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Friday, January 04, 2008

Scattered thoughts on sacrificial reading

If I were a teacher I would spend significant time reading in class. This is particularly true if I were a high school teacher, because there is no collegiate or university that exists where one can promote the kind of sacrificial reading I am suggesting here.

I am thinking, specifically, about the biblical text, but all texts suffer from the influx of self-absorbed readers....perhaps because so much literature these days is self-absorbed, itself, and is produced for the selfish reader....We seem to know how to read the Bible in order to find what we are looking for, but we have a decreasing ability to truly listen and hear what it says.

We live in a disposable society. These days I am thinking about this because I have been in the process of buying and moving in to a house. It is rare to find a building or structure that is built to last. It is more desirable to build cheap and for the short term. Why worry about 200 years from now? This is how we Americans approach most things: The focus is the Now. We have a marked lack of appreciation for the things that last.

I don't have a problem with being focussed on the Now, but it is problematic to fixate on the present with disregard for the past or the future. All in all, we tend to be cheap in the stuff we build and buy. This translates into the way we intake texts: We are cheap readers. We don't want to extend the effort to understand the texts of the past. The past can speak to the present, but it takes a great deal of effort on the part of the reader to make this happen. It is much easier to buy the latest and greatest book that is on the current hot list. These books do our thinking for us. They speak to the present without need to go through the aggravation of interpreting and sifting through the past.

Technology does our work for us in many areas of life: electric can openers, vacuum cleaners, self-cleaning ovens, furnaces that heat (we don't have to make fire any longer), and machines that prepare our food so that we can buy it at the grocery store and pop it in the microwave. (Oh, did you think there was a grandmother in a kitchen somewhere in the heartland of America who made that frozen pot pie?!!??) We have become dependent upon machines and technology to do our physical labor. In a similar way, we are now dependent upon technology to do our thinking and feeling for us. Movies and television programs are designed to eliminate the effort that we must extend. That is why we turn to television: to zone out. Heck, I do this all the time. I've got no problem with it. But if this lack of effort is characteristic of one's entire approach to thought and emotion, then the soul becomes sick. Effort is important. We must extend physical effort or our bodies will atrophy and sicken. The same is true of the psyche.

In reading through a recent essay by R.W.L. Moberly in the Journal for Theological Interpretation of Scripture ("Biblical Criticism and Religious Belief", issue 2.1), I came across an interesting quote attributed to Brevard Childs: "If you want to become a better exegete, you must become a better person." A true reading of a text requires personal depth and perspective. This means that any serious reader is also reading the surrounding world. This is something typically neglected in closed religious environments.

Know thyself was inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Can we truly read a text if we do not know ourselves?

One of the important elements to reading is not just that I read the text, but that the text reads me. Can a text truly read me if I do not have a good sense of self? If "know thyself" is not a priority in closed religious communities where the preference is for sameness and uniformity, then the text ceases to become a dynamic agent and is reduced to a static and pragmatic tool--a means to an end of advancing a cause, controlling the religious faithful, or instituting programs and protecting or advancing the institution. The text and the reader must be set free.

We need more readers. Those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness." No one is hungry to sacrificially give themselves as readers. There is no one who is willing to lay down their lives for the text. The text serves us and that is all. But the call for readers resonates and the text beckons.


Melody said...

And all this time I thought Marie Calander was personally making me dinner!

Dru Johnson said...


Quick question... do you mean 'sacraficial' or 'sacramental'? Or, a little bit of both?

I agree whole heartedly and have taken to reading entire epistles as a sermon with discrete applications interspersed. I have seriously thought about even dedicating one of our Sunday School classes to the public reading of scripture.

Epistemologically, there is so much missed in the way these texts were 'supposed to be received' (i.e. engaged listening). We often talk ad fontes and yet seldom speak of returning to the form of scriptural reception. Thanks for prodding me further into that direction.

Congrats on the new house.

Jonathan Erdman said...


It is encouraging to hear what you are doing in your church. Your idea of reading epistles "interspersed" with application is intriguing. It almost sounds something like a Midrashic approach. I think there are many, many benefits to this that offer a breath of fresh air to the tired old 3 point sermon approach.

Yes, I specifically meant "sacrificial" reading. That is, rather than coming to a text looking to take from it, we sacrifice our personal interests for the sake of hearing and listening. I see this as a difficult thing to cultivate in our Consumeristic age.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Sorry to spoil it for you.....just keep pretending that Marie is shuffling around the kitchen just for you. Oh, and keep writing her letters and such thanking her for her delicious cooking!

Melody said...

No, I'll just have to live off turkey sandwiches and tears. The dinners won't taste the same now that I know it's all a charade.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Life is always better when we don't know what's real.

Dru Johnson said...


Ironically, I went to a seminary where the President wrote the standard text on homiletics. And I valued my training there. What is ironic to me is that the process of sermon preparation was rightly focused on 'soaking in the text' and 'submitting to the text'.

For whatever reason, there was little emphasis on getting the hearers to soak in the text. In some ways, I might posit that the explanation is valued at or above the text itself. And this is from theologians who have a high view of perspicuity.

I'll be careful here, but I do think there is more to be done in homiletics than the '3 point sermon' as you point out.

Thanks again.

Melody said...

Life is always better when we don't know what's real.

I bet your one of those depressing people that scares the snot out of kids by telling them to enjoy childhood while they can because they'll never enjoy life more than they do now.

Kenji said...


Your points are well founded. I'm sure you've heard of the Hermeneutical Spiral (Grant Osborne). The idea is that we come to the text with certain questions and presuppositions, and we are supposed to allow our "q's and p's" to be modified and reformed by the text so that it speaks as it intended rather than what we prefer. However, often we do not allow for that to happen, and thus fall into the trap of eisegesis.

I would say that 3-point sermons are not inherently bad. If the sermon develops the meaning and intent of the text in such a way that it causes the hearer to respond appropriately, then it is good. But if we use it as a soapbox or if our exegesis is poor, then yes, a 3-point sermon will not do justice to the text.

No matter what type of homeletical style you choose, the question is really whether the preacher is willing to put into the message the work required. To many think they can write up a sermon in a matter of a couple hours using the 3-point method, but in reality, to develop a good, biblically sound and well thought sermon, I would venture to say, requires somewhere around 20 hours. The question is not what type of sermon a person does, but what kind of work is that person willing to put into the development of that sermon.

I had one prof in college who would say, "a preacher should have one foot in the text, and the other foot in the newspaper." He needs to be an expert exegete of Scripture as well as of culture and current issues.

Good thoughts.

Emily said...

I bet your one of those depressing people that scares the snot out of kids by telling them to enjoy childhood while they can because they'll never enjoy life more than they do now.

Like my dad? He did scare me when I was younger. He'd imply I wasn't truly living because I didn't have the fun that he did when he was my age. Of course, his definition of fun half the time involved breaking some kind of a rule of human decency.

Melody said...

Like my dad? He did scare me when I was younger. He'd imply I wasn't truly living because I didn't have the fun that he did when he was my age.

lol, kinda. More of a, "Sure you're happy and carefree now - but in a few years you'll have to have a job and pay bills and that will sap all the joy out of your life" kind of deal.

Except that now that I think about it I'm not sure Jon would say that...maybe he'd tell the kids they needed to sober up and stop destroying the world with their self-endulgent happiness.

Either way I see the children being traumatized for life.

When I was really little I thought adults had all the fun and told kids being a grown up was awful so they could keep it a secret and not share the fun with us.

But after a while I believed them and then I didn't want to grow up at all. I absolutely dreaded highschool and college and getting a job. Everyone always told me how terrible those things were and I thought I'd never be happy again once I had to do those things.

Now of course I know that I was right the first time - being a kid bites, grown ups do have all the fun.

Jonathan Erdman said...

No, I would tell kids to just have as much fun as they want to have. That they should do the things they enjoy doing, whether that be reading, tearing around in a bike, exploring the woods, video games, or whatever kids do. At any stage in life, we get what we put in to it. "I commend the enjoyment of life," as it says in Ecclesiastes.

I'm not a parent, so I don't have to put the smack down and tell kids to do things like take out the trash, be responsible, stop pulling your sister's hair, etc.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I'm not sure I'm a big fan of the hermeneutical spiral. The concept was stolen from the German hermeneutical philosophies that developed in the early 1900s (see Heidegger and especially Gadamer). The original concept is a hermeneutical circle whereby the reader brings presuppositions/biases/concerns/questions/etc. to the text and then the text, in turn, changes those p/b/c/q's, and then the reader takes those p/b/c/q's and comes back to a text, etc.: it is a circle of the reader affecting the text and the text affecting the reader.

Evangelicalism (Osborne) kind of tweaked that with the idea by saying that it is not a hermeneutical circle, but a spiral. This is a subtle, but very important (and inaccurate) shift. Why shift to a spiral? So that we can have the (false) confidence that we are moving closer and closer to the "real meaning" of the text. As I'm sure you can see, this is part of the Evangelical reaction to the so-called relativity of so-called postmodern hermeneutics.

So, there remains what I see as a huge problem in Evangelical hermeneutics. On the one hand, they want to take scholarship somewhat seriously and assert that our p/b/c/q's really do matter, but on the other hand, they want to eliminate the p/b/c/q's through a spiral that spirals down to "the meaning" of the text. I think this fails to do justice to the hermeneutical task. IMO it also does not take seriously enough our p/b/c/q's, and the need to provide relevant application to the current day. It sounds scary to many Evangelicals for me to say this, but I believe that the exegesis/eisegesis distinction is overblown. What the Bible means has as much to do with what the Bible means for us today as it does to a supposed "one meaning" for all time.

Melody said...

No, I would tell kids to just have as much fun as they want to have... At any stage in life, we get what we put in to it. "I commend the enjoyment of life," as it says in Ecclesiastes.

Alright, maybe the children of Winona Lake will be safe to have fun after all. Good thing you tacked on a moral and a bible verse though - you can get your membership to adulthood revoked if you go around telling kids to have fun without having a moral.

Kenji said...

Well, I must say that I am a fan of the Spiral, because it does take seriously the issue of how our presuppositions and culture affect our interpretation of the text. The idea is that as we interact with the text and do take seriously how our presupps can affect interpretation, the text will cause us to modify those presupps to more biblically accurate presupps, thus operating in a spiral-like fashion.

As far as the eisegesis/exegesis issue; I do find it to be serious. I have sat through many studies and sermons that were a clear eisegesis approach, so much that the real message of Scripture was severely obscured. I am a firm believer in the idea that there is only one interpretation, while there may be many culturally defined applications. The goal of exegesis is to determine that one interpretation.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Kenji said:
The goal of exegesis is to determine that one interpretation.

Who says?...if I may venture to ask the provocative question....Historically, exegetes in the early church did not always believe there was "one meaning," nor did they believe that finding one meaning was the goal of exegesis. For early interpreters, it was equally important to discover the relevance that a text held for the reader (individually) and also the community of readers. We also find this at work in Paul's use of the Old Testament, and it is also particularly clear in the book of Hebrews where there is no attempt to distinguish the so-called original meaning of the Old Testament from the meaning that the text has for the current church context.

I tend to favor the older exegetes.