What We're Reading

4 Oct

Holy Writ Exalted in Verse

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 10/04/06

Earlier this year, "New on our desks . . ." featured two short annotations of books about how to read the Bible. Peter Enns wrote about taking the Bible on its own terms in Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, and John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno studied how the Early Church Fathers understood Scripture in Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Some of the realities presented in both works are ancient and have been attended to by souls throughout the ages, as is evident in two poems by Anglican priest and poet George Herbert (1593-1633). His two poems that wonder at the glory, intricacy, and power of scripture, titled The Holy Scriptures I and II, are provided below. Many thanks to Lois Westerlund for drawing our attention to the works. Lois recently presented a four-part lecture series called "'True Beauty Dwells on High': The Poetry of George Herbert" at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virginia. [Posted October 2006, ALG]

The Holy Scriptures I

Oh Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart

Suck ev'ry letter, and a honey gain,

Precious for any grief in any part;

To clear the breast, to mollify all pain.

Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make

A full eternity: thou art a mass

Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.

Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glass,

That mends the looker's eyes: this is the well

That washes what it shows. Who can endear

Thy praise too much? thou art heav'n's Lidger here,

Working against the states of death and hell.

Thou art joy's handsel: heav'n lies flat in thee,

Subject to ev'ry mounter's bended knee.

The Holy Scriptures II

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,

And the configuration of their glory!

Seeing not only how each verse doth shine,

But all the constellations of the story.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion

Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:

Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,

These three make up some Christian's destiny:

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,

And comments on thee: for in ev'ry thing

Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,

And in another make me understood.

Stars are poor books, and oftentimes do miss:

This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.

Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2005)

John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)

"The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions." Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

"Once one thinks that the scriptures are divinely inspired, then the primary project is not to assess them. . . . The church fathers sought to explain how the vast heterogeneity and diversity of scriptural data might be brought into an intellectually satisfying form. This was the basic project of interpretation, as they understood it." John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible

Two guests on previous editions of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal have written recently about how to read scripture. Susan Wise Bauer, a guest on Volume 66, reviewed a book in the May/June 2006 issue of Books & Culture that attends to difficulties readers face when studying the Old Testament and trying to submit to its authority. As Bauer explains, Peter Enns's Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament discusses how the apostles read the Old Testament. R. R. Reno, a guest on Volume 67, is co-author of a book whose subject matter is also biblical exegesis, but which focuses on the methods of the early Church fathers.

In the first of these two books, Inspiration and Incarnation, Enns encourages evangelical Christians to read the Bible on its terms. He notes that biblical scholarship in the last century contains claims that are difficult to reconcile with scripture, especially if readers are clinging to modern notions of how to read the Bible while also trying to respect its authority. Enns explores how readers can account for these claims while still keeping scripture as an authority at the center of their lives. In doing so he proposes an adjusted framework for thinking about Holy Writ, writing: "[Trust in God as the author and giver of scripture] encourages us to look to the Bible not as a timeless rule book or owner's manual for the Christian life—so that we can lift verses here and there and apply them. It helps us to see that the Bible has a dynamic quality to it, for God himself is dynamic, active, and alive in our lives and in the life of his church." Enns also studies three issues from the Old Testament that are in particular need of a fresh reading. He explains that once readers understand that the Incarnate Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, issues that are difficult to understand make much more sense. "Finally," writes Enns, "with respect to the New Testament's use of the Old Testament, what is modeled for us is that Christ is the goal of the Old Testament story, meaning that he is the ultimate focus of Christian interpretation. Not every verse or passage is about him in a superficial sense. Rather, Christ is the deeper sense of the Old Testament—at times more obvious than others—in whom the Old Testament drama as a whole finds its ultimate goal or telos. It is in the person and work of Christ that Christians seek to read the Old Testament, to search out how it is in Christ that the Old Testament has integrity, how it is worthy of trust, how the parts cohere. Such coherence is not found by superficially putting isolated pieces of the Old Testament together to make them fit somehow, but by allowing the tensions to remain and asking how our fuller knowledge of God's incarnational pattern can add to our reading of Scripture."

In Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, professors John J. O'Keefe and Reno study how the early Church fathers thought about, read, and interpreted scripture. O'Keefe and Reno distinguish pre-modern hermeneutics from modern reading methods, working to dispel the unfair biases of the latter toward the former. The professors explain that the early fathers understood scripture not as referring to something other than itself, but as the subject matter of interpretation. The early fathers focused their attention on the text itself because they believed it to be the language of God and the source of wisdom about God's order and plan and its fulfillment in the Incarnate Christ. They also believed that through pursuit and study of the text, they would be conformed to its shape. The rule of faith and the authority of the Church guided their reading, which was disciplined and focused, rigorous yet creative; they sought, in their exegesis, to illuminate both the words and the work of the Logos of God. The fathers were convinced that "[t]he sacred texts do not just provide good data; they are fragrant with the aroma of the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ."

O'Keefe and Reno arrange their book in six chapters. The first chapter, "Scriptural Meaning Modern to Ancient," outlines the modern notion of scripture as significant because it refers to something beyond itself, a notion which is different from the pre-modern understanding of scripture as significant because "it is divine revelation," not because "of its connection to an x." Chapter two, "Christ Is the End of the Law and the Prophets," discusses the "cross, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ" as "the interpretive key" of scripture. It also describes three concepts from classical rhetoric the fathers used in their study of scripture: hypothesis, economy, and recapitulation, which refer, respectively, to the gist of a work, its plan or order, and its "point" or summary statement. Chapter three, "Intensive Reading," defines lexical, dialectical, and associative methods of reading. Lexical reading involves the strategies used for assigning reliable meanings to words and elements in texts; dialectical considers two seemingly contradictory elements of a text and looks for the deeper coherence; and associative pays attention to verbal echoes across a text. In chapter four, "Typological Interpretation," O'Keefe and Reno explain that, for the fathers, Jesus Christ is the type, or pattern, that "unlocks" all the stories in scripture, Old and New Testaments both. They write: "The text tells of events in the divine economy, [and the example under discussion] in this case [is] Joshua's leadership. The import of these events is not clear until they are typologically linked to another set of events that occurs later in the divine economy. Just as importantly, the later events are themselves not fully clear until the illuminating typological link is established. More succinctly, one learns about Jesus by reading about Joshua. The typology casts light forward as well as backward." Chapter five, "Allegorical Interpretation," discusses how allegory enabled the fathers to explore the full meaning of the scriptures, the meaning embedded in both its content and form. Chapter six, "The Rule of Faith and the Holy Life," states that early exegesis was tethered to the authority of the church, and that right reading of scripture was bound to righteousness, to holy living. "The goal of patristic exegesis," write O'Keefe and Reno, "was to pass through the narrow opening that led to thoughts that participated in the unspeakable mysteries, and only a person whose vision has been refined by prayer, fasting, and self-control could hope to effect such a passage. Therefore, the fathers identified interpretive skill with the ambitious regimes of ascetic practice that defined the spiritual endeavor of the ancient church."

Sanctified Vision concludes with notes, a bibliography, and an index. Inspiration and Incarnation comprises a preface and abbreviations section, five chapters, a glossary, and two indices. The chapter titles are, respectively: "Getting Our Bearings"; "The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature"; "The Old Testament and Theological Diversity"; "The Old Testament and Its Interpretation in the New Testament"; and "The Big Picture." [Posted May 2006, ALG]

14 May

C. S. Lewis: Two doses, administered aurally

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/14/06

Many people who've read Lewis's Mere Christianity know that the content of the book was originally presented as a series of talks on the radio (or "wireless" to be more in keeping with the patois of the period). It has long been assumed by people who care about such things that no recordings of those talks survived. However, the BBC has made available online a 14-minute selection of original reading of what became the third part of Mere Christianity, a section called "Beyond Personality." The audio quality from this recording, originally broadcast on March 21, 1944, is crude but entirely clear. Hearing Lewis's voice offers a feeling for his personality. But the recording is also a reminder of how much public culture in the West has changed in 60 years: try to imagine any country in which government-sponsored broadcasts could contain this kind of content. The BBC is to be commended for offering this treat even to those of us who don't pay for its upkeep.

The audio is available here, and requires Realplayer installed on your computer (the BBC's instructions for obtaining Realplayer are here).

In addition to the recording of portions of "Beyond Personality," the BBC web page referenced above also has a link to Lewis offering a 2-minute introduction to his book, The Great Divorce, comments originally broadcast in 1948. Lewis begins: "Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I've written of their divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I knew what he meant. . . ."

Other BBC resources about Lewis are available here. [Posted May 2006, KAM]

On Volume 57 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, sociologist Steve Bruce discussed his book God Is Dead: Secularization in the West; he asserted that while many people believe in some sort of religion, religion no longer shapes the body politic. His understanding of secularization is one supported by French author Marcel Gauchet, who was interviewed for the daily Le Monde in March, 2006. In the interview Gauchet comments on what the violent response to the caricatures of Mohammed demonstrate about how globalization is affecting Islamic nations, why those nations feel threatened by the West, and why Europeans cannot understand such hostility.

Gauchet explains that globalization, propagated by the West, destroys "the existing social order" in Islamic states, in which faith is a way of life, "disaggregate[ing] the traditional family and violently chang[ing] the relationship between men and women and between generations." He states, "Europeans' problem is that they can no longer understand what religion means in societies where it still maintains a structural power. . . . For them, religion has become a system of individual and private beliefs."

Gauchet examined the Western world's modern understanding of religion in his 1985 book (published in English by Princeton University Press in 1997), The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. His concern in the book was ". . . to reconstruct Jewish monotheism from the circumstances surrounding its first appearance to the development of its long-term consequences; and then, to follow its development from where Christianity takes over to the point where the seeds of terrestrial autonomy contained within it come to fruition. This is the point where, thanks to religion, a society with no further need for religion arises." In it he studies the relationship between heaven and earth, between the divine and humanity, and how humanity's understanding of itself and the divine has changed during the course of history.

Religion first arose, he states, because ancient peoples were looking for a way to explain the existence of the world and their own being and acting in it. The development of specific religions, particularly Christianity, introduced ways of understanding God, the world, and humanity that eventually allowed people to give up religion and the divine as necessary to their explanations and understandings. Gauchet notes that the religious still affects individuals and their interior lives, but that societies no longer depend on it for their structure. His characterization of secularization is different from others that define it as the disappearance of all religious observance, public and private. He writes: "I cannot overemphasize that when I say 'end of religion' I am referring to a quite specific phenomenon: the end of the principle of dependency structuring social space in all known societies prior to our own." His more nuanced construction explains the unusual occurrence of public institutions increasingly hostile to religion's influence even while individual belief and church attendance remains high, an occurrence illustrated in the United States. "The United States shows us how spiritual and cultural influence was preserved by denominational membership within a society whose workings, orientations, and values were just as far removed from the structure of dependency toward the other as the older, superficially more de-Christianized or laicized, European societies," writes Gauchet.

One stateside review of Gauchet's work put his distinction between public and private religion thus: ". . . the characteristic social phenomena of our time . . . sees some people turn to religious conversion as a response to the disequilibrating experience of freedom in a pluralist world. This is where Gauchet's distinction between religion as personal faith and religion as the ideological creator and designer of society stands him in brilliant stead. The two things—faith and religion—are not the same . . . . Individual pockets of faith may indeed postdate the decline of religion as a major social player. In Gauchet's words: 'We can imagine the extreme of a society comprised entirely of believers, yet beyond the religious.'" The article, written by Steven Englund and titled "Converting to religion after its demise: thoughts on Marcel Gauchet and his American reception," was published in Cross Currents, the journal of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. In addition to the aforementioned quote it offers this pithy explanation of the modern world's relationship to religion: ". . . the world, for all that it may be reverential toward religion, is no longer referential to religion in its social organization." A second review, written by Brian C. Anderson and published in the June/July 1998 issue of First Things, offers the following about Gauchet's portrayal of secularization: "But the Enlightenment project of human autonomy proves illusory, Gauchet admits. Instead of obeying the other outside of us, as in the era of religion, we rediscover it within, in the unconscious, rendering our own identity opaque."

The authors of both reviews, when commenting on Gauchet's understanding of Christianity and its role in the secularization of the West, concur with Charles Taylor in his foreword to Gauchet's The Disenchantment of the World. Therein Taylor writes: "But can the new departures in faith, of Buddha, of Jesus, or for that matter of St. Francis or St. Teresa, be understood simply in terms of the hunger for meaning? If the basic aim is just to make sense of it all, why is it that karuna or agape are so central to these traditions? . . . But perhaps these mutations can only be explained by supposing that something like what they relate to—God, Nirvana—really exists. In that case, a purely cultural account of religion would be like Hamlet without the Prince.

"While I opt for this second view, and hence cannot accept Gauchet's fundamental characterization of religion, this book is the living proof—if we still needed one—that you do not have to be ultimately right to make clear some truly profound and important features of our religious history, nor to open tremendously fruitful and exciting vistas for further explanation. No one interested in clarifying our thought about religion and the secular can afford to ignore this remarkable and original book."

Englund, the first of the two reviewers mentioned, reminds his readers that Gauchet is not questioning the validity of religious experience, but its function in society. He maintains that treating religion as merely a way to order society and explain meaning misses the mark. But many are so relieved that Gauchet is acknowledging the major role religion and Christianity has played in the development of the West that they overlook how explaining it in utilitarian terms—as a means of ordering society—marginalizes the depth of the modern crisis of religion.

Anderson, the second of the two, criticizes Gauchet for underestimating how radically men shaped modernity from its beginning (as opposed to it unfolding on its own, due to natural structures). He also notes that the Frenchman never considers "that Christianity might be true." Which means, writes Anderson, that Gauchet "neglects another possibility: that there might be an answer to our current discontents on the far side of modernity, and one that involves not post-religious man but a post-secular world. A post-secular world would not be a return to some enchanted, primordial dispossession, but it may well be a world after liberalism."

The Disenchantment of the World is divided in two parts. Part one—which comprises four chapters—is titled "The Metamorphosis of the Divine: The Origin, Meaning, and Development of the Religious." It demonstrates that the religious has reached the end of its life in the modern world, in spite of what the presence of churches and the faith of individuals indicates. Part two—two chapters long—is titled "The Apogee and Death of God: Christianity and Western Development." It claims that the West is radically original because it has reincorporated the sacral element that used to exist in the world into the heart of human relationships and activities. The book concludes with notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Gauchet's work is one of the volumes in the New French Thought Series published by Princeton University Press, edited by Thomas Pavell and Mark Lilla. The books in the series cover a wide range of topics, comprising religion, European history, political science and international relations, world history, comparative history, art and architecture, philosophy, political philosophy, comparative literature, cognitive science, biological sciences, psychology, sociology, and British literature. Other titles include Pierre Manent's The City of Man (whose foreword is written by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a guest on several issues of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal). A complete list of titles is available on-line. [Posted April 2006, ALG]

12 Apr

Celebrating Mozart

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/12/06

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, and Volume 80 of the Journal will feature an interview which explores the nature of the attractiveness in Mozart's music, especially among certain theologians. Meanwhile, whether you know Mozart's music well or not at all, you will learn a great deal (and delight a great deal) in listening to insightful discussions of Mozart's music on the BBC's Discovering Music program (or, to be more culturally sensitive, "programme"). These may be heard (in streaming audio) here. Each program (so much for sensitivity) contains an illustrated lecture/performance which demonstrates how the music works, how its power is delivered. Among the Mozart works discussed are the Clarinet Concerto, several of the Piano Concertos, three of the symphonies, a string quintet, and The Magic Flute. There are dozens of other works by other composers discussed on other programs. Discovering Music is a treasure; American listeners should be grateful for English federal funding of the arts. [Posted April 2006, KAM]