Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, June 02, 2008

Why read?

The capacity to receive symbol and metaphor without forcing a literal or rationalistic interpretation upon a text is a great asset for anyone seeking to understand the Bible, but I think this gift is more rare in our culture than it used to be. We live in an age where the reading of poetry and literary fiction has precipitously diminished among the general population. Children are no longer required to learn poems "by heart," and as everyone knows, cyberspace has become so absorbing that young people are bored by the quieter pursuits that in every preceding generation were both pleasing and habitual. I’m told that Eugene Peterson thinks that everyone studying for the ministry should spend the first year reading the classics, a most worthy suggestion; it may be questioned, however, if this would not come too late. The training of the mind’s ear needs to start a lot earlier, preferably at the parents' knees, but failing that, certainly in grade school.

I have had these thoughts for a long time, but was moved to put them in print when I got deeply into my chapter on the substitution motif in the book I am writing about the Crucifixion of Christ. I have come to believe that much of our difficulty today in interpreting the meaning of our Lord's death is related to a literal-minded reading of the Scriptures. Some of the Church Fathers were guilty of this occasionally, most famously when they likened Christ on the cross as bait to catch the devil.[1]

The late great Raymond Brown complained that every Christmas some reporter would call him and ask him "What really happened?" and would not listen to his attempts to expound the Christmas gospel. Perhaps we cannot expect anything better from the workaday journalist who is just out to get "the facts." But the most literal, most unsophisticated of all today's interpreters is Bishop Spong. He thinks that the ascension story has to be read in terms of a two-decker universe or not at all. He and those hapless reporters are not alone, however. Countless people seem unable to give themselves up to a story, asking only, "Did that really happen?" (with the secondary meaning, "Did that really happen exactly as described?") One can only suppose that they have had little experience of the joy and wonder of inhabiting, for instance, a fairy tale. Alan Jones took Spong to task about this some years ago, and Thomas Cahill writes more recently, "Spong lacks the subtlety required to engage in the necessary task of 'rethinking' that he sets himself. He certainly knows how to be 'outspoken and controversial,' as his dust jacket proclaims, but he is tone deaf to the deep meaning of many of the passages that he tackles so 'boldly'." (Desire of the Everlasting Hills, 327)

Being tone deaf to deep meaning is an unhappy deprivation. Antidote: read to the children from day one! Goodnight Moon has been a blessing, and on from there, not only with Maurice Sendak but with the oldies—A Child's Garden of Verses (Stevenson), the real (French) Babar, the real (English) Winnie-the-Pooh, the first three Mary Poppins books (before the author went "spiritual"), Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and King Arthur, Treasure Island, the Norse myths, the Little House books, Madeleine L'Engle, and the rest of the wonderful, politically incorrect list. (Well, maybe not Little Black Sambo…and Dr. Dolittle might need a tad of explaining, but how impoverished a life without the Pushmepullyu!)

PS. A historical note, discovered last summer while I was reading my family's extensive trove of letters:
My great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War and was separated from his young son for four long years, wrote back anxious letters about the child's education. He was to learn many poems by heart. He was not to be forced to read anything he did not enjoy. And the three books that the father sent to be read and reread above all were (guess!)-- Robinson Crusoe, Aesop's Fables, and the Arabian Nights. (The boy, my grandfather, grew up to be professor of history at the University of Virginia and a noted raconteur.)

[1] Gregory of Nyssa was the primary exponent of this idea, but it is found in other Fathers as well. Luther picked it up also, but the exuberance with which he develops it makes clear that he does not mean it literally. (Neither did Gregory, for that matter.)