Of Texts and Pre-Texts

Of Texts and Pre-Texts February 3, 2015

Michael Allen and Scott Swain argue in their Reformed Catholicity (which I review here) that the “rule of faith” that encapsulates the main thrust of Scripture provides a key that unlocks the treasures of Scripture. The rule arises from Scripture, but then becomes a pre-understanding of the whole Bible that serves as a path into the depths of Scripture. 

At one level, I have no dispute with the point, or with the more general, indisputable claim that we come to all texts with pre-understandings that affect what we read. At the very least, we come to a Sanskrit texts with a prior understanding of Sanskrit. More substantively, we typically have some prior grasp of the subject matter we are engaging, and that prior grasp shapes what we notice in a text, how we put pieces together, how we connect the text with other texts and other knowledge.

Yet within all this there is a place for receptivity. Pre-understandings can torture a text into saying just what we want it to say. We can bully a text in such a way that we don’t, can’t, learn anything new from it. But that’s not good reading. Good reading must include a moment of direct engagement with the text itself.

The question is, Is such direct engagement possible? And the answer is, Yes. A bit of reflection on how reading actually takes place will indicate this. I pick up Camus’s Stranger. I have read some Camus before and I have some inkling of what he’s about. (I may have read the Stranger before; for men of a certain age, every book seems brand new.) But as I read, my main job is to follow the words that are actually on the page. Who is this man? What is happening around him? What is his relationship with his mother? Why is he acting so oddly at her funeral? Should he get involved with his neighbor’s plot? 

As I read, the questions raised and information given in the earlier parts of the book shape how I read later parts. Chapters 1-3 become part of a pre-understanding of chapters 10-12. But that’s not a pre-understanding from outside the book. It’s a build-up of an internal pre-understanding of later parts of the book.

Some reading is more fully guided by pre-understanding. I might skim through a book during a research project to gauge its value for the project. In that case, my prior questions determine what I see, and I pick out those passages and chapters that might be useful for me. When I locate the relevant sections, though, my prior questions fade into the background and I begin to read in order to learn something I hadn’t known before.

As I’m reading the Stranger, I’m not consciously thinking about Camus or existentialism or French Algeria. I will stop occasionally at some arresting phrase or episode, glance wistfully out the window, and reflect. At that moment, I explicitly bring to mind things I know from outside the text. When the book is over, I stand back and try to fit the book into the jigsaw of what counts as my knowledge of the world. Along the way, sentence-by-sentence and page-by-page, I am mainly following the words on the page, with no conscious recourse to my pre-understanding.

What about unconscious pre-understandings? Perhaps I don’t think about radical Islam when the stranger and his friends are threatened by the Arabs on the beach, but, without my thinking of it, my feeling of danger during those scenes is heightened by memories of 9/11 news footage and reports about beheadings. Assessments of European colonialism and racism dance in the back of my mind (as characters, Camus’s Arabs are blanks, sheer, dark-skinned threat). This is no doubt true, but on reflection I can identify the prejudgments that shape my reading, evaluate them, and return to reading the words on the page.

The implications for biblical hermeneutics should be evident. Whatever role the rule of faith or some other prior theological system might have on our reading of Scripture, we would be bad readers if that prior understanding bullied the text. And, I submit, it is possible for the text to speak back against those pre-understandings, challenging and revising.

Further, the rule of faith does not so much guide the reading as a guide to second-order reflection on the reading. As I follow the words on the page, I wonder about this and that. I stop, glance wistfully out the window, and ponder. I sort through the claims of the text, and the rule of faith plays an important role in that sorting. But that’s different from saying that the rule of faith actually determines the reading itself.

Besides all that, believers are confident that the Spirit who speaks through the Word cannot be suppressed by our prejudices. 

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