plea in play is for Scripture to reside only in the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ. That may sound like we have left Plotz behind, but it is really only to emphasize that listening to Torah, or the New Torah of the Sermon on the Mount, makes sense solely in the Torah-following group of people listening to the word of Yahweh. The people are neither objective nor individual nor disinterested nor unhabituated. Hauerwas continues in his book to argue that in order to hear Scripture rightly we must be formed by the text-created community into the kind of people with the character that has the eyes to see the movement of God in Scripture's stories. (Christians call this the work of the Holy Spirit.) The habits necessary for such formation do not happen individually or outside of community, so to be devoid of such habits in coming to the text is to miss the point entirely. Once caught up into the life of obeying Torah and following Jesus, we are given the ears to hear the Bible afresh and anew, the word of God for the people of God.

VII. To repeat and elaborate: this does not disqualify individual reading, and to be sure, God has used individuals' readings (fresh to the text or aged knowledge) to enrich and enliven the understanding and practices of God's people throughout history. Furthermore -- as Hauerwas would affirm along with Plotz -- if we need the scholars and professors and exegetes to stay afloat in the sea of Scripture, we are truly lost. That is not to say -- speaking as a hopeful future member of all of those categories -- that scholarship or teaching or exegesis does not serve a role in biblical interpretation or that we would be just as fine without them. It is only to clarify whose book we are talking about: God's, and his people's. The Bible is God's gift and memory for the world and for his people, an arena of argument and contest and gift and glory abounding in bottomless wisdom and truthful horror and happy mystery. It is not Homer or Shakespeare, much less a magazine or blog. It is, quite simply, too big and too important to reside, bound and personalized, in the hands of each individual who happens to have a passing interest in it. It will and ought to reside there as well, but only as an extension of its presence and authority and witness in the life of the community of God's people.

VIII. Let us learn in conclusion, however, a profound lesson from David Plotz's experience with clergy. Not only has he found clergy discouraging personal Bible reading -- the rabbis and ministers he has known would never lead down the "wrong paths" that proved so exhilarating and surprising in Plotz's reading. Let that be a clarion call for all ministers, rabbis, priests, teachers, and preachers: we do no service to those entrusted to our care by taking kids' gloves to the text. We must not fall into the habit of leading others around or behind the dense woods and rocky soil of the texts of terror, the impossible teachings, the inexplicable divine actions. This is the Bible, this is our Scripture. It is what it is and it is not going away. I can imagine no greater offense to the ministry of the church than to curtail the hard density of God's given text. May we, rather, take it head on, in the courage and the faith that we will find there the God we have already found in the life of his people.

[Photos courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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