A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love

By Baker, J. Robert | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love

Baker, J. Robert, Christianity and Literature

By Alan Jacobs. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8133-6577-5 (cloth), 0-8133-6566-X (paper). Pp. ix + 186. $65.00 (cloth), $18.00 (paper).

Alan Jacobs has written a fine, thoughtful, and inspiring book. It is part theology, part hermeneutic, part cultural study, and part ethical reflection. In it Jacobs sets out to answer the question, "What would interpretation governed by the law of love look like?" (10). While he takes St. Augustine's discussion in On Christian Doctrine of charity as the gauge of interpretation, his argument is more deeply informed by Jesus' twofold commandment of love, so that in his estimation books must be loved as one loves oneself, and the purpose of interpretation must "be the generation of love" (17). He brings to his task a wide and careful reading of theology, philosophy, literature, literary theory, and Scripture. He writes in a lucid style and illuminates both the books he considers and his own thesis.

Jacobs begins with a prelude in which he announces his aim of working out the principles of charitable interpretation. Citing the scene from William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing in which Claudio publicly repudiates Hero as an example of such an interpretation, Jacobs says that the truth, justice, and love expressed in the Friar's and in Beatrice's defenses of Hero--that is, in their interpretation--move Benedick to challenge Claudio and precipitate the righting of Don John's manipulations.

In his first chapter Jacobs lays out the scriptural and Augustinian backgrounds for his project and the difficulties faced by his hermeneutic of love. In successive chapters he takes up the role that knowledge, suspicion, kenosis, and justice play in that hermeneutic. These chapters are separated by interludes in which Jacobs discusses novels and other books that raise the question of interpretation; he uses these as examples, positive and negative, of the hermeneutics of love. Accordingly, in Henry James's "The Figure in the Carpet" the narrator's desire to be initiated into the secret of Hugh Vereker's work is, in Jacobs' reading, a Gnostic pursuit of understanding reserved for the elect; the narrator's goal is the opposite of a charitable interpretation, which is open to all. On the other hand, Jane Tompkins' reflections about Buffalo Bill in West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1992) enact Jacobs' hermeneutic, for in writing about both his virtues and his vices Tompkins tries to see the whole reality of Buffalo Bill and the values he represented. Moreover, she recognizes that the violence she finds so repulsive in Cody's actions is one of which she too is capable. Finally, there is a postlude in which Jacobs takes up the effects of charitable interpretation on its practitioners, and he ends by suggesting the deeply comedic nature of that interpretation.

Jacobs' argument is shaped by his reservations about theory and his belief in kerygmatic theology. Jacobs is not phobic about theory; in fact, he knows it well enough to be explicit about where he parts company with it. For example, though he grants language tremendous importance, he is unwilling to see books as "a proliferation of signs or verbal instantiations of ideological forces" but he turns the vertex to see them, instead, as "personal acts--answerable acts" (1). Similarly, his book centers less on intellectual argument than on a proclamation of charity.

As he explores various understandings of the relationship between love and knowledge, Jacobs uses Mikhail Bakhtin's work as a bridge between Aristotelian and Christian concepts of love, virtue, and relational goods. He does not seek to appropriate Bakhtin as a crypto-Christian, but he does point out: "It may be that Bakhtin's early account of interpretation both reinforces and is reinforced by Christian theology--in other words, that Bakhtin's charitable hermeneutics is justified by the appeal to the key convictions of the Christian faith, whereas, conversely, those convictions may best be put into hermeneutical practice by Bakhtin's prescriptions" (52).

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