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25.8.02

It seems to me that there are two ways to read a text if you're trying to learn from it -- critical and scriptural.

Critical reading is what college tries to teach you. When you read critically, you approach the text with a skeptical attitude. You evaluate the ideas and arguments that are proposed, and subject them to rigorous analysis. You test out the ideas to see if they're incomplete, if the author has made assumptions that are unsubstantiated or not adequately addressed an issue. Ultimately, we decide whether or not to agree with the various propositions in the text.

Scriptural reading begins with the opposite attitude. It begins with the assumption that the text contains the truth -- maybe not on the surface, but somewhere, if you dig down far enough and look at it the right way. It may seem that scriptural reading is on the decline in our society, as science and a declining expectation of divine revelation have made us more skeptical. But all too often a shallow form of scriptural reading has taken over. Our faith in "experts" (a pragmatic necessity, given the vast increase in the amount of knowledge available, which leads anyone attempting to become a Renaissance Man to turn into Jack of all trades, master of none) and intellectual laziness (another pragmatic development, as nobody can think hard all the time) lead us to take texts at face value. But this is not high caliber scriptural reading, any more than saying "that doesn't sound right" and leaving it at that is good critical reading. Good scriptural reading requires the same level of analysis as critical reading -- indeed, perhaps even more rigorous, because concluding that something isn't right isn't an option. To say something isn't true is to leave the scriptural framework, to decide that a text cannot be treated as scripture and can only be read critically. If a text seems wrong our only option as scriptural readers is to dig deeper and wider, finding additional information or context or new perspectives that reveal truth in it.

Scriptural reading is valuable in that it serves as a catalyst to thought. We can't stop with the conclusion that something is wrong, so we have to work ourselves harder to make it true. It raises issues in a challenging way and doesn't allow us to set them aside because we don't agree. Which is not to say that scriptural reading is necessarily better or worse than critical reading (as always, the utility of a strategy depends on the context). For some people, some texts just cannot be read scripturally. Indeed, most texts, on their deepest level, will require critical reading.

There are certain characteristics that make a text suitable for scriptural reading. The best scripture is open-ended, allowing for many different readings and perspectives. For example, though people criticize the Bible for being diverse to the point of contradictoriness, it is this very diversity that allows it to serve as scripture for so many people. A closely argued book -- such as most books about Christian theology, particularly ones by modern authors who share so many unspoken cultural assumptions with us -- is restrictive. It's hard to take in a way different from what the author wanted. And so, if its surface doesn't contain the truth, it becomes hard to find anything else there, and we are forced to become critical. The exact content of the scripture is not all-important, because the text's role is one of a catalyst. It provides grist for our thought process. Ultimately, the truths we glean from the text come not so much from the text as from our mind's interaction with the text. The text is like atmospheric dust, which provides the nuclei around which raindrops form.

There is also an element of suspension of disbelief involved in reading scripturally. Scriptural reading requires the a priori assumption that the text contains the truth. So it is difficult, except as a mental exercise, to just pick up a text and decide to read it scripturally. Sometimes a text will strike us with an unexpected truth as we begin to read, which will fill us with hope that it can be read scripturally. Other times it requires an act of faith, an expectation that there is a divine or spiritual revelation contained in the text. This act of faith requires a difficult sort of near-doublethink if we are aware of the text's role as a catalyst, because it can only work as a catalyst when we assume it is a source.

The importance of the reader's relationship to the text, as opposed to the inherent content of the text, can seem unsettling at first. Many people want to believe that some text out there -- be it the Bible, tarot cards, their dreams, or something else -- has the answers (and indeed you need to assume you've found it to be able to read scripturally). But it can also be liberating. It wouldn't work out too well for us if the one universally true scripture were the oral tradition of the Pitjantjatjara people. When it's the relationship to the text that's important, we can be more comfortable reading the scripture that's near us (which is not to say that any scripture works for anyone, or that searching can't turn up a much more valuable scripture). We can exchange the criterion of "is it the true scripture?" for "does it work for me to treat this as scripture?" I don't have to worry that I'm irrationally clinging to the cultural conditioning of my upbringing by always trying to harmonize my understanding of the Bible with my understanding of the world as a whole. Instead I'm taking advantage of my comfort with treating the Bible as scripture to suspend skepticism and exercise my brain in a different way.

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