"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

That Bloody Fig Tree and Those Damned Pharisees

Bernard Lonergan, whose turgid and rather Teutonic prose I had to plow through once in attempting to read his massively prolix Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, says in there somewhere that we are mistaken if we think that the process of understanding a difficult matter (I think he uses physics as an example) consists in simply "taking a good look" at what he calls the "already-out-there-now-real." Nowhere is that insight more important to remember than when it comes to reading Scripture. How often have we all had the experience of suffering through some hermeneutically ham-fisted dolt proof-texting an issue about which he knows less than nothing--an experience by no means confined to Christian scriptures, but also a problem, on an often larger and more lethal scale, when it comes to understanding the Quran. For Christians like that, I always prescribe a mandatory reading of Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America. There, with his characteristic swashbuckling style, Hauerwas demonstrates that he is the one for whom Kierkegaard called:
a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope.... [N]o one any longer reads the Bible humanly. As a result it does immeasurable harm.... The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures...which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible (The Journals of Kierkegaard). 
Hauerwas does indeed call for the Bible to be forbidden to people:
Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient to “understanding” the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have all the “religious experience” necessary to know what the Bible is about (Unleashing the Scripture). 
Hauerwas then goes on to insist that nobody can be trusted to read the Bible until they have undergone the hard askesis of being divested of the habits of mind of late modernity and learned instead to discipline themselves in and under the authority of the Church as a community of character made up of resident aliens.

All this is just a long-winded introduction to a new book that treats those passages in the New Testament rightly called the "difficult sayings" of Jesus Christ, which people often interpret at their peril: Daniel Fanous, Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus (Orthodox Research Institute, 2010), 260pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
Few would dispute that the sayings of Jesus were and are important. But though important, these very same sayings are difficult at best and incomprehensible at worst. Sayings like, "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence," or, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," have confused readers of the Gospels for thousands of years. Others such as, "My Father is greater than I," and, "My God why have You forsaken Me?" have sparked theological infernos that have plagued Christianity from its beginnings. From the greatest theologians to the smallest child, the same question is always asked: What did Jesus really mean? In considering only the most difficult of the sayings of Jesus, Taught by God brings together the academic rigour of modern biblical scholarship and the profound wisdom of the early Church Fathers in a unique, lively, and dramatic synthesis.
I hope to interview the author of this book in the new year.  

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