Check out this clip from the film “The Dead Poets Society”.
For those of you who don’t want to subject yourself to Youtube, it is a classroom scene in which the teacher instructs a student to read aloud from the introduction to their class’ poetry textbook, an essay entitled “Understanding Poetry” by J. Evans Prichard Ph.D. In his essay, Prichard turns the understanding and appreciation of poetry into a simple algebraic equation, plotted on a two-dimensional graph. This so offends the teacher that he instructs the students to rip the essay out of their textbooks, and then tells them (with the help of Walt Whitman) that their appreciation and understanding of poetry arises not from the sharpness of their analytical abilities, but from the depths of their souls.
There is only so much of scripture that can be understood using the methods that we learned if we were lucky enough to receive advanced theological education. The various tools of biblical criticism, both the high and the low, can reveal much about the biblical text, to be sure, but what they can never tell us, be we ever so skilled with them, is our own place in relationship to the text. For that, we shall need the souls of poets.
The current issue of Liturgy (published in mid-January, and I apologize that it has taken me so long to begin reviewing it for you) concerns itself with reinvigorating the poetic soul of biblical interpretation through various means.
Arguably, the heart of our current crisis of biblical authority and practice is the gap between past and present, what God said and what God says now, which is typically described as the need for the church to make its scripture ‘‘relevant.’’ Modern methods of biblical exegesis, which on the whole remain historical and critical in nature, have failed to provide adequate theological guidance on how the Bible as the word of God speaks with its own voice in new conditions and situations to build up, guide, and sustain the church. What may assist us in finding our way forward is a critical retrieval of classical, premodern scriptural practice that articulates ‘‘the liturgically embedded Christological and Trinitarian reading of the Hebrew Scriptures . . . as a Christ-centered narrationally and typo- logically unified whole in conformity to a Trinitarian rule of faith that was constitutive of the Christian canon . . . an authority inseparable from the rule itself.’’
In your own study of scripture, how much weight do you place upon the various critical methods, and how much upon more classical methods of approaching the text?
Michael Pasquarello & Lester Ruth (2013): Spiritual Reading of Scripture and Liturgical Imagination, Liturgy, 28:2, 1.
Michael Pasquarello is the Granger E. and Anna A. Fisher Professor of Preaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. His most recent book is Sacred Rhetoric: Preaching as a Theological and Pastoral Practice of the Church.
Lester Ruth is Research Professor of Christian worship at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. His most recent book is a revised and expanded edition of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church.