In praise of exegesis (999a)

If you’ve got a detail in a score that’s hard to hear, that’s not an excuse for not hearing it!

– Ken Ward, The Bruckner Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March 2008), p. 41

Spoken with reference to complex musical texts (a/k/a “scores”), the above is also easily applicable to investigating the riches of scriptural texts.

[This is blogpost #999a.  (#999b has now been inserted, but that’s a dull story.)  As I write, I have a rough idea of what #1000 will be, and then I’m going to take a break, probably posting some more “voices” from the past, things I read, etc. — but not doing much new, original writing for a while.  I have loose plans for some beginning to write three different series, but no one will see those for weeks or maybe months.]

Anyway, it seemed appropriate that this near-last (for a while) post be on biblical exegesis — a topic close to my head and heart.  This is no primer on exegesis; I wouldn’t be able to write one if I tried.  It is merely intended to 1) motivate by highlighting the importance of the topic, and 2) offer a few particulars.

wpid-2013-02-19_17-22-52_366.jpgI believe that Christians should be consistently engaged in seriously investigating — and submitting to — scripture texts.  Toward that end, to state a sort of conceptual baseline:  we may not elevate any scripture text out of its historical and literary contexts, in order to respect a specific religious tradition or an individual interpretation.  Neither may we discard a text for those reasons or any others.  (The problem comes not so much in the positing or the believing or the dreaming, but in the doing.)

I suppose that, given my book-oriented Christian upbringing, I ought to feel I’ve studied scripture more than most.  But the more I come to understand the exegetical mindset and mode, the less I think I’ve actually studied scripture exegetically in the past.

Exegesis is not a particularly “religious” word but has perhaps come to be associated more with the serious study and interpretation of biblical texts than other types of texts.  Exegesis is not hermeneutics, exactly, but the two are related.  Exegesis is inextricably associated with the enterprise of digging into a specific text, and using available means to understand that text on its own terms.

One way of envisioning this type of goal is articulated by Dr. Greg Fay in his forthcoming two-volume series on the Bible (and here, I’ve taken a couple liberties with his statement):

The challenge is to stop interrupting God when He’s speaking to us — digesting scripture fully, even holistically, in its historical, literary, and sometimes very personal contexts, as if we were present in the defining moments of God’s first conversations with his people.

One way of “interrupting God” is pasting a “verse” (yanked from here or there) on top of another “verse” that comes from a completely different context.  Or, as Gary Collier’s imagery has it, we get things mixed up when we put a bunch of different text-ingredients into a blender and press “puree.”  If on the other hand we get into a single text and attempt to understand what it is about, we stand to gain immeasurably.  We may use various ways and means, including reading and re-reading the text itself, reading multiple Bible versions in English, delving into the original languages, investigating the cultural/historical background in which the text was written, highlighting recurring words, analyzing the structure of the text, reading multiple commentaries, and more.  (A sample listing of some possible exegetical tools may be found here, and a portal to many others, in the red section of this page.  A Christian college offers a master’s-level concentration in Biblical Exegesis; oh, that this were a required concentration for the majority of those training for jobs in official Christian capacities.)

When you think of exegesis, you might think “Exodus,” when the people came out of Egypt. The literal roots of the word “exegesis” have to do with being 1) guided or led 2) out of something.  So many people seem to want to read onto or into (eisegeting) instead of drawing a well-founded interpretation out of (exegeting) a text.  This trend is as disconcerting from a broad perspective as it is unhelpful to the individual who wants to continue in the way of discipleship.  Initially, at least, exegetical study is the way to go.  It does not preclude a more subjective, devotional approach, but some solely devotional approaches can be wispy and not true to the text.  It can be very exciting to dig into the original texts more intentionally, peering over the obscurant mountain built by centuries of ignorance and decades of Christian marketing.

Effort is required in digging into texts, extracting their riches.  But as the writer said in relation to a musical score, having to expend some effort for the reward is no excuse for not expending said effort.  The details can be incredibly illuminating!

One aspect of digging into some texts involves, conveniently enough, digging!  (Excavating and exploring uncharted territory may add to the imagery here.)  Biblical archaeology (which is a bit of a clumsy term that refers to excavating sites of biblical significance, not to digging into the Bible itself) can be an enticing field, and I recently had opportunity to hear Dr. John Monson in an insightful (online) lecture on the value of “Physical Theology.”  I’d like to offer the following quotes as appetite-whetters, hoping you’ll click the link below when you have time to listen to a lecture online.

Increasingly, the academy and the church are propelled by the prevailing intellectual trends of our time.  Many scholars and theologians discount such concepts as reliable history and purposeful text, while the community of faith is often complacent toward biblical context as the Bible’s central role continues to decline.

The urgent quest for personal religious experience often displaces Scripture, not to mention the archaeological and linguistic material that can elucidate and enliven the biblical text.  It is a supreme irony that the Bible’s original context is often dismissed or discounted by the academy and the church precisely at the moment that corroborative evidence abounds like never before.  – Dr. John Monson, lecture, “Physical Theology: The Bible in its Land, Time and Culture,” Feb. 11, 2012, Lanier Theological Library lecture series (web-housed recording accessed 3/13/13)