It Begins Here

Alan Jacobs, in his exceptional and wide-ranging book, A Theology of Reading, makes a simple point that has sent my mind reeling and my heart into confession and prayer — and some reflection on how wide-ranging the Jesus Creed can become.

Here it is: genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.

What do you think of interpretation as an act of love?

So, we either listen to the words of Jesus or to the words of a blogger (to use two extremes) and give them our trust and respond to them, or we make of the words of Jesus or a blogger what we’d like and the latter is a form of interpersonal abuse.

To love a person is to listen to them, and to let their voice speak. To listen to a person is to let that person’s world enter into our world. When the latter happens we choose either to enhance our own life with the other person or, as Cain did to Abel, we destroy that other person to make them what we want ourselves. To treat them with love and trust is to let them be the Eikons God made them to be; to refuse to trust them and love them is to make them a golden calf which we can hammer down into our own image.

We have no other real options. Genuine interpretation begins with loving the other.

[A repost.]

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Doug Hendricks

    I have been thinking along this line for a little while now. No true knowledge/understanding without purposeful love. I try to apply this not only to people but to objects, subjects, animals… of course reading is sometimes the first avenue into things.

    I would really like to get a hold of his book. I have been looking for someone (more competent than myself :) ) who could work out the relationship between love and epistemology. Thanks for posting this.

  • Tom F.

    Great reminder about the basic importance of love in reading. Perhaps because its writing rather than an actual person, we don’t realize that this is something coming from another person’s heart.

    I confess that this is not always easy for me.

    I wonder through if love and trust are really the same process. Obviously, the author is right that both are crucial for interpretation/communication. It seems like one could interpret lovingly without trusting the author. One things of interpreting things like “Mein Kempf”.

    It also seems like one can interpret trustingly without love. There is a sort of superficial level of communication that can occur here. I trust the stock market reports, but I don’t feel I have to be especially loving to interpret them. To some extent, interpreting scientific reports seems to require less love, perhaps by design.

  • Ruth Anne shorter

    Tom is so right–many genres of writing from technical to just simply entertainment. Each is regarded differently and rightly so. If you are referring to writings of Christians who would desire to engage us in a deeper walk with our Lord, again, I would be careful about how I publicly critize or “fill in the blank”. Trust? I am cautious about trusting whom I have not personally known outside of technical expertise. Love? For the Christian is easier, for me, but if it is in print, they know what can happen. Are you not willing as an author to continue the convo? You may begin on solid ground–speaking of theology, but I have seen too often, what happens to “successful writers”. You have to consider your purpose when you critique–is it to protect the sheep? Is it to prove you are more brilliant?

  • Amanda

    I was fortunate enough to take a course with Dr. Jacobs in which we read the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s idea of a “hermeneutic of love” transformed the way I choose to approach texts. So glad to see that concept echoed here!

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Awesome post, Scot. I’ve been trying to purposefully ask the following question in every interaction with another person, whether direct (in person)or indirect (in writing):

    “From what perspective is what they are saying true?”

    I find that when I ask and contemplate this question I inevitably find some common ground with the other. To do so is to seriously consider that the other person is expressing their heart as they struggle to make sense of things and to admit that my perspective is not “correct” any more than one facet of a gem is brighter than any other—it all depends on what angle you’re looking at it from.

    I would even take it a step further and say that to interact on a Christlike level we need not just take their world into ours, but need to be able to leave our world and enter into theirs. To dialogue on thir terms and allow the aroma of love to win arguments for us.

    What are some ways that we can do this better on Jesus Creed?

  • http://www.timgombis.com Tim Gombis

    Such a huge point, and even more so in a highly tense, stressed, and embattled culture filled with blogs and . . . just so many people saying/writing so much!

    Such a discipline and a virtue to be cultivated–to stop and think, to make sure we’re understanding and not OVERstanding (as Vanhoozer puts it).

    Thanks for reposting this.

  • Shane

    I think N.T. Wright refers to this as a “hermeneutic of love” over a “hermeneutic of suspicion”

  • Brian

    Love (should) Win(s) in book reviews?

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    What makes this really interesting, for me, is the rise of hermeneutic tendencies that deny that “speaking” is an appropriate metaphor for talking about what texts do. Dale Martin is just one example of a biblical scholar who consistently defends this. I imagine he would respond that texts can’t love – or that the author of a text is no longer available to love. I would disagree, but I am still understanding and articulating why I disagree and how it is, exactly, that these metaphors are adequate to the fraught task of textual interpretation.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Surmounting this predisposition too many of us naturally have – particularly after being betrayed or wounded – is necessary to begin the process of reconciliation to God and others. I so appreciate this quote & will definitely put this book on the top of my short list!

    Amanda, #4, your background w/ Dr. Jacobs & studying Mikhail Bakhtin explains so much about why Scot’s post resonated with me!! Which book(s) of Bakhtin’s did you read, may I ask? (I hope you see the question, even though my comment is belated, due to travels.) This quote of Bakhtin is one of my all-time favorites; I used it for my very first blog post, years ago. :)

    The very being of man … is deepest communion. To be means to communicate. Absolute death (non-being) is that state of being unheard, unrecognized, unremembered. To be means to be for another, and through the other, for oneself. A person has no internal sovereignty, he is wholly and always on the boundary; looking inside of himself, he looks into the eyes of another or with the eyes of another. ~Mikhail Bakhtin

  • Timothy

    How does academic critique play in this notion? As part of my work I have to critique students’ work and it is a waste of time if I pull my punches too much. As an ‘act of love’ I have to be negative when negative criticism is called for.
    In the wider academic world, we critique and thus disagree with many writers. When and how does this tip over into abuse? For example, when would a ‘King Jesus Gospel’ advocate’s remarks about a ‘soterian’ be abuse and when would it be healthy critique? Or vice versa?


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