IT SEEMS TO ME a wonderful irony that Christians in America are preoccupied with debates about biblical authority just when all parties to the debates are less knowledgeable about the content of scripture than many of our predecessors were. On college campuses, teachers of English literature find it difficult to teach texts like Paradise Lost, Moby Dick or Toni Morrison's Beloved because students are unable to grasp the biblical allusions. In churches, preachers comment on the lack of biblical literacy among their parishioners, and the pastors' comments sometimes deflect attention from their own illiteracy.
This lack of familiarity with scripture weakens our capacity for theological reflection, moral discernment and spiritual nurture. It also impoverishes our vocabulary for characterizing God, the world and the purpose and destiny of our lives.
Yet, troubling as biblical illiteracy may be, I am even more troubled by our lack of imagination and sophistication in interpreting the whole story of scripture. As my colleague David Steinmetz said, "We are better readers of detective fiction than we are of scripture." He noted that reading scripture well is a lot like reading detective fiction--what you discover later in the story equips you to see the earlier parts with fresh and illuminating eyes.
Steinmetz understands these connections because he has devoted much of his career to interpreting our forebears' interpretations of scripture. He has discovered a sophisticated, imaginative conversation that is more like contemporary approaches to detective fiction or other novels than what we have come to call "exegesis."
Could it be that we know less of the content of scripture because we have made it so boring? We flatten scripture when we read the text only for what lies behind it, or in segments or as a collection of guidelines for moral living. Who wouldn't rather reread Beloved than study a series of texts that we cannot connect to a larger narrative, much less to our convictions about the Triune God whom we worship?
I am not saying that we should ignore the gains in understanding that have been achieved by the "higher criticism" of the past two centuries. We need the best philological and historical methods we can develop. But we also need to learn how to read imaginatively, how to move back and forth both intratextually and intertextually.
This became clear to me in reading Gary Anderson's book The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination. Anderson takes on those vexing opening chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3. But he does so by exploring how the modern debates have been received by interpreters in both Jewish and Christian thought.
The book is a sheer delight. It has altered my thinking about how best to interpret the story of Adam and Eve, and it extends an invitation to scripture that is far more engaging, imaginative and theologically illuminating than what we hear in most synagogues or churches. …