18 June 2012

Deep Exegesis Reviewed

I’ve been kind of interested in Peter Leithart for a couple of years now. Although the whole milieu and ethos of the ultra-confessional Reformed is of course not my thing, Leithart’s ideas and especially his interests are rather consistently appealing to me. I greatly enjoyed his book on St Constantine last year, and also read bits and pieces of Against Christianity. [1] But what I really wanted to read was Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, recommended to me by the great Esteban Vazquez, who used to blog at Voice of Stefan. In the course of working on the Lewis paper  mentioned here, I finally borrowed a copy from the OCU library, and finished reading it on Saturday.

Essentially what Leithart is up to is arguing for something very like the mediaeval quadriga. While there are a few references to the Fathers, however, he doesn’t really mention this until the epilogue, where he writes, ‘First, the hermeneutical method offered here is very similar to the fourfold method developed by medieval Bible teachers.’ [2] In other words, Leithart is not explicitly advocating a return to Patristic or mediaeval exegesis. This has the virtue of perhaps appealing to those who would be immediately inimical to such a project and hopefully persuading them. But unfortunately, it also gives the book the feel of an effort to reinvent the wheel at times.

What we are told up front—in the ‘Preface’—is that Leithart has two aims: ‘to show that a hermeneutics of the letter [which he advocates] ought not to be a rigidly literalist hermeneutics’, and ‘to learn to read from Jesus and Paul’. [3] As humdrum as these may sound though, they are also ways of restating the strengths of Patristic exegesis. With regard to the first point, John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno (apologies to those who do not care for the latter, but it’s such a good book!) demonstrate unambiguously, ‘For the church fathers, a faith that Jesus Christ fulfills the scriptures [the warrant for typological reading] did not supersede or make unnecessary the difficult task of struggling with the literal details of the Bible.’ [4] With regard to the second point, learning to ‘read from Jesus and Paul’ is of course precisely what the Fathers did. As an illustration of the kind of problematic assumptions he is opposing, Leithart quotes Richard Longenecker’s ‘widely quoted passage’ claiming that modern readers must not attempt to ‘reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament’. [5] O’Keefe and Reno, however, read Patristic exegesis merely as an extension, a ‘reproduction’ to use Longenecker’s term, of NT exegesis. [6] Learning to ‘read from Jesus and Paul’ can and should mean learning to read from the Fathers. Otherwise, we’re pursuing the hermeneutical equivalent of the Protestant attempts to rebuilt the NT Church from scratch.

Moving along then, Leithart’s preface points out two further things about the book: he believes, and hopes to demonstrate, that NT exegesis is not merely ‘some bizarre form of sacred hermeneutics’, but a legitimate way of approaching the reading of any text, sacred or ‘secular’. Finally, he notes that he will refer to John 9 (the healing of the man born blind) throughout as a supreme example of what he’s talking about, since it ‘superbly embodies many of the points I want to make about texts and reading’. [7]

Unfortunately, Chapter 1 gets off to a slow start. It is Leithart’s attempt to explain historically what has gone wrong with modern exegesis, whether liberal and academic or evangelical and popular. What has gone wrong is that the text has become a ‘husk’ which we can and should separate from the ‘kernel’ of its meaning. Leithart traces this notion from Lodewijk Meyer’s 17th-c. application of Cartesianism to the Scriptures—since for Meyer biblical truth ‘is found in the rationally justifiable message and not in the rustic letter’ [8]—all the way up to Richard Longenecker, for whom the ‘kernel of doctrine is detached from the husk of Paul’s puzzling and odd, if entertaining, rhetoric and dialectic’. [9] It is certainly one way to explain and understand the modern impasse, but I found the chapter a bit tedious. More importantly, one wonders whether some of the blame at least ought not to be placed on the Reformers’ ‘abandonment of medieval modes of reading’—Leithart leaves the impression that this had no effect on Protestant hermeneutics until Descartes and Meyer came along. [10] Certainly, I wonder whether Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant—all of whom come up for blame—aren’t something more like the symptom than the disease. As Leithart notes in his comments on Meyer, the latter was attempting to ‘address the lamentable diversity of Protestant interpretation’. This diversity, according to Meyer (and Leithart?), arose from the false or at least exaggerated doctrines of Scipture’s perspicuity or clarity of meaning, and of its self-interpreting ability. [11] Of course, although Leithart does not dwell on the point, both of these ideas were attempts to develop a hermeneutics that could dispense with Tradition. Perhaps I have missed something, but is not clear to me whether our author shares Meyer’s skepticism concerning the Reformers’ doctrines, even if not his Cartesian alternative to them.

Chapter 2, ‘Texts Are Events: Typology’, is more exciting. Leithart takes stock of other attempts to justify the NT exegesis of the OT (whether they advocate ‘reproducing’ it or not), and concludes that they all end with a ‘sacred hermeneutics, applicable to the single double-authored, inspired text of the Bible but inapplicable to every other text’. But Leithart, naturally enough I think, finds this unsatisfactory. He thinks it is ‘possible to justify apostolic reading—which I will call typological—with an argument that applies to texts as such, or at least to all texts of major importance’. [12] This argument is based on those, first, of Arthur C. Danto that the significance and description of past events necessarily grows richer as their consequences develop and they enter into complex relationships with other events, and second, of David Weberman (named in the footnotes) that particular, supposedly finished ‘Events themselves change over time, taking on new properties because of later events.’ [13] To illustrate and explain this potentially counter-intuitive claim, Leithart borrows Weberman’s example of a shooting that takes place at 10 am, the victim of which doesn’t die until 1 pm. The ‘historical’ description of the event at 10, if isolated from later developments, is going to be terribly unsatisfying—it is only a shooting. But when the victim dies, the shooting actually becomes a murder.

Leithart initially compares this with the effect of Christ’s death and resurrection on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: ‘It becomes a promise of Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, a type and foreshadowing of the great deliverance on Golgotha, the final sacrifice.’ [14] But of course, he is arguing that all texts are events, not just biblical ones. Thus, about five pages use Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men to show that Danto’s and Weberman’s insights apply to novels every bit as much as to the Bible. [15] He draws on David Steinmetz’s comparison of NT exegesis to the generic mystery-story device of the detective explaining earlier, puzzling events in the story by means of a ‘second narrative’ that unlocks their meaning. [16] But Leithart also turns twice to John 9 to demonstrate the application of his arguments to Scripture as the text par excellence.

Chapter 3 is entitled ‘Words Are Players: Semantics’—emphasising the claim that words ‘do the unexpected, or do the expected in unexpected ways’, [17] contra those who take their semantic cues primarily from the lexicographer’s project of narrowing and isolating synchronic meanings [18] rather than the poet’s of reveling in multivalence and diachronic resonance. Leithart writes:

Words are round characters. Many words have a variety of meanings, and even those that have only a single lexical meaning have a variety of associations and connotations. These dimensions might not be connected to one another in any obvious way....When we read a text, especially one with a high level of craftsmanship, we should be alert to the possibility that a covert sense is lurking just under the surface of the overt. [19]

As evidence, Leithart draws on Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Anahorish’, also referring to King Lear a number of times throughout the chapter. He also draws examples from ancient, non-biblical literature—such as Homer [20]—to counter the claim that ‘Appeal to etymology, and to word formation, is...always dangerous.’ [21] Leithart even does ‘the unexpected’ himself when he quotes the words ‘tit’ and ‘c-nt’ in a reference to Philip Roth’s shocking Sabbath’s Theater. [22] And finally, of course, he turns to John 9 once again, where examples of all of the things he’s talking about abound.

Although—judging by the title—one feels that Chapter 3 could have devolved into mere siliness, this is perhaps even more true of Chapter 4, ‘The Text Is a Joke: Intertextuality’. But what he means is ‘every text depends for its meaning on information lying outside the text...and a good interpreter is...one with a broad knowledge and the wit to know what bits of knowledge are relevant. All interpretation is a matter of getting it. All texts mean the way jokes mean.’ [23] This of course in response to the obsessive concern in historical-critical exegesis with avoiding eisegesis, and the concomitant charge that ‘pre-critical’, and one fears, perhaps even any kind of faith-based reading are often guilty of eisegetical readings. After the initial, obviously ‘joke’ examples, and brief considerations of a few biblical passages, Leithart looks at the use of the Bible itself in The Merchant of Venice, and of Dante in Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, and how Shakespeare and Eliot depend for their meaning on the two earlier works. [24] In John 9, he begins with intertextual references to earlier portions of St John’s Gospel itself, before expanding the analysis with Genesis, Isaiah, and Psalm 40.

Here, Leithart interrupts himself briefly to consider the eisegetical problem from another point of view: the supposed contrast between the ‘subjective’ methods of literary interpretation and those of the ‘harder’ disciplines. Drawing on N.T. Wright, he notes that ‘there is always an imaginative leap involved in forming a hypothesis that puts facts into a coherent narrative’, whether the ‘facts’ are literary or scientific. [25] The test is still the ability of the reading to explain the pattern of the data. Furthermore, if such leaps were never taken in any discipline, the result would extremely unsatisfying. Nevertheless, the leaps depend on attention to the ‘facts’, in the present case, the texts, from which the leap is made, and Leithart acknowledges that historical context and conventions provide restraints on reading. [26]

Chapter 5, ‘Texts Are Music—Structure’, was perhaps next to Chapter 1 my least favourite. Leithart compares texts to music in the sense that both exhibit complex structures made up of layers of meaning—a good interpreter ‘must develop an ear for the multiple melodies, not to mention the complex rhythms, of texts’. [27] It is an excellent analogy, and the result—applied to the Odyssey on pp. 152-3, Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on pp. 159-61, and John 9 on 161-71—is fairly impressive. The problem is that Leithart’s exploration of the musical analogy takes so long! He begins on p. 144 by answering Victor Zuckerkandl’s overstatement of the uniqueness of repetition in music as an art form, and proceeds through an overly long analysis of Bach’s ‘Minuet in G’, occupying pp. 146-9. The point is made, but at the expense of my desire to keep paying attention.

The final chapter, ‘Texts Are about Christ: Application’, argues not only the obvious—‘Scripture is about Christ’—but the less obvious as well: Scripture is about totus Christus, which means it’s about the Church as Christ’s Body; and other texts (like Oedipus Rex), and indeed, all of history, are about Christ too. The ecclesiastical emphasis of this totus Christus exegesis prompts perhaps Leithart’s longest quotations from the Fathers—St Augustine’s On Christian Teaching on p. 173 and St Ambrose’s Letter 67 on p. 179. It also suggests a much earlier analysis of John 9 than other chapters, focusing on the blind man as a type of the Church and the washing as a type of Baptism. I have already quoted from the section ‘Jesus and Oedipus’ (here, in the post on St Eustathius), but the reading of Oedipus really is quite striking, being tied into John 9 by the theme of blindness. [28]

But at this point, Leithart begins a section entitled ‘Enlightenment Ocularcentrism’. Starting with a solid quotation from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and moving through the always culpable Descartes, Frances Yates on the ‘spatialized view of knowledge’ resulting from the ars memoriae, Walter Ong on Peter Ramus’s pedagogy, and a nod toward postmodern echoes of Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment, I believe that Leithart is setting up a demonstration that in John 9 we see the totus Christus as the answer to mistaken notions of light, vision, and understanding in the West. The whole passage is, I’m afraid, a little ambiguous though. Leithart acknowledges that St John too displays an ocularcentrism, though one focused on Christ the Logos rather than Enlightenment rationality, [29] but still it is hard to determine precisely where he may or may not disagree with the essentially Nietzschean and postmodernist critiques he has offered in the preceding pages. In the next section, ‘Politics of Sight’ [30], we are on firmer ground as Leithart extends the discovery of totus Christus and the reading of John 9 to a consideration of the overturning of worldly power and political structures. Leithart concludes the chapter with the following comments:

John 9, in short, opens up an angle for literary analysis, a critique of Enlightenment rationality, and some features of Christian politics. It is about Jesus; it is about the Jesus who is the head of the body, and so is about the whole Christ. It is about the Jesus who is head over all things for his church, the one in whom everything holds together. John 9 is a text about everything, just like every other biblical text. [31]

The epilogue consists of three areas of brief musings that fell outside the scope of the book: the connection between Leithart’s own exegesis and that of the mediaevals (already quoted); the communal dimension of reading—essentially a nod toward Tradition and the Church—that according to Leithart might have been a chapter entitled ‘Texts Are Community Property’; and the observation that literary ‘interpretation is ultimately a performance’, like that of a musician interpreting a composer’s work. [32] He notes that much more could be said about these things, but that all books must come to an end.

I have minor complaints, of course. As may be guessed from my comments on Chapter 5, I had a low tolerance for Leithart’s long illustrations taken from outside the discipline of hermeneutics. I also found the incessant references to ‘Yahweh’ in the discussions of the OT and Israel annoying. I realise that this has become a standard convention in ‘Hebrew Bible’ studies, but I think it strikes the wrong note for a book advocating a ‘faithful’ and Christian reading of the OT. ‘Yahweh’ is not traditional Christian language for the God of the OT—it is not found, for instance, in the traditional liturgies and prayers, East or West, nor, more importantly, is it found in the NT—and it is bound to seem artificial to the layman. Whether out of some fidelity to the ancient Hebrew piety surrounding God’s name or not, is it an accident that Christians have used ‘the Lord’ ever since the first century? I cannot think so.

But more importantly I would insist that musings 1 and 2 from the epilogue really ought to have played some role in the text itself. They are almost like an elephant in the room throughout the entire book, and they are an emphasis with which modern Western Christianity (and sometimes, Eastern Christianity too!) could really stand to be confronted a good deal more than it is. It is interesting that the back cover of Leithart’s book contains blurbs from two authors who have not failed to bring that emphasis to the fore: Reno, whose Sanctified Vision I’ve already mentioned, and Fr Andrew Louth, whose brilliant Discerning the Mystery makes many of the same points that Leithart does, but places them firmly in the context of Tradition. [33] While I’m on the subject, it’s also interesting that I do not recall Deep Exegesis insisting on the strict distinction between typology and allegory found in Against Christianity, [34] a distinction considerably looser in O’Keefe and Reno [35] and not present at all, if I remember correctly, in Fr Louth. One wonders if Leithart has modified earlier views, or simply decided not to make an issue of them.

Also, concerning Leithart’s central thesis about the husk/kernel dichotomy, I must acknowledge some justice in an objection raised by Wesley Hill in a review for Books & Culture (here):

In the eras of the church's defining Christological debates, it was not enough for the orthodox merely to attend to the Bible's words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, since the meaning of those biblical forms was precisely what was up for grabs. Simplifying the matter drastically, we might say that two opposing kernels (Nicene orthodoxy and Arian Christology) were claiming identical husks (the shared language of Scripture). Arguably, the triumph of orthodoxy depended on being able to grasp the right kernel (the Bible's message about the identity of Jesus) and fit it within a new, extra-biblical husk (the language of ousia). Ironically, given Leithart's argument, it was the biblical kernel itself that pressured its defenders to set aside the biblical husk for a moment and cast about for a new one.

Hill calls it ‘a measure of the importance of Leithart’s study that it raises questions like these’, but one really would like to have Leithart in the room, perhaps over a pint of stout, to answer such questions immediately upon completion.

That said, this really is a much-needed book, I think. Leithart’s attempts to critique Orthodoxy have been rightly and well-criticised by other Orthodox, but in most respects I can’t help but think of him as an ally.

[1] Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003). The pro-Constantinian theme and polemic with John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas is present already in the latter book. Particularly precious is Leithart’s parable about Hauerwas on the whole issue of Constantinianism:

Once there was a prophet named Stanley. The prophet Stanley was a bold and faithful man who stood with granite face against the powers of the age. 

‘you cannot do that s---t,’ he would say, as he stood before the king. ‘You are going to end up in ‘f-----g h---l, and your people are going to hate you.’

One day the king began to listen and to see the wisdom of Stanley’s words. When Stanley told him that the weak must be protected from the vicious strong, the king took steps to protect the weak. When Stanley told him that Jesus was Lord, the king bowed the knee. When Stanley told him that religious freedom is a subtle temptation, the king took heed.

And the king made a proclamation, that all in his kingdom should wear sackcloth and ashes and repent of their sins, even to the least beast of burden. 

And Stanley went out from the city and made a shelter and sat under it and refused to speak again to the king.

And Stanley said, ‘Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life. I am a d---n prophet, not a f-----g chaplain.’ 

And the Lord said, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry?’ 

As for the king, he was greatly confounded and confused, and knew not what to do; for he had done all that Stanley had asked. 

This parable ends with questions, not a moral: Will the king always refuse to listen? Says who? And, when the king begins to listen, must the Church fall silent, so as to avoid becoming a chaplain? To keep her integrity, must the Church refuse to succeed? (p. 148)

[2] Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009), p. 207.

[3] Ibid., p. vii.

[4] John J. O’Keefe & R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. 45.

[5] Leithart, Exegesis, pp. 32-3.

[6] See for example, O’Keefe & Reno, p. 74.

[7] Leithart, Exegesis, p. viii.

[8] Ibid., p. 10.

[9] Ibid., p. 34.

[10] Ibid., p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 8.

[12] Ibid., p. 39.

[13] Ibid., p. 41.

[14] Ibid., p. 44.

[15] Ibid., pp. 55-60.

[16] Ibid., pp. 66-7. I am in the process of reading Steinmetz’s paper, ‘Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction & the Construction of Historical Method’, and hope to read a few others from this volume before returning it to the library, particularly Brian Daley’s ‘Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms’—Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 54-65, and 69-88.

[17] Leithart, Exegesis, p. 82.

[18] Unfortunately, this includes the supposedly infallible Moises Silva!

[19] Ibid., p. 86.

[20] Ibid., p. 96.

[21] Ibid., p. 76, quoting Peter Cotterell and Max Turner.

[22] Ibid., p. 81. Leithart even leaves in the ‘u’ of the second word. Sorry folks, I just couldn’t bring myself to do that on a blog that just anyone could read! I am a little ashamed that Leithart has outcussed me.

[23] Ibid., p. 113.

[24] Ibid., pp. 119-24.

[25] Ibid., p. 133.

[26] Ibid., pp. 136-7.

[27] Ibid., p. 144.

[28] Ibid., pp. 181-8.

[29] Ibid., p. 193.

[30] Ibid., pp. 195-206.

[31] Ibid., p. 206.

[32] Ibid., p. 208. Leithart notes that he has reflected on this more in ‘Authors, Authority, & the Humble Reader’, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature & Writing, rev. & expanded ed., ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw, 2005), pp. 209-24, which I read just today in a copy of the book graciously lent to me by John Granger.

[33] See my review here.

[34] See Leithart, Christianity, p. 62, where he claims, ‘At its best, then, typological interpretation is quite different from allegory.’

[35] See O’Keefe & Reno, p. 90, where ‘Allegory and typology are part of the same family of reading strategies’ whose ‘difference lies in the amount of work the reader must put into the interpretation’.

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