Earlier today, Mere Orthodoxy posted a guest post of mine entitled ‘The Dangers of Appealing to Personality Types’. Within it, I engage with a recent piece by Morgan Guyton, ‘Why English Majors Make Lousy Fundamentalists’ (also crossposted on Jesus Creed). Highlighting Guyton’s dependence upon the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the concepts of personality associated with it, I identify some of the dangers that can arise from the increasing popularity of such personality tests within certain Christian circles (since posting, I have been directed to this very helpful piece on the same subject).
Guyton’s argument identifies the ‘INFP’ and the ‘English major’, implicitly claiming the academic privilege and authority enjoyed by the latter for the peculiar sensibilities of the former. Within this post, I would like to interact with the substance of Guyton’s post, which builds upon this identification, more directly. Although the post itself appears to be hastily written, fairly unguarded and slapdash, and I ignored it when I first read it, it subsequently received a lot of appreciation and attention and was recommended by no less than Scot McKnight. While it might seem unfair to Guyton to expose his piece to such detailed analysis, it is on account of its popularity and the influence of the people who have recommended it that I think that it ought to be given some close critical attention. I can sympathize with Guyton’s frustration at being criticized in such detail, but given the hazard of virality that all bloggers face and the higher profile that it has gained since it was first posted, I believe that it is fair game. Although I will direct my criticisms at Guyton, the viewpoint that he expresses here is something with which many, including some leading figures among progressive evangelicals, seem to resonate and are prepared to associate themselves. They, along with Guyton, should be regarded as among the primary targets of this critique.
Guyton’s post lists seven ‘instincts that English majors bring to reading the Bible that make the fundamentalists gnash their teeth at us.’
1) Unsubtle communication is bad writing
The measure of how good a writer you are is the degree to which you are able to communicate with subtlety. If I know how a sentence is going to end before I’ve gotten there, then it’s a crappy, uncreative sentence. To be unsubtle and completely straightforward is to be a bad writer. An English major assumes that the way to get people to do things is not to give them pristine clear commands to follow, but to tell a story that moves their hearts and sways them to respond the way that you’re hoping they will. As an English major, I need for God to be an infinitely better poet than I am, which means that I’m going to be averse to any approach to interpreting the Bible that camps out at a sixth grade level of reading comprehension and assumes God to be straightforward and perfectly clear when he seems to do a far better job of inspiring people with a little subtlety.
I must confess that a measure of surprise attended my reading of this paragraph. My surprise relates to the rather strong view of divine inspiration that would seem to be assumed within it at various points. Progressive evangelicals tend to talk a great deal about the accommodation of divine revelation to the culture of the day and its lower moral standards. However, it is interesting to see that, while progressives may believe that God accommodated his revelation to the brutal practice of slavery and to a misogynistic and patriarchal society, he would draw the line at accommodating it to bad poetry.
‘To be unsubtle and completely straightforward is to be a bad writer.’ Codswallop. A good writer will be able to communicate his thoughts both subtly and directly, as the occasion demands. As George Orwell appreciated, the inability to be completely straightforward in our language can be a threat to the health of society. Scripture holds a wealth of unsubtle speech and clear commands. Even though these are often organized and expressed with considerable literary art, their forthrightness is not diminished. We should also not forget that the appeal of a scripture that avoids being direct and unsubtle can be great for those who desire as much hermeneutical autonomy as possible for themselves in the understanding and application of its teachings.
It is the implicit idolatry in Guyton’s argument that most concerns me (‘As an English major, I need for God to be…’). Rather than allowing God to be God and seeking to come to terms with God’s revelation as it actually is, he appears to be approaching it with the demand that it fulfil his expectations of what revelation should actually look like. He seems to forget that one aspect of the scandal of divine revelation—one recognized by such as Augustine—is that it does not come to us in the form of great literature. The gods of the pagans inspired better poetry.
2) Narrators are supposed to have agendas
Stories in which you can completely trust the narrator and/or the protagonist are uninteresting and unrealistic. In so many Joyce Carol Oates novels that I’ve read, the narrator has issues that slant how the story is told and thus become a part of the story themselves. So as an English major, when I read the gospel of Luke, I’m going to be tuned into the way that Luke has crafted his story of Jesus as a narrator. How is Luke’s agenda different than Matthew’s when he tells the same stories but puts different words into Jesus’ mouth? What can we speculate about the community that Luke is writing for that differs from the community Matthew is writing for? For fundamentalists, it’s a scandalous betrayal of the text to say that the gospel writers had any kind of agenda other than dispassionately dictating whatever the proverbial angel whispered in their ears for them to copy down. For an English major, that’s just dull writing.
Guyton’s application of the criterion of ‘interestingness’ to scriptural interpretation derives little justification from the text itself, but is an expectation—nay, a demand!—brought to the text from someone in the supposedly privileged position of an ‘English major’. One wonders how the biblical text could survive this criterion if it were applied with any consistency. Are the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles ‘interesting’ writing? Even now, after a billion Bible-reading plans have foundered on the rocks of Leviticus, are we still holding onto the notion that the Bible will be interesting to the modern reader?
However, the most troubling aspect of this point is Guyton’s conflation of ‘interesting’ and ‘realistic’ stories in which narrators are not neutral but have a purpose and commitment with stories in which we cannot ‘completely trust the narrator and/or the protagonist.’ The notion that we cannot completely trust either the narrator or the protagonist of a text such as the Gospel of John stands in a very uneasy relationship with John 20:30-31 and 21:24-25.
I suspect that if Guyton asked around, he might be surprised to discover that many ‘fundamentalists’ are quite happy with the idea that the gospel writers were inspired and committed faithful witnesses, rather than dispassionate and robotic amanuenses of divine dictation. Fundamentalists can be unfashionable and are popular whipping boys. It should not escape us, however, that for many, including I suspect Guyton, it is a category inclusive of conservative evangelicals. On many of the fronts that Guyton is speaking, I am very proud to be counted among the fundamentalists.
The gospel writers undoubtedly craft their narratives differently and have motives that shape their telling of their accounts, but this doesn’t make them unreliable.
3) It’s all about the metaphors
To an English major, what makes a piece of writing rich and poetic are the metaphors it employs. Metaphors are scary things to fundamentalists because they seem like a ploy to undermine the Bible’s authority. To make Genesis 1 literal isn’t just a problem for me because of its contradiction of modern science. It’s a problem because there are so many cool things that the firmament, the waters above, and waters below could stand for metaphorically if they don’t have to be literal scientific facts (take a look at what Augustine does with them in his books 11-13 of his Confessions). When the Bible is “nothing but the facts,” then it’s been robbed of a critically important layer of its beauty. The early church fathers had a very different interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16 than we do today. When they read that “all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching,” they took that to mean that every detail was pregnant with metaphorical content; nothing was mere historical backdrop. For example, Augustine interpreted the six jars of water that Jesus turned into wine in John 2:6 as the six ages of the world.
The first thing that we must be mindful to in such areas is the distinction between the question of the reality, or the concreteness or abstractness, of the extratextual referents of the text and the question of the text’s modes of referentiality (whether literal, metaphorical, or otherwise). The laudable focus upon intratextual and literary or narrative meaning in such movements as postliberalism has often been pursued at the expense of extratextual referentiality. Guyton’s celebration of metaphor fails to give any sort of an adequate account of extratextual referentiality. While it is healthy to recognize the narrative form of the text as constitutive of its truthful witness and not to seek to get ‘behind’ it, it is equally important that we do justice to the fact that, for the text to be a truthful witness, there has to be extratextual referentiality.
Guyton’s remarks also miss the fact that a literal narrative account is quite capable of employing symbolism. I suspect that this failure is partially attributable to his employment of the literal/metaphorical distinction, which tends to exclude the possibility of something being both at the same time. However, a narrative that refers literally is quite capable of being symbolic. By accentuating certain details of events, couching a narrative in certain terms, or highlighting certain patterns, it is possible to reveal symbolic dimensions in narratives that are nonetheless literal. Guyton’s apparent assumption that symbolic meaning in a text can only be recognized where literal referentiality is denied is a rather sophomoric one.
For instance, when Acts 2 describes three thousand people being ‘cut to the heart’ (vv.37, 41), we should probably recognize a symbolic relationship between this event and the events at Sinai in Exodus (cf. Exodus 32:25-29). Identifying this typological connection need not entail any denial of the historical fact of about three thousand people being saved, even though the latter fact is seen to reveal considerably more meaning than one might expect from a bare historical fact.
I wonder whether, if Guyton were better acquainted with the actual writing of fundamentalists, he might be surprised to discover that many of them read the Bible in a manner that perceives great symbolic meaning within all sorts of details that they nonetheless regard as literal references to historical facts (I would love to introduce him to some of my Brethren friends). If he were to study the hermeneutic of the earlier Church Fathers more closely, he might also discover that, in their approach to Scripture, they often have rather more in common with the fundamentalists than he might want to believe: they both recognize the presence of both figurative and literal meanings of the text, but don’t presume that they need to be placed at odds.
The category of ‘metaphor’ is also a problematic one when used in reference to early Church readings. As several scholars have observed (Henri de Lubac, Andrew Louth, Brevard Childs, and a number of others have all written upon this helpfully from various angles), the ‘allegorical’ readings of the Scriptures advanced by such as Origen were driven, not by general literary or hermeneutical theories—as Guyton’s remarks might suggest—but by Christian theological convictions. For instance, as Brevard Childs writes of Origen:
Origen was committed to an understanding shared by the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and the church tradition that preceded him that the sacred biblical text was the vehicle for God’s continual revelation. The text, in all its multidimensional shape, both literal and spiritual, pointed beyond itself to its substance, which was a spiritual reality. Young emphasizes … that the multiple meanings in Origen are really multiple referents. As a result, Origen’s exegetical practice is understood not by contrasting literal and figurative senses, but in his application of cross-referencing within scripture.
Guyton misunderstands the theological impetus of patristic allegory—I would be interested to know whether he has devoted serious study to the matter—when he frames it in terms of a literary preference for metaphor.
4) We make analogies
This overlaps somewhat with #3. When you’re an English major, you’re always making analogies between different books that you’ve read. For instance, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is about the three brothers Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, while Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina likewise includes three brothers Konstantin, Nicolai, and Sergius. So every time I read a story about three siblings, I always have these two great Russian novels in the back of my mind. In reading the Bible, I instinctively look for elements that might be analogies. In the New Testament, there are three major controversies that become important analogies for me in Biblical interpretation: Jesus’ Sabbath healing, the circumcision of the Gentiles, and eating ceremonially unclean foods. For fundamentalist Bible readers, these controversies are isolated incidents that have no bearing on how the church should handle analogous problems today. But an English major like me is going to draw an analogy between how these three issues were handled by Jesus and Paul and how the church should handle issues today including today’s controversy of all controversies, which I’m sure I don’t have to name.
Guyton speaks of drawing analogies as if it were some unique preserve of the English student, or some new wisdom that has suddenly dawned upon the Christian Church. However, many fundamentalist Christians are past masters in recognizing scriptural analogies. Figural and typological readings of Scripture have been going on pretty much uninterrupted for thousands of years. Readers of the scriptures have recognized themselves, their communities, and their circumstances being addressed analogically from within the text. Reading Guyton’s remarks, I begin to wonder whether they are primarily indicative of his limited exposure to conversations that have been occurring for centuries in his absence, leading to the presumption that he is the bearer of an insight that hasn’t occurred to many fundamentalists long before he came along.
The key difference between the fundamentalists and Guyton is not found in the belief that Scripture addresses our world analogically—a conviction that many fundamentalists hold far more firmly than Guyton would—but in the fundamentalists’ rejection of the particular analogies that Guyton draws. Jesus’ Sabbath healings, the circumcision of the Gentiles, and the eating of unclean foods have all received considerable attention in conservative Christian circles and are hardly treated as isolated historical incidences without contemporary relevance.
The fact that we should be drawing analogies between biblical accounts and the contemporary Church does not mean that every analogy that presents itself is a good one, nor that we have considerable free to draw analogies without a number of scriptural controls. Fundamentalists’ disagreement with Guyton’s assumption that the analogies that he draws from these texts settle key questions of the Church’s response to the LGBT community does not arise from a failure to understand the general appropriateness of drawing analogies from such texts, but from a conviction that the particular analogies that Guyton draws are illegitimate and that they cannot survive rigorous testing in light of a fuller theological and figural reading of the scriptures. This is not the place to engage in a detailed counter-reading of the issues that Guyton raises, but such a reading could easily be presented.
5) We expect characters to be complicated
English majors have read lots of novels. What makes a novel elegant is how it develops its characters. Good literary characters are never purely good guys or bad guys. They are always complicated. So when I read the Bible and I see a character like Abraham, I see a complicated figure, not the model of perfect faithfulness, no matter what Paul and the author of Hebrews say about him. Abraham pimped out his wife twice to avoid getting killed. He refused to stand up to Sarah when she bullied Hagar and Ishmael. He was ready to murder his son Isaac, because a voice in his head that said it was God told him to do so. Because I’m an English major, I talk back to Abraham and every other character in the Bible, including Mr. Infallibility himself, the apostle Paul. When I read Paul’s letters, I hear his humanity come out. Sometimes I sympathize with him; sometimes I don’t. While I appreciate Paul’s zeal and his deeper vision, I’m not sure I would do everything he told me to do if I were alive then because he can really be an arrogant jerk sometimes. A fundamentalist doesn’t recognize Paul to have a character as such because Paul is simply a mouthpiece of God.
At this point I should raise one of my greatest concerns with Guyton’s approach. Guyton consistently imposes the expectations and prejudices of a modern Western literary reader onto ancient texts. The unsophistication of his assumption that the biblical text should conform to the patterns of the modern novel baffles me. Those who impose the expectations of modern historiography upon the text of Scripture are often and rightly challenged. However, Guyton seems to go a step further, imposing expectations appropriate to modern literary fiction upon an ancient historical narrative. If the former approach is rightly regarded as a domestication and distortion of biblical meaning, how much more the approach that Guyton is advocating? Surely a student of literature should be alert to matters of literary genre and to the ways in which ancient historiography might radically defy the expectations of someone accustomed to modern novels. Furthermore, if Guyton were to talk to students of ancient history or literature, he may discover that the habits of reading that they learnt differ markedly from those of his own training.
This cuts to the heart of this fifth point of Guyton’s. So much of the chatter about ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ in Christian circles today proceeds in a manner largely oblivious to the particular form that these things take within the scriptures themselves. What we mean by ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ is some way removed from the character that they have in the Bible, yet their presence in the Bible is used to justify the cavalier uses to which we put these categories. Guyton’s point about characterization is a great example of an instance where the expectations of the modern reader are confounded by the reality of the biblical text. I remarked in a recent post:
The fact that scriptural narrative, in contrast to much preaching upon it, is not typically focused upon the subjective states, inner lives, and autonomous identities of its protagonists is seldom properly recognized. While Scripture speaks of many particular persons, it does not share the type of emphasis that our culture places upon individuality and personal narratives. Where we have elevated ‘personality’, often to the neglect of ‘character’, Scripture presents us with limited clues to the ‘personalities’ of its characters and seems to have little interest in the matter. In God’s eternal wisdom, he did not choose to reveal Jesus’ MBTI personality type.
In Scripture, individuals find much of their significance within the larger stories to which they contribute and in terms of the typological roles that they perform. Biblical characters are pretty ‘flat’, rather than possessing the ‘rich internal life’ that the self-reflection encouraged by such things as widespread diary-writing and the modern novel has accustomed us to. First person autobiographical narratives are not the norm. Rather, biblical narrative situates people within a story that is not their own and speaks of them from a third person perspective that clearly relativizes their self-accounts.
Where Guyton’s training in the reading of modern literature has misled him, causing him to focus upon the complexity of characters in their individual personalities, I would suggest that the biblical narrative is rather focused upon the richness of figural meaning in the lives of its protagonists, upon the ways that their lives reveal larger developing patterns of divine action. For a detailed study of how this plays out in the particular stories that Guyton raises, I would direct you to my treatment of these passages in my yet to be completed 40 Days of Exoduses series.
Guyton’s remarks about the Apostle Paul also need to be challenged. Many fundamentalists would be rather surprised to discover that they don’t believe that Paul has a character because he is a mouthpiece of God. As with literal and symbolic meaning, it just never occurred to them to regard the two things to be at odds with each other. Fundamentalists hear the humanity of Paul in his letters too and often preach upon it (has Guyton ever listened to a fundamentalist sermon on Philemon, 2 Corinthians 12, 2 Timothy 4, Philippians 1, or other such passages?). They just believe, beyond the ideological straitjacket of much modernity, that Paul could be both fully human and a divinely-inspired writer of Holy Scripture. Also, the fact that he was inspired in his writing of his canonical epistles and that they are regarded as infallible doesn’t mean that Paul himself was regarded as infallible.
6) Poetry trumps grammar and history
The default fundamentalist way of interpreting the Bible is grammatical-historical. What matters to the fundamentalists is how the words in the Bible were used in the time-period when they were written. That’s the only meaning they are allowed to have. In contrast, an English major notices all the interesting poetic quirks about the words, which are allowed to influence their meanings. So for instance, the fact that the Greek word for church, ekklesia, is the word used in the Septuagint for Hebrew religious gatherings and the word used in pagan society for public political assemblies doesn’t make its meaning reducible to “religious gathering” for me. When I see ekklesia, I see a compound noun combining ek (out) and klesia (calling). So ekklesia to me will always be about God’s calling us out of the world and into a new reality instead of being merely a “religious gathering,” because I see the word with a poet’s eyes.
The restriction of biblical meaning to the grammatical-historical may be true in the case of many fundamentalists, but it is hardly a universally held position, as many fundamentalists have given great significance to figural readings of texts. More particularly, however, the opposition that Guyton establishes between grammatical-historical understandings of the meaning of words and texts and literary and poetic understandings seems to arise in large measure from an ignorance of what grammatical-historical readings actually involve and the impression that they somehow exclude the poetic and literary dimensions of texts’ meaning. Isn’t a ‘grammatical’ understanding of texts able to include poetry?
The reason why grammatical-historical exegetes would generally take issue with the claim that Guyton makes in the particular case of the word ekklesia is not on account of a dullness to the poetic and allusive character of words and texts. Rather, they would firmly reject his interpretation on account of their greater sensitivity to the specific forms that this takes and to the unanticipated dangers and fallacies that lie in the path of careless and undisciplined novices in these areas. One is tempted to suggest a reading of James Barr’s fifty plus page treatment of etymological fallacies in his Semantics of Biblical Language. Guyton might then be able to provide a more nuanced defence of his position, one more alert to the need to address the many counter-arguments that have been raised by seasoned scholars who have considered this etymology. However, at the moment, he seems entirely innocent of knowledge of this wider debate. While Greek scholars might accord Guyton a measure of poetic licence within a homiletical context to engage in felicitous wordplay, most would be swift to point out the deeply flawed nature of his etymology.
Readings of Scripture that are alert to poetry and symbolism are not news to conservative or fundamentalist Christians. I would suggest that Guyton take the opportunity to acquaint himself with the work of Peter Leithart or James Jordan, for instance. He might be encouraged to discover that many conservative and fundamentalist Christians share his appreciation for the poetic potential of language.
The issue here isn’t really poetic sensitivity, however, but the use of an undisciplined appeal to poetic licence to end-run the ostensive meaning of biblical texts—‘poetry trumps grammar and history.’ By playing poetic sensitivity off against grammar and history, it is weakened, not strengthened. A deeper poetic sensitivity can be found as we attend to the ways in which words operate within their immediate and wider historical and textual contexts and within semantic systems. As we do this, we may realize that not every potential allusion or poetic connection has the sort of immediacy, relevance, or legitimacy that we might presume. One could imagine the etymology for ekklesia that Guyton presents having relevance within a context where it was being highlighted by means of wordplay (much as one imagine a poetic use of many English terms that would explore forgotten etymologies, verbal resemblances, and dead meanings—the Bible is quite prepared to do this sort of thing itself on occasions). However, Guyton’s more general claim about the meaning of the term cannot be supported.
Once again, it is the appeal to a modern poetic sensibility, unchastened by close attention to the text, as if that granted privileged access to biblical meaning that is the problem here. A dilettante’s romantic enthusiasm about poetic readings can also substitute for the actual work of careful reading, which is far less appealing. Against the volume of encomia to the poetic and romantic character of the biblical text, the quantity of detailed and careful exegesis produced can appear rather slight and of very uneven quality. This is the biblical exegesis of the ‘pub expert’ or the ‘fanboy’.
Guyton’s piece came to mind when I reread Kevin Dettmar’s scintillating critique of Dead Poets Society this morning. Dettmar describes the amateur’s approach to the humanities, the approach of the fan rather than the critic:
If Wordsworth and the Romantics sometimes argue for an anti-intellectual (or merely non-intellectual) relationship to nature, they never offer this as a theory of reading, as Keating consistently does.
But many people like misreading “The Tables Turned,” and like their poetry, as the Car Talk guys would say, “unencumbered by the thought process.” There’s a reason there’s no Dead Novelists Society: for poetry, in the public imaginary, is the realm of feeling rather than thinking, and the very epitome of humanistic study. To understand how preposterous and offensive this stipulation is, turn it around. Imagine what would happen if we suddenly insisted that physics professors were ruining the beauty and mystery and wonder of the natural world by forcing students memorize equations. Or if we demanded that the politics department stop teaching courses in political theory.
Guyton’s romantic and anti-intellectual vision of poetic reading has some uncomfortable similarities to this. One of the greatest dangers of such a posture is that the text is prevented from resisting its reader. Such ‘poetic’ reading, which ignores the unwelcome work of the hard-nosed critic, risks rendering the text a screen upon which we project our own prejudices. Dettmar observes:
For Keating—and one fears, examining the scant evidence the film provides, for his students—every poem is a Song of Myself. This, then, is what’s at stake in Keating’s misreadings—I’m not interested simply in catching a fictional teacher out in an error. But he misreads both Frost and Whitman in such a way that he avoids precisely that encounter with the other, finding in poetry only an echo of what he already knows—what he’s oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
Such ‘poetic’ reading can easily dull the scandal that the text presents to us with romantic wishful thinking.
7) Every text has multiple voices
When you study novels in college, you’re trained that it’s a fallacious enterprise to try to determine the author’s single, unequivocal “intended meaning” for a text. What’s more interesting are all the rebellious dissenting voices within a text. I will never forget getting into a fierce debate in class over the Brothers Karamazov. There’s a character named Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov, whom the narrator describes with pure contempt. It seems like the author Dostoevsky really wants for the reader to hate Smerdyakov, but he’s so nasty to him that the text rebels against its author and quivers with outrage at Smerdyakov’s treatment. I see the Old Testament quiver in a similar way when God strikes Uzzah dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6. Since God is a much more complicated, brilliant author than any of us could be, it’s hard for me to believe that God doesn’t anticipate the sympathy that readers will show for the declared “bad guys” in his text and that this sympathy isn’t part of his calculated purpose in telling the story the way he does. To respond to the Bible without a heart seems like a greater crime against God’s purpose than to protest whenever the Bible shows God doing something that doesn’t jibe with Jesus’ character. How do we know that God isn’t baiting us into protest? Does God really have to be as unsophisticated as his most simple-minded readers? I happen to think that he’s a real trickster just like Jesus is when he refuses to answer any question in a straightforward way.
Once again, Guyton imposes the expectations of a reader of modern fiction upon the biblical text. The applicability and appropriateness of literary theory of fairly recent vintage and limited cultural provenance to the reading of the scriptural texts is assumed, rather than argued. A ragbag of concepts of literary theory—Bakhtinian ‘polyphony’, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and feminist literary criticism—seem to provide the basis for Guyton’s largely a priori claim that Scripture invites such readings.
What is altogether lacking here is any account of Scripture’s sui generis character. There is no indication of extensive reflection upon the concept of canon, for instance, and the way that this ought to frame our reception of the various voices and narratives within it, both of the characters of its stories and the biblical authors themselves. Deconstructive readings of biblical texts are undoubtedly possible. However, to what extent are such readings consistent with the canonical form within which such texts are presented to us? Are they consonant with the Scriptures own reading of themselves? Does the biblical text also ‘rebel against its author’?
A subtle yet persistent underlying theme in Guyton’s argument concerns his unassailable prerogatives as an interpreter over against a biblical text largely shorn of its authority. It begins with the implied suggestion that the mere possession of a particular personality type grants him some sort of privileged insight into the way that the Scripture ought to be read, something that can be employed to dismiss many who would challenge him (‘he is an ISTP, of course he wouldn’t understand!’). Much of the rest of his argument then proceeds on the basis of the assumption that God must conform to the naturally enlightened expectations of a contemporary English major. Once again, the foundation is now laid for lightly disregarding those without such a background.
Now that Guyton has asserted his natural entitlement and privilege as a reader, much of the rest of his case proceeds by limiting the claims that the text might make upon him. God’s word shouldn’t be ‘unsubtle and completely straightforward’, nor should it involve ‘clear commands’. ‘As an English major,’ Guyton needs God to conform to his privileged and enlightened expectations and, significantly, to communicate in a fashion that affords him maximal interpretative latitude.
The expectation that we should trust the biblical text is also problematic and restrictive of interpretative autonomy. Trustworthy narrators are just so dull. And who could think of a worse fate than for God to fail the Wildean test, turning out to be tedious, rather than charming? Consequently, we ought to appeal to the committed character of the biblical writers as a basis for a (relatively soft-pedalled) hermeneutic of suspicion.
Metaphor is to be celebrated, especially as it allows the interpreter to think of all of the ‘cool things’ that the text could stand for metaphorically if it didn’t have to be constrained by the dull and prosaic limitations of literal meaning. All the better if these metaphorical meanings are not regarded as subject to clear scriptural controls. The ability to draw analogies has great advantages. When we have already granted ourselves so much wriggle-room with regard to determining the meaning of the text, the fact that we can use our poetic and interpretative licence to draw analogies that invoke divine authority for our pet causes in the current day is akin to being written a blank cheque.
From the enlightened position of an English major, a person can recognize that God must make the writers and characters of Scripture complex characters to which we are supposed to talk back and only occasionally sympathize with. (For what sort of a god would fail to meet the expectations of an English major?) In giving us the Scriptures, God subjects it to the sovereignty of our personal and moral sensibilities, allowing us to cast judgment upon the worth of its contents and characters accordingly. Possessing the privileged insight of a ‘poet’s eyes’ such a reader can ‘trump grammar and history’ and read texts on a higher plane.
The fact that the biblical text must have multiple and ‘dissenting’ voices entitles us to forge our textual allegiances however we see fit. God is obviously a ‘trickster’, who wouldn’t be so ‘unsophisticated’ as to communicate with us ‘in a straightforward way’, in a way that might be understood by—shudder!—his ‘most simple-minded readers.’ Recognizing this, we are freed to read the biblical text against itself, to deconstruct it, to read against the ‘actantial grain’. Such a text does not really tie us down to any particular reading (such an approach often appeals to radical ‘interpretative pluralism’ as evidence, thereby imputing many of the failures of the text’s interpreter’s to the text itself). It is important to observe that many of the celebrations of the scriptural reader’s questioning that one often encounters in progressive Christian circles today fail to recognize within the text much of an authority and power to question us back.
In a post that has received a fairly positive response in progressive evangelical circles, Guyton has presented us with a deeply problematic account of biblical interpretation. The ‘English major’, brimming with natural entitlement and privilege, is granted an immense hermeneutical freedom. The text gives him the right to employ it to underwrite his moral prejudices, yet it is muzzled in all of the respects in which it might otherwise be permitted to challenge him.
I believe in the Christological character of Scripture. God has permitted his Word to be delivered into the hands of men, often in order to be crucified in weakness. Nevertheless, this same Word lives by the power of God and, despite all of the violence of our literary theories and reading practices, will prove the final Word, calling every one of its readers to account, testing the thoughts and the intents of their hearts. God does not need us to defend his Word. However, as those who interpret it we often need to be reminded of its authority over us and of the subtle and sophisticated ways in which we can undermine this. Let us pray that we learn to love, trust, and obey God’s Word, and that we receive it with a godly fear.