Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapter 6

Chapter 6 of the Art of Reading Scripture is titled, 'Christ was like St. Francis' and was written by James Howell. The main point of the essay is that if we truly understand the text, then we embody it through the way we live. While that main point is straightforward and uncontroversial, the way he makes it is very thought-provoking.

His title, 'Christ was like St. Francis,' is provocative. Normally we would put it the other way around. Howell's point in framing the title this way is interesting. In an extended section of the essay, Howell lays out many examples of ways that St. Francis imitated Christ in very literal fashion. He took Scriptures like Luke 9:3 'take nothing for the journey' (TNIV) very literally. Thus he gives us in concrete human form a later picture of what Jesus lived like. Often we rationalize our shortcomings when we compare our lives to Jesus by saying that, 'we're only human while Jesus was divine.' However seeing how the saints lived out many of the radical demands of Scripture quite literally can in some ways be more challenging to us, because they're human too. Howell suggests that we too often domesticate or spiritualize some of the radical commands of the Bible when we could and should take them quite literally.

Obviously taking the commands of the Bible literally could lead to disastrous effects, so Howell suggests that we test our embodiments against the rest of Scripture and church history.

Is this a good hermeneutical method? I think it could be helpful to a very limited extent. There certainly is a sense in which we have domesticated the Bible so that it never confronts us. However, I don't think that a literal hermeneutic is the answer. That will lead to many bad misappropriations of the Bible. The way to feel the full weight of the Bible is to read it carefully and prayerfully without skipping parts we don't like. That will give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to challenge us in ways we may be uncomfortable with.

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