A Lesson from Soren Kierkegaard


So, I’m working on a book on reading the Bible, specifically on a chapter on the reader’s role in the phenomenon of meaning.  (I’ve experienced a long interruption in the form of another book; I received a contract to write a small book on the Trinity and, as they say, a contract in the hand is worth two books on spec.  Having finished the book on the Trinity, I return to the Bible.)

Couldn’t sleep last night, so I decided to read from a book about Søren Kierkegaard that I started last Summer and never finished.

The book is Steven M. Emmanuel, Kierkegaard and the Concept of Revelation (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996).  On p. 19 I found this quotation:

Each pseudonymous text [of SK] is brought forth from the perspective of its author, and is then opened up to interpretation and appropriation from the perspective of the reader.  In this way, Kierkegaard recognizes the efficacy of the incomplete as a stimulus for transforming those who read his works. . . .  Kierkegaard is in substantial agreement with Nietzsche’s view that an author’s true task is not merely to impart information, but to be an occasion for the reader’s self-activity. . . .  Writing emerges as a means of communication, not in the sense of a direct transmission of meaning or truth between individuals or between text and reader, but rather as an incitement to further activity in and through the individual’s subjective appropriation of ethical-religious truth.

fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinIn a moment of inspiration, I realized that these words were utterly a propos of the chapter I’m currently working on.  I was like Augustine in the garden, being told to take and read.

What I realized is that SK’s many works, some under his name, others under fictitious names, is an analogy of the Bible: many works, many authors.  Further, SK’s fictitious authors frequently comment on the writing of other fictitious authors, offering a parallel to the Bible’s intertexuality–the way in which one biblical text quotes or comments on or alludes to other biblical texts.

Reader response theory comes into view when one sees that, just as the reader of SK’s works must try to make sense of his entire body of work, with its multiple authors and points of view, so the reader of the Bible must do the same with the Bible’s many authors and points of view.

Attribution of images:

Music and Reading the Bible (The Reader’s Culture, Part 3)

August 22, 2016

What is music? And what can music tell us about the reader’s role in co-creating the Bible’s meaning?

Rhythm_changes_complete_in_B-flat_SpitzerI took up classical guitar a few years ago.  I had musical experience before I did so, but I never thought about music philosophically.  But once I started playing guitar and, more important, performing, I did begin to reflect more philosophically about music.

I had always assumed that, in the primary sense, music is what the composer wrote–the score.  Once I began to perform and saw the interpretive decisions that go into a performance, I realized that the score is not music, at least not in its fullest sense.  The score is potentially music, but it requires performance to make it actual music.

The notes on a page are thus not the music.  They are instructions for creating music.

Sometimes the instructions are pretty general; at other times they are specific.  In classical guitar music, the further back you go (Renaissance, Baroque), the less the composer indicated how the music should be played.  The nearer you get to the present, the more composers tend to indicate in the score how they want the music to be played.

But every performance involves interpretation.  The score may indicate a tempo of lento or allegro, but those words really indicate ranges; individual measures will be played faster or slower according to how the performer feels the music ought to go.  The score may tell you to play a section quietly or loudly, but it’s really all relative.  The performer finally has the responsibility of determining what he or she thinks the piece is about–what are its dramatic qualities, the interplay of dynamics, of tension and resolution.


One of my favorite Jazz guitarists: Barney Kessel

Joe Pass

Another of my favorite Jazz guitarists: Joe Pass

That is why jazz tells us so much about music.  Jazz is about improvisation.  Within the parameters of the piece’s harmonic structure (the chords), the performer treats the score as a script that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways.  (See the lead sheet above, which omits the melody and reduces the song to its chords.) And even the harmonic structure can be altered via substitution of one chord for another.  Of course, improvisation and chord substitution are subject to the laws of music, but these are pretty flexible laws, giving the performer great latitude.


So, what has this got to do with reading the Bible?

  • Perhaps we can think of the Bible as being like a musical score–it contains potential meaning, but it requires reading/hearing in order to become actual meaning. Reading actualizes the Bible as a meaningful text just as performance actualizes a musical score and creates music.
  • If so, then reading the Bible is a performance, a creative act.
  • As a creative act, reading does not come about ex nihilo (from nothing).  It comes from the score and the interpretation of the score.  But it’s not just the score in a different form.
  • Just as there is variation in performance, so there is variation in reading, in interpretations of the Bible.
  • Just as there are good and bad performances of music, authentic and inauthentic interpretations of music, so there are parameters for biblical interpretation.  Some interpretations are compelling, others are absurd.  Just as there are parameters even in Jazz and thus limits to improvisation, so there are limits to biblical interpretation.


Photo attribution:



Writing and death (Modern Art and the Bible 5)

August 16, 2016

Here’s a photo of a painting at the Phoenix Art Museum:

Oiled dead

Like all modern art, it invites thought.  What is the connection between “oiled” and “dead”?

Is it statement about the way in which a piece of art, once painted (“oiled”), becomes something fixed (“dead”)?  If so, what at what point is the work of art living?

Or is it a statement about the materiality of painting? That the canvas, which was once something living (cotton or linen) is now, having been oiled (painted), something dead? That while art may be living, it requires death.

In either case, this artist has used painting to say something about painting.  Here, as in much modern art, the product is self-referential.  The art is about itself, and not about an object lying outside itself.

If we meditate thus on the Bible, analogies emerge.  Is the word of God, once written, something fixed (dead) in contrast to the living, spoken word?  There were some second century Christian writers who emphatically preferred the spoken tradition over the written word.  And as Paul said, the letter kills while the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).

As well, like a painting scripture is a matter of laying marks onto a fabric from something formerly living–papyrus, animal skin, trees.

Theologians should study modern art more diligently.  The Bible is, after all, a work of art–an artifice, an artifact.  It is something made.  The way in which modern artists use their art to point to the nature of art can help the theological community grasp the Bible’s character as something material, inscribed on other material.  It can also help us see how the Bible, like much modern art, is self-referential–the ways in which it is constantly drawing attention to itself as something written.

The Reader’s Culture (part 2)

August 15, 2016

Here are some thoughts about biblical interpretation as I try to get clear about the reader’s role in the phenomenon of meaning.

The chapter that I am currently working on is about the way in which we create meaning as we read the Bible.  This is because the Bible (like any text) is, at the most basic level, marks on a page.  Readers interpret those marks as words bearing meaning.  But the act of gathering the meaning is not simply a matter of decoding signals, as an old model of communication suggested.


This model suggests a machine-like simplicity in the act of communication.  One brain encodes information in linguistic signs and expresses those signs in some form (speech, written words).  Another brain then perceives the signs and decodes them, extracting the meaning.

Interpretation is in fact a much more creative process, especially if interpretation is trying Billie_Burke_and_Judy_Garland_The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939)to get at something besides the semantic content of a text.  Think about interpretations of The Wizard of Oz.  Some have seen it (especially the book) as an allegory about the political movement, Populism.  In this view, the story is about the struggle of farmers (e.g., the scarecrow) against industrialists (the Wicked Witch).    The city of Oz represents Washington, D.C.  Dorothy’ journey there symbolizes the ultimately futile hope of farmers for help from government.

A different line of interpretation see the Wizard of Oz (especially the film) in psychoanalytic terms.  Dorothy represents the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  In a Jungian interpretation, the various characters in the film symbolize the various parts of Dorothy’s psyche that she must integrate into order to achieve full individuation.  The scarecrow represents rationality, the tin man emotions, Glinda (the good witch) Dorothy’s ideal self, and so on.

These sorts of interpretations are not really about discerning the meaning of events within the film (e.g., how Dorothy proposes to deal with Miss Gulch after she wakes up from her dream).  They are instead interested in grasping what I will call the film’s existential meaning–its message for the viewer.

The idea of existential meaning is that something can say more than what it seems to mean.  There is, for instance, the example of rhetorical questions.  When I was in high school, we thought it was hilariously funny to respond to questions having obvious answers with the rhetorical question, “Is the pope a Catholic?”  Rhetorical questions show us that the meaning of a sentence goes far beyond its grammatical form and semantic content.

The interpretations of The Wizard of Oz discussed above all assume that it communicates at two (perhaps more) levels: At the level of narrative, it is the simple story of an adventure, a journey.  As such, it is primarily an act of entertainment; it has no message for the audience, except perhaps homely bits of advice like “endure hardship” and “persevere in troubles.”

But at another level, The Wizard of Oz perhaps does contain a message or messages that bear on the audience’s existential situation.  Perhaps the book really was a satire about Populism cast in the form of a children’s story.  Perhaps it really does reflect the dynamics of the psyche, comparable to the way in which the original Star Wars films (episodes 4-6) reflect oedipal dynamics (the Luke Skywalker and his father theme).

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader

Asking about the existential meaning of a film or text involves the viewer’s or reader’s situation.  We can ask political or psychoanalytic questions about The Wizard of Oz because of our cultural situation.  In our situation, those sorts of questions make sense. The text/film makes sense to us in those terms.  It is, in a word, meaningful.

This means that reading a text or seeing a film is more than just receiving information. We do receive information from the text or film, but we do so according to our cultural situation.  Our understanding of what the film/text is about is a process in which elements from the film/text are joined together by means of resources available in our culture.  Put differently, we inevitably understand things according to our situation.  Being embedded in our culture (really, cultures), we necessarily find the existential meaning of a film/text in its capacity to speak to us in our situation.

Here’s the point: The act of reading the Bible for its existential meaning (i.e., reading the Bible as the word of God) necessarily involves hearing it speak to us in our situation.  Historical study of the Bible helps us to a limited extent get out of our cultural situation and enter into the thought-world of ancient people.  This is necessary and important in order to appreciate the historical particularity of the Bible and to avoid manifestly bad interpretations.

But historical study cannot in itself yield the existential meaning of the Bible.  For this sort of meaning, we have to engage the biblical text, not in the somewhat artificial guise of the historian, but as beings rooted in a particular, contemporary culture.  Without this approach the Bible remains a historical artifact, like ancient coins and pottery.

Obviously, there is much more to be said on this subject.

The Reader’s Culture

August 8, 2016

I’m working on a chapter that deals with the role of the reader in interpreting the Bible.  In contemporary theory, the meaning of a text is not simply in the words, but in the ways in which readers construe those words.  The words bear a potential meaning, but the meaning is not actualized until the text is read and understood.
Sound wave

It’s like sound: molecules vibrating in the air are potentially sound, but they are not actually sound until they strike an ear that transmits signals to the brain.


Music score

Or, like music: a composition (notes on a page) is potentially music, but it becomes actual music in performance.


And just as musical performance and hearing involve interpretation (e.g., selective attention and judgment), so reading a text like the Bible always involves interpretation.  The reader constructs the meaning of the text by focusing on certain parts of it.

Theologically considered, we can say that revelation is not revelation until it is received.

However, it’s not just that the reader completes the process of meaning.  The larger point is that the reader’s situation (his or her gender, culture, political context, and so on) is a factor.  Who we are determines, at least in part, how we understand.

There is scientific evidence to support this notion.  Reading a facial expression is like Eduard_von_Grützner_Falstaffreading a text–there are physical signs that must be interpreted. It turns out that gender is a factor in interpreting facial expressions:

Women assessed smiling individuals as more honest than men did. . . .  Social judgements may be affected by gender-based expectations. Women are expected to be more communal and expressive than men as well as more sensitive to emotional expressions of others. Smiling increased women’s perception of communal trait honesty of others (See reference 1 below).

Our cultural situation even affects basic acts of perception. In one scientific study, test subjects

report[ed] what they saw in underwater scenes. Americans emphasized focal objects, that is, large,  brightly colored, rapidly moving objects. Japanese reported 60%  more information about the background (e.g., rocks, color of  water, small nonmoving objects) than did Americans.

fish-908862_960_720The researchers concluded that “compared  with Americans, the Japanese encoded the scenes more holistically, binding information about the objects with the backgrounds.”  In another experiment, it was discovered that “Americans to spend more time looking at the focal objects and less time looking at the context than the Chinese participants” (Reference 2).

In other words, cultural factors determine what we see–what the mind/brain picks out as significant.

Our cultural situation also conditions how we feel our own bodily states.  Asians, as noted, generally experience things in connection with surrounding objects to a greater extent than do Americans and Europeans.  In several experiments, researchers tested subjects’ abilities to perceive their heartbeat.  The experiments found “cross-cultural differences in heartbeat detection ability, with Asians demonstrating less accuracy than European Americans.”  The reason for the difference is “the greater amount of attention they [Asians] pay to context. The contextual dependency that makes Asians more sensitive to situational-environmental cues also rendered them less able to focus and accurately perceive their own internal bodily states” (Reference 3).

Human beings who read the Bible and who receive God’s revelation are enmeshed in the particularities of their cultures.  This inevitably affects how they read and understand the Bible.  We who inhabit technological, scientific cultures tend to read the Bible in ways that make sense to us, but it is good to remember that people in other cultures have their own ways of understanding the Bible.


  1. Krys, Kuba, et al. “It is better to smile to women: Gender modifies perception of honesty of smiling individuals across cultures,” International Journal Of Psychology 50, no. 2 (March 2015): 153.
  2. Hannah Faye Chua, Julie E. Boland and Richard E. Nisbett, “Cultural Variation in Eye Movements during Scene Perception,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102, No. 35 (Aug. 30, 2005), pp. 12629-12633.
  3. Ma-Kellams, Christine, Jim Blascovich, and Cade McCall. “Culture and the Body: East-West Differences in Visceral Perception,” Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology 102, no. 4 (April 2012): 718-728

Textual Surface and the Bible’s Underground (Modern Art and the Bible 4)

July 29, 2016

IMG_20160714_145618066Phoenix’s Art Museum has a set of photographs (I forgot to note the artist’s name), showing tree roots and their effects on sidewalks.

They provide a great illustration for all sorts of themes–the power of nature vs. human artifice, the ultimate destruction of all things human, even plate techtonics.


This one (to the right) especially caught my eye.  The image of the root, partly hidden, IMG_20160714_145749471partly visible, snaking subterraneously under the flat surface of the sidewalk, seemed unusually evocative as I think about the nature of the Bible and its writing.

The biblical text is like a flat surface–like the sidewalk’s surface, it gives the appearance of being simply available for visual inspection.  Just as the sidewalk can be apprehended by a simple act of seeing, so the biblical text seems capable of being understood by a simple act of reading.

But it’s telling that the root slithers snake-like under the sidewalk, subtly raising it and displacing the asphalt next to it.  In a similar way, the apparently smooth surface of the biblical text reveals bumps and ripples caused by something under the text, something that sometimes appears and sometimes is hidden.

There is always more to the text than what meets the eye.

American Politics: Nothing New Under the Sun

July 29, 2016

Halberstam, the fiftiesI’m reading a great book, David Halberstam’s The Fifties.  It’s a journalistic look at major cultural (e.g., Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe) and political (e.g., Joseph McCarthy, Eisenhower) moments in America in the 1950s.

Here are three excerpts from chapters on political trends.  Although describing political dynamics in the 1950s, they are also a commentary on conservative politics today:


The crisis of the postwar years was . . . still the crisis of isolationism versus internationalism.

It was not by chance that so much of the resistance to America’s new internationalism came from the great center of the country. In some ways the heartland was still apart, instinctively resistant to any greater American involvement in Europe and wary of those Eastern leaders who would tie us closer to any nation in Europe, traditional ally or not. Part of the reason for the resistance was geographic, for the American Midwest remained a vast insular landmass that bordered on no ocean and still felt confident and protected by its own size.

Richard Gid Powers has described Hoover’s ethos as “a turn-of-the-century vision of America as a small community of like-minded neighbors proud of their achievements, resentful of criticism, fiercely opposed to change. As twentieth-century standards of the mass society swept over traditional America, subverting old values, disrupting old customs and dislodging old leaders, Americans who were frightened by the loss of their community saw in Hoover a man who understood their concerns and shared their anger, a powerful defender who would guard their America of memory against a world of alien forces, strange people and dangerous ideas.”

Even today, American politics still turns on issues of internationalism vs. isolationism, and the way in which this contradiction maps onto geography, with the urban, coastal centers leaning toward internationalism and the country’s interior sympathetic to isolationist, America-first impulses.

Not related to politics, but a great quotation anyway:

Design [of automobiles in Detroit] became the critical decision. . . . Engineering became steadily less important. . . . .  All three major auto companies became caught in a vicious syndrome: a worship of the new at the expense of the old, even if on occasion the old was better.

This quotation nicely summarizes the triumph of vacuous image over reality in American culture.

Galileo and the Bible (conclusion)

July 22, 2016

Children singing (Psalm 150)

Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) Illustration of Psalm 150

In the great contemporary struggle to find alternatives to wooden, sclerotic literalism some Christians have landed on the view that the Bible’s authority lies in its message of salvation.  The implication, sometimes expressed, is that the Bible is not an authority on other matters, especially on scientific matters.

As John Wesley wrote, “I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book!”

The view that the Bible is about salvation is a vast improvement over the absurd claim that the Bible is an authoritative source of knowledge on every topic.

At the same time, does this view help us as we wrestle with the biblical texts involving the natural world?  Much, of course, depends on how we define salvation, but the quotation from Wesley is telling: the concern is to get to heaven.  But if the Bible’s purpose is to guide us to heaven, what are we to make of Psalm 65, which is a prayer of thanksgiving to God for a good harvest?  Or Psalm 104, which praises God’s wisdom displayed in the world?  Or Psalm 148, which calls upon everything–stars, fire and hail, mountains, trees, and animals–to offer praise to God?  If the Bible’s main purpose is to guide us to heaven, then it seems that it contains an abundance of extraneous material.

But this extra material makes more sense if we think of salvation, not as getting to heaven, but instead as worship, as doxology.

To be human (as the Bible wants to portray it) is to be flesh that is summoned to dwell in the presence of God.  We are obviously beings of flesh–that which is inherently weak.  We are beings of nature, taking our place alongside other animals.  Much of our behavior is motivated by exactly the impulses that drive animals: food, drink, sex, territory, status, fear, anger, jealousy.

At the same time, we are flesh that has been called to be people of God.  God has addressed us and summoned us to a distinctive task in the world.  That task is worship.  Of course, each kind of being in its own way offers worship to God–hence Psalm 148, and also Psalm 19, with its assertion that the sky proclaims God’s glory.  But humans have a distinctive task, commensurate with the power of speech.  The rest of the world praises God by simply being what it is.  Its existence alone constitutes praise.  Humans, however, are called upon to articulate praise verbally and in an act of decision.  We are beings with speech; we praise with words.  We are beings of decision; we may choose to respond to God’s call to offer praise, but we may choose not to do so.  That is why Psalm 104 ends by denouncing wicked sinners.  Unlike the rest of creation, sinners refuse to praise God.  They thus stand out.

I am suggesting that one function of the Bible’s passages about the natural world is to draw us into praise–to remind us that we are members of a world whose other members praise God.  We are parts of a choir, parts that need to be reminded to sing our part.

These passages about nature are accordingly not informative.  It is fruitless and insulting to try to squeeze scientific information from them, like juice from an orange, in the manner of Fundamentalists.

But it is also misleading to try to force them into an interpretation that sees the Bible as showing us the path of salvation, at least if salvation is about landing in heaven.  Still, this view has merit, if we rethink salvation.

What if our salvation lies in our worship?  What if worship is our highest good, that to which we are called?  What if human salvation lies in being what we are called to be–beings who with the rest of creation worship God?  In that case, the Bible’s texts on nature do indeed provide us with a message that is strictly about salvation.

Modern Art and the Bible (3)

July 22, 2016

IMG_20160714_145058050Here is a panel from Liliana Porter’s painting, The Traveler (currently housed in the Phoenix Art Museum).

It depicts a small ship on the edge of a mostly gray surface.

It moves from the center to the periphery–a movement of ec-centricity.  Are we to think of this movement as one of danger, of moving toward something unknown?

Or are we to attend to the ship’s smallness in relation to the surrounding gray?

Let the ship represent the interpreter of biblical texts.  Interpretation is always a movement toward something new, occasionally dangerous.  As the Gospel states, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52, NRSV).  Interpretation inevitably involves the bringing forth of some new treasure.  Sometimes the new is experienced as dangerous.

At the same time, the interpreter of a text floats on a vast sea of meaning.  No text can be exhaustively interpreted.  The interpreter is thus tiny in relation to the potential meaning lying in the biblical text.

The Traveler (2)Here is a second panel from The Traveler.  I include it only because of a detail.

IMG_20160714_145118874Pictured in the white field is a page from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, posed, appropriately, with a mirror (reminding the reader of the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass).

In the book that I am writing on the Bible, I use Alice as an example of someone landing in a foreign place and having to find her way about.  For me, this illustrates the situation of the reader of the Bible, finding himself or herself in a very different time and culture, with strange customs and beliefs.

Just as Alice’s adventures are a journey (especially in Through the Looking-Glass), so reading the Bible is a journey.  The reader is a traveler.

Modern Art and the Bible (II)

Shaking out the bed (cropped)

Dana Schultz, Shaking Out the Bed

July 19, 2016

Another report on modern art and its lessons for biblical interpretation.

This painting is named, “Shaking Out the Bed.”  It shows household items being flung up toward the viewer as a bed-sheet is shaken; there are also items lying on tables and the floor around the edges.  The painting is thus a combination of dynamic and static elements.  It’s a bit difficult to see the static elements at first, because the dynamic elements–the things flying upward–occupy the center of the painting and are visually more arresting.

This combination of movement and rest reminded me of John’s gospel.  There is, of course plenty of dynamism and movement in this gospel.  More than in the other gospels, in John’s gospel Jesus moves back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee.  There is also more change of scene: In chapter 7, for instance, secondary characters repeatedly appear with questions and comments that both drive the narrative and guide the reader’s understanding of the narrative.

At the same time, John’s gospel is extraordinarily static in some respects.  It’s filled with discourse but little action.  Whole chapters go by with little but words.  Jesus is reported to be in a new location without indication of how he got there or why he moved.  This gospel is far more stage-like than cinematic.  There are static, minimalistic stagings–we often don’t know where Jesus is and it often doesn’t matter.  There are people talking, but in often in elaborately symbolic conversation.

To read John’s gospel well, we thus need to attend to both its dynamic and also its static elements.