Monday, March 17, 2008

Learning About Versus Learning From Scripture

“Whether or not one is convinced by this or that conclusion of modern biblical scholarship, as a tradition of reading it cannot be incorporated into living religious communities. There is a spiritual parting of ways, [Kugel] suggests, that separates ancient from modern traditions of interpretation. The old ways of reading involve ‘learning from the Bible,’ while the modern critical approaches end up ‘learning about it.’ Ancient interpretation teaches us to live inside Scripture; modern reading keeps its distance…One feels that Kugel overdraws the contrast with ancient interpretations…Yet Kugel sees a real problem, or at least he sees it in outline. The great chasm of difference is a matter of exegetical atmosphere rather than historical techniques or even interpretive conclusions. Modern scholars want to master the Bible. We can see this in their often smug conclusions. ‘Well,’ we are told, ‘this or that biblical story is really about sustaining the ideology of the Jerusalem cult.’ In contrast, religious readers want to be mastered… This spiritual difference is becoming more and more obvious today. It has nothing to do with whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or whether Isaiah is a compilation of diverse prophetic material from different eras. It has to do with what we let the Bible say to us. On this point, Kugel is surely right. The old influence of liberal Protestantism on elite graduate programs in biblical studies has come to an end. We now see an aggressive indifference to the religious interests of biblical readers or postmodern theoretical gestures posing as theology. These days it is plain to see that a modern tradition of interpretation does not train readers to hear the Word of God in the Bible, even in its darkest corners. One reads purely and proudly as an outsider. This sensibility, this interpretive stance, is irreconcilable with the path charted by ancient readers. They read with the assumption that the Bible has the power to make us insiders. It is the path that faithful Jews and Christians continue striving to walk down.”
-R.R. Reno, “The Bible Inside and Out”, First Things, April 2008, pgs. 14, 15.

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