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Teaching Philosophy

The Familiar Made Strange: An Orientation to Biblical Study

Let’s Go – much as that dog goes,
intently haphazard. The
Mexican light on a day that
‘smells like autumn in Connecticut’
makes iris ripples on his
black gleaming fur – and that too
is as one would desire – a radiance
consorting with the dance.
Under his feet
rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in his perceptions -- dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach, but
not direction – ‘every step an arrival’.

(Denise Levertov, “Overland to the Islands”)

My aim in teaching the Bible for the church is not unlike that dog’s: to disdain
nothing on the way – nothing of what is found in and around the text of the Bible, down
to its smallest details, and nothing of the living texts of my students’ lives and the
communities in which those living texts are being composed and read; to keep mud
underfoot and engaged in perception; to make every step an arrival. Teaching Bible in the
context of the church is imaginatively to engage those features of Scripture and our lives
we for a variety of reasons might otherwise pass over or neglect, but which once attended
to enable a fresh encounter with biblical texts and a deeper understanding of how social
context has shaped us to be particular kinds of Bible readers. My goal is to attempt a
reading of both text and interpreter that keeps moving, changing pace and approach, as a
means of bringing into relief the multiple meanings of biblical texts and to grow in
understanding of how we come to the readings of biblical texts we do and why we are
inclined to privilege one reading over another.

On this account biblical exegesis and interpretation are not the means toward a
final resting place – a methodological calculus for determining the singular true meaning
of a given text, whether that be located in what a text meant in its original context or in
the mind of its author, both of which to the degree they can be reconstructed encompass
only a few potential meanings amongst the abundant possibility of meaning of sacred
texts and symbols. Rather exegesis and interpretation are unfolding events in which text
and interpreter meet one another and together embark on an unending, open-ended
journey, and in which the space separating text and interpreter is crossed in new and fresh
ways made possible by the particular social conditions under which exegesis takes place.
This involves in the first instance the attempt on my part to awaken curiosity of students,
and to draw them into a love of a journey that isn’t necessarily trying to get anywhere
except into deeper consideration of biblical texts and the means by which we come to
understand them. A journey dancing edgeways, with mud underfoot, engaged in
perception, the material of text in hand. I hope for a curiosity that rejoices in the sheer
pleasure of the text – the written one as well as our multiply lived ones. I invite patience,
care, attention, and exuberance amidst the inestimable bounty of biblical texts – a living
out in exegesis of what brings abundance in life more generally. My job is to teach
students to champion the pluriform text, to insist on it, to linger over it, and to stumble
over it. Where readings and interpretation gloss over and neglect details in the drive to
bring a straightforward certainty of meaning and closure to biblical texts and life, my aim
is to make the straight crooked and the smooth places rough in the effort to break texts
open to release their complexity and abundance. This is no small task in an increasingly
illiterate sound-byte and visual culture of the rapid fire MTV video. Slowing, lingering,
stumbling implies a practice and way of life at cross-purposes with many features of
Canadian culture, especially those that promote spontaneous decision on the way toward
an insatiable consumption of the earth’s resources.

Disdain nothing along the way. Every step is an arrival. Keep moving, changing
pace and approach; a radiance consorting with the dance awaits. Light plays off the black
marks and white spaces of the text like iris ripples off black fur. But unlike that dog who
proceeds intently haphazard, in exegetical study much depends upon the teacher.
Increasingly I find myself losing sleep the night before class. I am made restless with the
enormity of the decisions I am called upon to make in orienting students to biblical study
and guiding them in ways I hope will help them become better exegetes and more
insightful interpreters of Scripture. In our curriculum students are required to take only 3
semester-long classes in New Testament. That is a mere 108 contact hours to introduce a
discipline and develop exegetical competence, to give students but a small taste of the
great feast of contemporary biblical scholarship, to expose them to a bewildering array of
methods of biblical interpretation and exegesis, and to model a disciplined use of some of
them. I have all too little time to introduce them to the explosion of competing viewpoints
and readings of the Bible that have arisen in the past three decades, and to encourage
thoughtful reading of the Bible by attention to social location and context in the act of

There is not a second to waste. I know this from personal experience. I have
suffered through regularly poor sermons based on habitually shoddy exegesis and have
seen faith lamed and witnessed communities rent asunder (and far worse) by the
mishandling of Scripture and an unwillingness to reflect critically on the biases all of us
bring in acts of understanding. Culturally and politically, I overhear biblical tropes and
themes uncritically if not unconsciously invoked in support of the “War on Terrorism”
and the shock-and-awe application of violence to secure a millennial world order. From
the songs on the radio to ads on TV to the movies projected on the silver screen I witness
a secular culture which has allegedly cast off the prejudices of religion paradoxically
captivated by if not captive to the Bible. In the western-Canadian city where I grew up
cinemas were turned into worship spaces when cineplexes offered free showings of The
Passion of the Christ to churches and screenings were accompanied by hymns and
appeals to accept Jesus as saviour. What strange currents of sado-masochistic desire has
the Bible conspired to create with the secular such that watching a man tortured to death
for two hours is simultaneously a religious experience and a movie-goers delight?
On the other hand I have seen lives and communities transformed by biblical
exegesis. The Bible has not only been an incentive to perpetrate or adore violence. It has
nurtured and accompanied courageous resistance to those who would steal the kingdom
of heaven by force and has prompted solidarity with and amongst the least and smallest
of the planet to live hope on other-than-apocalyptic terms. My own journey to Christian
faith has been accompanied by faithful preachers and teachers who have practised a
reading of the Bible that is imaginative, disdains nothing along the way, content to follow
the text where it may lead. The best of them have not decided on all the answers to life’s
questions in advance of their reading the biblical text, or determined what a passage of
Scripture must mean no matter what it actually says, or formulated a calculus for
expressing how it all fits together in a systematically achieved scheme. While they have
differed widely in their understanding of biblical authority, the quality they have
invariably shown is respect for the biblical witness by letting the text be what it is,
reading it closely, attending to what it says (and doesn’t say) and how it goes about doing
so, and weighing how it has been deployed and redeployed in articulating identity and
meaning in Christian tradition. Conditioned by dust, they have been willing to slip in the
mud beneath their feet to find rooted open-ended religious commitment amidst the
ambiguities that accompany every lived life, in the company of a cacophonous biblical
witness speaking a thousand tongues. From them I have learned that reading the Bible
can be a matter of life and death. Exegesis for good or ill can set the world aflame. The
secular west is slowly waking to the fact that people the world over are willing to die for
sacred texts and their interpretation. Despite two centuries of predictions to the contrary,
not only is religion alive and well in most corners of the globe, people are reading,
marking, and inwardly digesting religious texts as though their lives depended on them.
During the all too few hours for New Testament study given over to me, I want my
classroom to be a place where students and teacher together consider the kind of exegesis
worth living for.

To attend to and engage the most minute details of the biblical text expresses
beliefs centuries in the making and tested by the experience of the peoples of God that
scripture is a central means of being addressed by and knowing God, seeing ourselves,
and finding life together. It is to acknowledge the Bible as a deposit of and occasion for
living, unfolding faith(s) that existed long before my students and I were born and that
will continue long after we are gone. In the Christian traditions informing Vancouver
School of Theology the Bible has pride of place in a hermeneutical circulation of
worship, teaching, social analysis, and discipleship. Though they formulate their self understanding
differently, the United, Presbyterian, Anglican and Lutheran churches are
breathing, changing traditions united in their best moments by a desire to discern the
voice of the living Christ raised up by the Spirit through thoughtful encounter with the
witnesses of Israel and the early Church. Learning to attend carefully to the text of
scripture is a primary means Christians find direction and identity and ideally come away
ready to meet the challenges of the day. Formation in exegetical ability – a capacity to
engage in critical reflection on both text and context of the written and the lived -- is
indispensable for leaders who are set aside by religious communities to declare God’s
word and teach and guide their members, as it is enriching for anyone who seeks to
understand more fully how identity and faith develop out of reading sacred texts. There is
a hermeneutical wager in Christian tradition prior to biblical exegesis and study, namely
that through the Bible the living God comes to us as “a radiance/ consorting with the
dance,” mediated by traditions of understanding, opening a horizon that makes faith and
hope possible. Though I often find myself dancing with two left feet, my teaching arises
from the hope for a radiance fleetingly glimpsed as in a mirror dimly, nevertheless
assured that however stumblingly, the glimpsed awakens faith and courage to live the
promise of what will be seen face to face.

One way of gaining skill in the textual advocacy I promote is through
acquaintance with and practice in the use of biblical languages, and the uses of differing
modes of biblical interpretation. Sadly, the Anglican Church and the United Church of
Canada no longer require that candidates for ordered ministry learn biblical languages.
Where that requirement remains it is always under pressure by over-crowded curricula
and the legitimate demands for attention from other theological disciplines. Nevertheless,
linguistic training is an irreplaceable means of recognizing and engaging the foreignness of
the ancient cultures that shaped biblical texts. The many decisions that go into weighing,
interpreting, and deciding upon the meaning and semantic domain of the vocabulary and
grammatical elements of a text bring into relief the pluriform nature of texts and the care
required in thoughtful exegesis and interpretation.

Alongside linguistic and lexicological study, instruction in biblical tools of
exegesis is a means of championing biblical texts. Every text, whatever its human or
divine origin, comes to us refracted through the prisms of history, culture, politics and
society. The Bible is no exception. Christian religious tradition, perhaps at no time more
so than today in the popular Evangelical culture of North America, has had a tendency to
smooth over the rough places of the Bible and make the valleys and hills of its historical
conditioning plane. This results in treating the multiple strands, varied texts, and
dissonant voices of the biblical witness as the Bible -- a divinely composed text speaking
a singular voice allegedly unaffected by time, culture, or socio-political context.
Exegesis restores the “books” to the Bible; it attends to the polyphony, diverse
topographies, and multiple authors comprising “The Book.”
Reading biblical texts in the light of their historical context is an important means
of situating texts in their own unique life worlds. It on the one hand preserves the cultural
difference and otherness of biblical texts – that biblical texts do not come to me on my
own terms, but conditioned by social and cultural forces that are their own. But if such
construction is a means of preserving otherness, it is also the very means of crossing the
distance that separates the interpreter from the text. Attending to the societal, political,
and cultural factors at work in their formulation helps to enter imaginatively into social
worlds far different from our own and to gain insights we would otherwise pass over –
insights not only about their historical conditioning, but about ours as well.
Literary methods of interpretation help in recognizing the ways texts seek to
persuade, the worlds they create in their storying of time and experience, the audiences
they fashion in their telling and the responses they attempt to engender. They elucidate
how metaphor, symbol, and narrative work to construct meaning and identity and
represent experience. They can furnish us with ears to overhear texts speaking at cross-purposes,
saying things they at first glance don’t appear to intend as they get tangled in
self-contradiction. They can unmask texts and reveal how they are implicated in
unconscious desire, or modes of cultural production, or belong to the circuitries of social
power and control. They can reveal texts as liberating and they can show how they have
been deployed in the service of terror. They can reorder the relentless sequence of our
days and years hastening us toward death and urge a creative engagement with time and
the conditions of our mortality through plot and story.

From ancient times until the present, exegetical methods have been interdisciplinary
and eclectic; they have wedded themselves with diverse socio-political and
philosophical currents to gain a lively encounter with sacred texts. At their worst,
exegetical method ossifies and fossilizes texts, reducing them by totalising explanation
into dead artefacts, museum pieces show-cased to bear witness to long-dead beliefs and
practices. Exegetical methods at their best are part of a dialectical process of explanation
and understanding – a making distant and drawing near again by which texts freed from
constricted readings release an inexhaustible surplus of meaning and potential for
renewed comprehension.

If attending to the text is one pole holding up the tent of exegetical meeting,
attention to self and community is the other. There are no Texts without readers just as
there is no History without historians. Texts have no meaning without readers and
audiences to awaken them. As one writer puts it, “The text is plural: it achieves plurality
of meaning, an irreducible plurality.” ( Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” in Josué V. Harari, ed.,
Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979),
73-81, at 76. ) Recovery of authorial intent has sometimes been
seen as the goal of exegesis, to fix the meaning of a text in what an author thought when
s/he was writing; sometimes this is wedded to a theology of biblical inspiration that seeks
to align an act of divine revelation with a singular authorial intention of a text. A little bit
of reflection, however, reveals these ideas to be overly restrictive, if not impossibly
ambitious. Once written, texts take on a life of their own that are awakened by readers
who negotiate those texts on terms that can be quite foreign to what an original author
may have intended. Texts are of course composed by authors who presumably write with
an end in view, and often we can furnish compelling warrants for determining what those
intentions probably are. Still, once composed texts have the potential to signify a surplus
of meaning beyond authorial intent. Authors die. But texts find ever new lives as they are
read and made sense of in differing contexts and varying historical conditions. The
written text unharnesses potential for meaning far in excess of what they were originally
formulated to say. As Paul Ricoeur once stated in a classic formulation, “Writing renders
the text autonomous with respect to the intention of the author. What the text signifies no
longer coincides with what the author meant.” “The reader,” he goes on to add a little bit
later, “is absent from the act of writing; the writer is absent from the act of reading. The
text thus produces a double eclipse of the reader and the writer. It thereby replaces the
relation of dialogue, which directly connects the voice of the one to the hearing of the
other.” (Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981),
139, 147.)

This notion of double eclipse is attested by the Bible itself, in its many layers of
editing and rewriting which we may interpret as evidence of a kind of conversation
between earlier strata of tradition and later interpreters, as readers and writers absent from
one another meet over texts and make new meanings. The readings of Matthew and Luke
of Mark, for example, result in representations of texts later authors found in Mark’s
Gospel quite different from what Mark may have intended, but made possible once Mark
put his marks on the page and left them for later audiences to read, put in a different
order, and interpret. The Second Testament narratives employ Jesus by attaching him to
reperformances of the First; letters attributed to but most probably not written by Paul
reformulate theologies contained in the apostle’s writings; outside the canon unfolding
theologies and teachings, enshrined for example in credal formulations, arise out of
culturally specific ways of attending to biblical texts and formulating meanings relevant
to differing contexts. Exegesis furnishes a means of continuing a conversation already
inherent in the biblical witness itself as a record of communities and individuals seeking
to make sense of and bring sense to written and oral traditions passed down to them.
One may read the biblical witness as testimony to revelation coming not so much
in the intentions of an author as in the activities of communities negotiating received texts
and finding divine inspiration in the act of reading and appropriating meaning. Obviously
this introduces an ambiguity, even messiness, to exegesis and interpretation many will
find dissatisfying and unpersuasive – what will count as the correct reading of a text,
valid biblical interpretation and right exegesis, for example, will no longer be as self-evident
as on other accounts. If readers are parts of texts like historians are part of history
who is to say which readings and histories are the right ones? The question, however,
begs its own answer; rather than asking for right or wrong readings in a zero-sum
relation, we may seek differing kinds of readings more or less useful for differing
purposes and contexts. Exegesis on this account is not about getting the answer (the
meaning of the text) right, but learning what kinds of readings arising from different
kinds of reading communities are possible and how these make possible differing kinds
of address, help to shape differing kinds of historical subjects, play themselves out in and
encourage varying lifeworlds, and give voice to differing interests and commitments.
This attention to situation and reading strategy keeps the interpreter’s feet on the ground
and raises at the very outset of investigation the place of politics, ideology, and social
location in the study of sacred text. Interpretation is politics by other means; how we
interpret gives us identity and expresses our commitments. A central task of formation in
biblical interpretation is to invite growing awareness of how the ways we read texts and
come to understand them arise from social context.

In orientating students to biblical study this means becoming ever more conscious
of what we bring in the act of reading and interpretation of texts. None of us comes to the
Bible as a blank slate and there is no way to wipe the slate clean in an effort simply to
read the Bible for what it says. For good or ill we are all interpreters. What we select out
for commentary, for exploration, for investigation and how we go about doing so is
governed by a complexity of historical, cultural, societal, and political forces most of
which we are usually unaware. Insight comes in learning what kinds of interpreters we
are and wisdom is gained in learning what kinds of interpretation we will allow to capture
our imagination and how we will deploy them in the multiple contexts in which we live.
A chief task in teaching Bible is to awaken curiosity about what we take for granted in
our past readings of it and to grow in recognition of how we will continue to read and
interpret. Exegesis – from Greek, exegeomai – literally, to lead out of -- is as textured by
historical and social conditioning as the texts selected for investigation are. How we “lead
out” does not emerge like Athene from the head of Zeus -- without culture, without
warning, and in heaven -- but temporally, often predictably, and embedded in earthly
community. Attention to how we come to value what we value and what in the end will
constitute a satisfying exegetical account is indispensable in thoughtful interpretation.
This implies attending to more than name, rank and serial number (gender, political class,
geographic location) in interpretation. It means growing in awareness of the history of
interpretation of texts and how the cultural values, desiderata, symbols, metaphors and
narratives that have worked to shape us to be certain kinds of members of society are
already from the outset and long before we are conscious of them shaped by the very
Bible we seek to interpret. Exegesis on one level is keeping prejudice in check to allow
an irreducible strangeness of texts to rush forward; on another level it is a keeping in
sight of the prejudices – the prejudgements – we hold to be as self-evidently true as the
theory of gravity and that the sum of one and one is two and how these shape us to be
particular interpreters. Encounter with texts arises in the to and fro movement between
text and context – the world of the text and the multiple con/texts that encourage
contemporary readers toward a particular appropriation -- or making of one’s own -- of
biblical passages.

Disdain nothing on the way. Commitment to texts and commitment to growth in
self-understanding are the twin tasks I seek to promote in classroom instruction and
assignments. I design written exercises and group discussion to get students deeper into
texts, to look again at what they might take for granted. I assign lengthier exegetical
papers that seek to help students understand how historical, cultural, political, economic
and social context resulted in particular formulations of theological and communal ideas.
The task is to make a sometimes too familiar Bible strange by offering new reading
lenses that focus texts in ways different from how a student may be accustomed to
understanding biblical passages. Associated with exegetical exercises is exposure to
readings and exegeses of texts from a variety of methodological positions (for example,
historical-critical; literary; post-structuralist), cultural horizons (First Nations; Third
World; feminist; liberationist) and periods (Early Church; Reformation; Modern; the
Post-Modern). I seek to invite students to recognize how differing communities because
of their historical, socio-political, and cultural locations arrive at different readings of
texts. This is an incentive to grow in awareness of how one negotiates the spaces
separating text and reader for oneself and on behalf of one’s community of interests. Here
to borrow a phrase from the French-Bulgarian post-structuralist psychoanalyst, Julia
Kristeva, I urge commitment to the familiar made strange by learning to become
“strangers to ourselves” – to grow into awareness of the often poorly understood desires,
commitments, and embodied traditions that constitute us as historical subjects and
predispose us to act and interpret in often hidden ways.  (Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves.
Trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press,1991)). My classes usually entail journal
exercises that invite reflection on a student’s own identity or critical scholarship. In
making text and self strange I hope to encourage students toward a deeper conversation
with the Bible situated in its multiple ancient and contemporary contexts, to urge distance
and to model engagement in the overcoming of strangeness in refamiliarisation of text,
self, and community on renewed terms. It is a task that asks students and teacher to come
as we are, with our fullness as interpreting beings, but with courage to move and to
change, “dancing edgeways” in a shared commitment to becoming more human and more
fully-immersed in our this-worldly condition – “every step an arrival” in a world
simultaneously shot with travail and radiance.

There are three authors in particular I return to in helping me articulate what I
understand to be the task of exegesis and interpretation – Hans George Gadamer, Michel
Fouacult, and Paul Ricoeur. When I first read Gadamer’s Truth and Method I had
already completed a doctorate which centred in an application of the sociology of
knowledge in the analysis of early Christian writings. In my doctoral dissertation
exegetical methodology expresses a desire for objective socio-historical reconstruction of
early Christian institutions of leadership especially as these were affected by socioeconomic
considerations. Gadamer’s famous rejection of “method” as foreign to the task
of understanding in the humanities urged a reconsideration of the task of interpretation
and the place of the interpreter in understanding texts. In particular his insistence that the
methodological suspension of “prejudice” as inimical to the completed task of
interpretation asked me to reexamine the prejudice against prejudice in scientific
methodology and the place of commitment in understanding. Gadamer famously replaces
scientific method with tradition-constituted conversation as most appropriate to the
uncovering of truth in the Humanities. Understanding arises not from objective
deployment of method, but by a to and fro conversation between text and reader, with
each constituted by a historical- and tradition- constituted horizon of understanding
inhabited by the written text on the one hand and the reader on the other. These are not
static horizons, but dynamic ones giving rise to a history of effects in varying degrees
constitutive of the interpreter; the very texts as exegete I come to interpret have exerted a
gravitational pull on the culture I inhabit and so have already had a hand in determining
what posture I will take in interpreting them. The prejudice against prejudice in method
threatens self-understanding if it neglects its own history-constituted origin and its place
in a larger tradition of enquiry. Gadamer’s notion of understanding as a fusion of
horizons between the lifeworld communicated by a text and the lifeworld represented by
the interpreter invites a more sophisticated analysis of text, context, and interpreter the
sociology of knowledge is equipped to offer. This has led me not to renounce all the uses
of the social scientific methodologies in the reconstruction of social history – though my
own scholarship has increasingly moved away from cross-cultural application of
sociological models as central to the task of interpretation toward attention to metaphor
and narrative -- but to place those methods on a broader horizon of understanding and to
be more cognizant of their value-laden interests.

Gadamer’s championing of tradition-constituted understanding and interests as at
play in an unfolding event of understanding has been rightly criticized as too naïve. We
are conversation partners in the event of understanding, to be sure. But the history- and
tradition-constituted ways we see and inhabit the world are textured by societal, political,
and institutional forces that are anything but neutral and often mask much more than at
first glance seen. Michel Foucault’s analysis of power relations at work in every act of
knowing and the ways in which knowing reconstitutes power relations in the very act of
making sense of the world offers an indispensable corrective to Gadamer’s notions of
conversation and fusion of horizons in the act of understanding. Foucault’s earlier notion
of an archaeology of knowledge and his later, more dynamic understanding of a
genealogy of the subject locate knowing and the epistemological subject in webs of
discursive formation have been particularly formative for my own understanding and
teaching of exegesis and interpretation. What we know and how we know it reveals us
snared in webs of power and institutional relations which often hide their more inimical
intent. Especially instructive in Foucault’s analysis is his hermeneutical suspicion of
Enlightenment claims to freedom, objectivity, and the creation of a more humane society
centred in ideals of reason. Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality, especially the
latter two volumes, model a historical understanding in which ideas, institutions, ideals of
the self, and ethical notions constellate to offer scripts for societal performance, selfunderstanding,
and political configurations. Here again I found a more sophisticated
means of conducting social history than that encountered in sociology of knowledge.
Foucault’s situating of modes of historical understanding as prompted by and expressed
in praxis (that is, culture/theory-laden action), institutional settings, and epistemic
commitments urges attention to the circuitries and circulations of power in ancient texts
and their contexts.

Especially because many New Testament texts address themselves to situations of
conflict and competition for power and influence, Foucault’s formulations of the ways
subjects are formed and how representations of self and others function in expressing,
challenging, and keeping intact institutional and social power/knowledge arrangements
are particularly relevant to biblical study. If Gadamer sees conversation as the chief
metaphor to describe the process by which truth uncovers itself to the one seeking to
understand, for Foucault the metaphor is that of battle. Reversing von Clausewitz’s
famous saying, Foucault contends, “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.”4
(Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interview and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York:
Random House, 1980), 90. )What counts for reason in a given situation belongs to specific
arrangements of power and knowledge that mask their violence. A chief task of historical understanding is to
uncover what those are, how they function to create certain kinds of human subjects, and
thus win a position of critical engagement.

For Foucault there is no value-neutral ahistorical means of deploying a universal
code of reason to arrive at a utopian world order or a true picture of the world, only the
possibilities of reconstructing self on the barricades – a creative self-fashioning on terms
other than inherently violating societal schemes and blue-prints. Paul Ricoeur’s attention
to the inexhaustible surplus of meaning of texts and the role of the reader in finding
meaning through encounter with texts in a community of commentary and conversation
offers a liberating means of societal and historical engagement. New possibilities for
being arise from the experience of reading a text and give the reader a new capacity for
self-knowledge. We may find ourselves on the barricades of society resisting its violence,
but the weapons we bring with us are the books by means of which our lives are read and
we read and reread the world, inviting us to conceive ourselves and our neighbours on
multiple terms. Ricoeur’s notions of the surplus of meaning of texts, and his reflections
on the world of the story as refiguring the world of the reader, offer a sophisticated
account of what is at stake in exegesis generally – the unleashing of the power of
metaphor and narrative to refigure experience and thus offer new means of winning
senses of self and community. On Ricoeur’s account, appropriation of meaning of texts is
neither a remaking of the text in our own image, nor a loss of self in rethinking the
thoughts of an author, but a means of self-knowledge and the ideas and beliefs to which
texts give testimony as they invite readers to see the world through differing lenses. Since
texts contain a surplus of meaning, no single interpretation is absolute; conflicts of
interpretation invite further engagement and conversation.
This again seems a more productive means of engaging texts and accurate way of
describing what goes on in the act of interpretation than attention to exegetical method
alone can offer. A chief challenge I have found students, clergy and teachers struggle
with is the move from text to interpretation and application. One discovers too often a
leaving behind of the text in the exposition of the contemporary world, or an
anachronistic importing of contemporary ideas and values into ancient worlds and texts.
Ricoeur’s notion of appropriation offers a thoughtful means of attending to the task of
honouring the world of the text on terms specific to it, as well as the world of the reader.
Its aim is not to use method to reconstruct the historical world standing behind the text as
it actually was as an end in itself – which too often has the effect of paralysing reading in
rendering the world of the text unrecognisable if not irrelevant to contemporary
experience; nor does it neglect the ways in which meaning is found belongs to
contemporary communities of interests and discursive formations of power and
knowledge. It rather returns to a notion of conversation as appropriate to the task of
interpretation, conscious of the power/knowledge politics entailed in meaning making,
never possessing absolute knowledge of the truth of text and self, ever reformulating
itself in the event of understanding. Ricoeur’s notion of a second naivete has been
especially helpful in articulating forms of engaged biblical criticism in which the task of
exegesis is to enter symphatetically and discerningly into the life worlds of biblical texts
and to hear their call. In exegetical and hermeneutical study the exegete struggles to
adopt “provisionally the motivations and intentions of the believing soul. He does not
‘feel’ them in their first naivete; he ‘re-feels’ them in a neutralized mode, in the mode of
‘as if.’” (Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil Trans. Emerson Buchanon (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 19)
 Exegesis here is in the service of what Ricoeur calls “a re-enactment in
sympathetic imagination” but in the service of a kind of reflection that creates critical
distance and so engenders the second naivete of return, of “as if.” Second naivete
signifies the self-conscious taking of an interpretive stance, informed by criticism, but
open to the power of symbol and narrative to configure life and experience. “From the
desert of criticism,” he writes “we wish to be called again.”( Ibid., 349). And there is no way to be
called again, but through interpretation, a self-critical form of believing seeking
understanding, and critical understanding seeking belief. “If we can no longer live the
great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we
modern men [sic], aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short, it is by
interpreting that we can hear again.”( Ibid., 351.)


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