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The Downside of Exegesis

This is definitely not how early 
Christians experienced the Word 
It is no surprise that the cultures that were basking in the glow of the Enlightenment and the emerging
disciplines of scientific research would be at the forefront of modern approaches to the process of exegesis.  While much of this was framed in a broadly anti-supernatural and naturalistic set of presuppositions (emerging in what might be broadly called theological liberalism or modernism), conservatives flocked as eagerly to the seductive appeal of immersing their approach to scripture is quasi-scientific methodology as their modernistic antagonists.

A Shared Methodology

I suggest both conservative and liberal exegesis over the past century and a half are feeding out of the same murky trough of modernity, employing a methodology that confuses complexity with profundity, assuming that massively increased information will surely bring increased clarity.  With sporadic but important exceptions, the truth is the process of modern exegesis, managing to produce 500+ page commentaries on a 3 page piece of writing, has clouded, distorted, and obscured far more than it has revealed.  Arminians and Calvinists argue about which proof texts trump the other side's proof texts, even as both sides assume without question an approach that elevates textual dissection as the final arbiter of doctrinal truth.

The seductive attraction, of course, is that the result of diving into one of these products of the best in detailed verse by verse exegesis not only gives the student massive amounts of new information, it also is clear evidence of the skill and intellectual giftedness of the commentary's author.  And, with its technical vocabulary, massive amount of footnotes, and occasional use of statistics and lengthy analyses generously peppered with words in ancient languages, it gives every appearance of being a truly modern and scientific text ready and able to unlock great mysteries to the dedicated reader.

The problem is that no where else in seeking to understand the writings of poets or philosophers or their personal notes or correspondence do we ever employ such methods to understand or enjoy their written materials.  In fact, were we to do that, reasonable people would question the whole approach, if not our own sanity.  Central to this realization is the recognition that language, even in the language of the Bible, cannot be thought of a resting in individual words printed on a page neatly divided by chapter and verse numbers.

Language is not Vocabulary

When you listen to someone speaking, the ways you are understanding them differ dramatically from what we often label exegesis.  Central in this difference is the remarkable realization that you are not listening to words, but to a connected stream of sounds.

Our brains, in ways so innate we have a difficult time even being aware of them, are drawing images, ideas, intent, emotions, and a host of other things out of that stream of sound.  I believe this is one reason many ancients (those that employed a phonic-sound to symbol form of writing typically called an "alphabet"), recorded these streams of sounds with no spaces between individual words.  They recorded no spaces because there (usually) were none.  A pause for a quick breath, or to enhance meaning or infliction, or to indicate a change of subject, or just because the speaking is thinking, would all be exceptions, of course.  And, at times, these kinds of pauses are displayed in ancient writing.

But, and this is central, the sense we have (even in reading this post) that written and separated words are THE central means of communication is largely the product of the modern world.  As scholars in philology often point out, however, the proper hierarchy places the written forms of language merely as means of recording the actual language - which is captured only in the process of day to day speaking and listening.

Studying Words replaces Hearing the Word

Modern "scholarly" exegesis, complete with its own scientific-sounding jargon, statistical analysis, discussions of esoteric issues of syntax, searching underlying motives behind the selection of particular words or phrases, exploring etymological roots, and managing to produces page after page of densely complex information over just a sentence or two of biblical text, is a process so utterly foreign to normal human communication that one wonders how anyone could have imagined it would bring genuine clarity.

What the early Christians conceived of as experiencing the Word of God would have focused primarily on listening, not reading.  In fact, until the last century or two, even people reading by themselves would have spoken the written words out loud as they read (once again revealing that they conceived language as centrally a thing to be spoken and heard, rather than equating it with the coding marks written down on a page).  In most instance, in fact, the Word of God was a thing to be heard while gathered in a community a faith.  It was a communal act of hearing, not a private act of silent reading.  And, as such, pausing to nuance at great length why a certain word was chosen or a less common phrase used was as unlikely as it is somewhat silly.

The sad reality of our approach, one that more than twenty-five years in Christian higher education has shown me again and again, is that it is possible to gain reward and scholastic recognition as a brilliant scholar and exegetical master even at so-called conservative schools, even while operating utterly outside personal faith, an authentic community of faith, or regularly listening to large portions of the Bible.

To draw an analogy:  It would be like a process that discovers you can see more detail by using a magnifying glass and then concluding that eventually permanently attaching two microscopes in front of students' eyes would give them the ability to finally understand what is in a backyard garden.

The Word in Worship as Worship

We must model and teach how to listen as preeminently more important than how to research.  We must model that where we stand when we look at the world is at least as important as what we think we are seeing and so hearing the Word within and with the church is as essential to the scholar as their knowledge of ancient Greek or Hebrew.  Of course, it is not an either/or dichotomy, as many who stand within the church have never been considered the teachers or scholars of the church.

The Bible was written to be heard, not studied (in the modern sense).  It's message was experienced as living words spoken aloud.  The Word (in the sense of "Message") of God is not encoded in secret strata of underlying sources and locked up in strange mazes of syntactical secrets resting undisturbed for centuries until some modern wunderkind, equipped with shelves of lexical resources and peer-reviewed journals can, at long last, brush off the dust and dirt of centuries, and reveal startling new insights the ancients never dreamed were even there.  To misquote the ancient preacher, "Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity."

Recovering the process of reading portions of scripture aloud in worship as worship, completely apart from whatever might be addressed in a sermon or homily, should not be an optional item on a list of nice things we'd like to do to improve worship.  To hear scripture read aloud is to hear a kind of ongoing incarnation - the Word coming into the world through the human reader.  We hear it, as we hear all natural language, with the inflections, the pauses, the subtle increases and decreases in volume and cadence that bathes it all with meaning.  We hear it without the artificial interruptions of verse numbers or Bible reference footnotes.

And, as we listen, it is no longer the words, but the Word, that we hear.   It must return to its rightful place as one of the essential and fundamental parts of all corporate worship.  We must also explore ways the implications of this can be integrated into whatever we might conceive to be Christian higher education.

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