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What is the relationship between reading and hearing? How about the relationship between reading theologically ‘overcharged’ texts, like scripture, and hearing theologically ‘undercharged’ music, like popular music? In other words, how is theological material extracted from reading and hearing, by readers and hearers?

I was thinking about this recently as I reflected on some shifts in my own thinking about reading scripture. For my book Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), I had written an appendix for the first printing about reading scripture, because by the time I had written the book, I realized how much I was relying on interpretations of scripture to carry the argument, and that was already becoming a place of puzzlement for me. By the time of the paperback, I had written a new preface revising my take not only on the appendix but what was in the book, as well. In one sense, these were my ongoing reconsiderations about reading scripture. I wonder what lessons they give, if any, about hearing music.

It may take me a few posts to being to open this up. Here is the “Appendix: On Reading Scripture” from Consuming Faith:

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Appendix: On Reading Scripture

The one precondition for reading the Bible fruitfully is knowing how to read it.

I long ago gave up the idea that the Bible has one answer for anything. I confess to nausea at any mention of “a biblical worldview,” which has for many years now seemed to me like something between intellectual dishonesty and spiritual manipulation.

The Bible is a motley assortment of stories, poems, myths, hymns, letters, histories, and aphorisms that submit to no single controlling principle. Despite all attempts to smooth over the tensions, discrepancies, and contradictions in it, the heterogeneity of the Bible defies all attempts to reduce it to one program, theology, perspective, or worldview. Even calling it “the Bible” (literally, “the book”) can be the beginning of idolatry. (I much prefer “scriptures,” literally “writings”.) Christians have continually attempted to make this human book divine. But accepting its thoroughgoing humanity is the only honest way to attune oneself to its revelatory character. We are still so in thrall to Enlightenment thinking and the history of Western rationality that we presume that being honest with ourselves about the Bible’s inconsistencies, ambiguities, and contradictions in some way impugns its spiritual power. Such presumption only convicts our attempts to confuse it with God.

A critical releasement to scripture is, for me, the only way to make sense of it as an educated person today. What I mean by “releasement” is allowing oneself to be caught up in scriptures’ tensions, ambiguities, slips, cracks, demands, charges, directions, guidelines, overtones, seductions, rhetorics, legerdemain, crevices, banalities, interruptions, exhortations, assertions, reversals, and obscurities. To say to the text, “Let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

This is, after all, the way human communication works. How could we hear a word from scripture if it did not speak our language, the language of stutters, persuasions, arguments, incompleteness, vagueness, and allusiveness? God never communicates anything except according to the mode of the receiver, said Aquinas, and our mode is first and last human.

But this releasement to the human hands of scripture is not all; we must be “critical.” By critical I do not necessarily mean contrarian or negative. I mean that when we come to the scriptures, we always do so in a highly particular way. We always come as ourselves, with our own personal and communal histories, with our questions from our time, with our anxieties and answers, with our assumptions and attitudes. To say to the text, “Come now, let us argue it out.” (Isaiah 1:18) Sometimes what we bring to scripture has already been influenced by scripture—whether through prayer or study of it, through its influence on our culture, or its influence on those who have influenced us. With all that we bring, we have to be ready to be critical with scripture, to question, wonder about, ponder, suspect, and even at times reject what we find there, remembering that what we find there is always in part a projection of ourselves onto those letters, spaces, and punctuations. (Which means what we reject now we should always reserve the humility to reconsider at a later stage of our lives.)

All of this makes dealing with the Bible sometimes messy, unpredictable, uncomfortable, and murky. Anything else is pious overcertainty or adolescent refusal. But we cannot permanently refuse to trust texts. All of us can and do, will and must, pitch ourselves into the worlds of some text in which we invest ourselves and hope for direction. That text could be a record, a person, a repair manual, a book of poetry, a birth certificate, a website, a tome of philosophy, a celebrity’s sayings, one’s own internal dialogue, or the Bible—or, more commonly, some combination of all those texts.

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Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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