Danger in the Tropes

In Kenneth Turan’s review of Tropic Thunder, he refers to “the self-involvement of actors who say things like ‘I don’t read the script; the script reads me.’” That line stood out when I read the review, because when applied to grandiose film stars, it rings true — but I’ve frequently heard it cited approvingly (mutatis mutandis) by theologians with whom I’m broadly sympathetic: “Instead of us reading the Bible, we should let the Bible read us.”
I’ve never been comfortable with that trope, for reasons that people who know me will quickly anticipate. It points, commendably, to a disjunction between the cultural narcissism that presupposes its own superiority to insights from evangelists and commentators of centuries past (on one hand) and the humility of considering that one’s own methods and analysis may be flawed in ways that we don’t perceive. Still, and vitally importantly, it’s not the Bible that’s “reading us” when we get off our high horses; it’s other people and the different priorities they bring, or even more often it’s our projections of what other people might think of us and our interpretations.
That obviously makes a huge difference. Once we come clean about the fact that the “reads us” trope usually relies on representations of the other (the Bible, the Oppressed, the Native, the Exotic Foreigner) that reside in our own imaginations, we can see more clearly that claims about “being read by” another usually just displace and occlude our own authority behind a mask that represents some more innocent, more generally-acknowledged interpretive presence. As a result, people feel as though they can get away with claims about the Bible that might otherwise seem self-serving or uncharitable, or they can congratulate themselves for a ventriloquistic “being read by” that still permits the ostensibly passive interpreter the last word.
Here’s a really radical idea for people who want to “let the Bible read them”: why don’t you stop and actually listen to the people who, in reading the Bible, come to the conclusion that you are wrong? They are not always right; they may not be right at all; but at least they actually are other than you, and they are not encumbered by your tenacious longing to justify yourself. (They may be afflicted with the need to justify themselves, but that’s a different problem.) Or we could all just come to the seminar table as fallible, needy, self-justifying sinners, and be a lot more patient with one another.

3 thoughts on “Danger in the Tropes

  1. Biblical hermeneutics has often driven the wider fields of textual analysis, as I think your prescription ought to do. We’d all be better readers of poetry if we followed your advice.

  2. one thing i find fascinating–and distressing–is the tendency in certain theological circles to invent theological disciplines which are clones of existing disciplines, and then proceed as if those other existing disciplines didn’t know anything relevant.

    ok, that’s opaque, because so generically written. some examples. once it was expected that philosophical preparation was necessary for systematic theological study. the RC church still requires philosophy as a pre-req for theological study. not so us! reading Multmann recently, with his tremendously informed knowledge of Kant, for example, shows up the difference.

    history of theology often gets carried on as if the techniques of history of philosophy were irrelevant. this one gets me, b/c history of philosophy is my own specialty.

    biblical scholars proceeded to develop “techniques” for determining authorship, dating, and editing history, which are essentially disconnected from the practice of classicists and medievalists doing nearly the exact same job. to a medievalst (my own specialty, again), this smacks of insanity. one finds arguments that, for example, document X and document Y must be by different authors because they address different topics, or use different vocabulary. if we applied that standard to Abelard, Anselm, or Cicero, the results would be bizarre. (can you tell I enjoy reading Wetherington, in part, because he has actually studied classical rhetoric as an antecedent to understanding the New Testament?)

    your post here thus warms my cockles, because as i read it, part of your upsetitude is about those who seem to be doing hermeneutics with essentially no understanding of the issues of modern hermeneutics!

    (to fend off one possible objection: i am not saying that theologians should uncritically accept the results of those other fields. there are ways that, for example, Multmann gives Kant way too much. but at least Multmann has read and understood him!)

  3. Well said. Reminds me of Epictetus – how he deconstructs the notion that we escape our own readings and renderings of reality. The problem is with the unavoidability of this. Mise en abyme, regardless of whose view we entertain, no? Pazienza – a serious virtue.

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