I talked about Epistemology, the discussion of How We Know Things, previously in this blog. This is a twist on that discussion provoked by some recent reading.
The recent reading provocation came from a book called Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. In this book Ward convincingly argues that C.S. Lewis wrote each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia to represent or embody the character associated with the seven planets of the Ptolemic astronomical system followed in the Middle Ages. Lewis describes this system in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ward argues that the Narnia books then embody the images of the planets, so that, for example, the Jovian character is embodied by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When we read The Discarded Image we contemplate the medieval world system; when we read Narnia we enjoy it.
Lewis distinguished between knowing a thing by contemplating it, and knowing a thing by enjoying it. In what has become a famous example, Lewis talked about a light beam seen in a dark toolshed: the beam can be seen and contemplated from outside itself, or can be enjoyed by standing within the beam and seeing other things by its light. Light is difficult to describe when one is enjoying it. Everything else is illuminated by it – it pervades our understanding of everything around it. We contemplate something from outside; we enjoy it from inside.
I found an example of the difference between knowing about something and experiencing it in 1 Kings the other day. The Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, and after she had been given the royal tour and conversed with the king, she said “It’s all true! Your reputation for accomplishment and wisdom that reached all the way to my country is confirmed. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself; they didn’t exaggerate! Such wisdom and elegance—far more than I could ever have imagined.” She’d heard reports, but these reports were nothing compared to the experience of being in Solomon’s courts and conversing with him.
Then I got to wondering if one’s worldview (often cultural) is an example of things we enjoy first, and contemplate later. We are immersed in our view of the world. It pervades the way we understand everything. It includes attitudes toward others that are often described by –isms: ageism, racism, sexism. We see from the outside other worldviews or cultures, and contemplate them. It is fairly easy to poke holes in the things seen from a distance, from outside. It is much harder to see the faults in things we enjoy from the inside. It is also difficult to listen to others criticize our worldview or culture, the lights we see by. I wonder if we need both to learn to step outside and contemplate our own thought-system, and also figure out how to get inside and enjoy another. Lewis thought one way of doing this was reading literature. I think he may have been onto something there.
I’ve just come in from a workshop on reading scripture. We spent more than two hours on practical tips, then rehearsing and performing a particular reading. I was working with a team on a reading of Isaiah 6, the bit where Isaiah sees the Lord. It was a good workshop, lots of interesting points. It made me think about how I preach as well as how I read scripture. When I preach, I preach from a manuscript, so it is essentially a reading. I also got to thinking about some discussions and experiences of reading aloud that I’ve had in the past few weeks.
1. Reading aloud — “It slows me down.” My friend, the priestling, who is in her first year of Seminary, told me that she sometimes reads her textbooks aloud because it slows her reading down. She cannot skip over bits of the text, let her eyes slide over words without really comprehending what the words say. I have never actually read aloud to an audience of just myself. I feel a bit self-conscious doing that. I should probably just get over it. If I’m reading aloud at home there’s no one but me to hear it. It isn’t as if I’d try this on the bus or in a library. At times I need to slow some of my reading down, and experience it with more than one sense. I think I’d like to try this.
2. Listening to someone read — details get picked up. I’ve said before in this blog that I find the experience of listening to an audio book substantially different from reading a book. Last week I listened to Pride and Prejudice and found that listening to a book I’ve read a few times to be an enriching experience. I’ve read P&P many times, and thought I knew the story backwards and forwards. Listening to someone else read it highlighted some details that I have never noticed before. This may be part of that whole slowing the book down process. It was pretty interesting. I think I’ll try some other re-reads as a listen next time through.
I’ve got more to say about reading aloud as performance, and thus preaching as performance, not to mention the hideous habit some people have of speeding up when they read scripture verses as if the Bible were something to be rushed through so we can get to what the person themselves has to say. But I’ll stop for now with these two reflections and ask what you’ve read aloud/been read lately?
I’ve just finished On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, translated by a sister of the CSMV and introduced by her correspondent and friend C.S. Lewis. I talked about Lewis’s introduction during Christmas, and mentioned how reading his reflections on old books in that introduction influenced my reading resolutions for this year. Added to the end of On the Incarnation is an appendix containing a translation of a letter written by St. Athanasius to someone called Marcellinus on reading and interpreting the Psalms. It is great.
I am interested in the history of interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, so reading this appendix on the Psalter was almost better than the theological discourse on the incarnation. Both pieces of writing have their own charm and particular appeal. I preach the Psalms whenever I get a chance, so reading about their interpretation always fascinates me. This morning I heard an excellent exposition of Psalm 139 in the middle of a sermon on our identity in Christ. Then this afternoon I read St. Athanasius on interpreting the Psalms. The combination made my day.
I will post again on publishers and textbooks, but that’ll come tomorrow. Watch this space.
One should never give up friends for lent.
Possibly this should be rephrased: Spending time with friends can be a positive Lenten discipline. Friends can point us to God in ways that solitary disciplines cannot. Friends remind us of the grace and mercy of God. Friends are evidence of things unseen. They remind us of the ways faith really works in the world every day.
I’ve said before that one cannot be a Christian alone. Christianity is a faith of individuals who are called to live in community. There are a number of ways of describing this community of faith with “the body of Christ” and “the communion of saints” being two very common phrases. “The body of Christ” is a biblical phrase — look in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 for more about the body of Christ. The communion of saints is a phrase from the apostles’ creed. Both the body of Christ and the communion of saints extend through space and time. This large community of faith does not only include people we count as friends, but also people we don’t like much. And while I think spending time with friends can be a positive Lenten discipline, it seems that spending quality, life-giving time with any member of the body of Christ can be a positive Lenten discipline. We need each other. Community is not optional.
If you don’t know who I mean by The Women, refer to my “Books” page. I’ve done/am doing research on women who interpreted the Bible. The Women I’ve worked on lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tonight I’m leading a discussion on why listen to female biblical interpreters at a pub night. So I’m thinking about The Women.
I’m also thinking about the idea of a community of interpreters. I think that is the main reason we should read others who write about the Bible. We need to listen to the Bible in community, a community that extends through time and space. I don’t always do this very well, but reading The Women helps with the through time thing.
Who is in your community of interpretation?