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Of Lists and Understanding

A couple of days ago I linked to a post by J. K. Gayle which is in response to John Hobbins on the question of listing things one needs to read in order to understand the Bible.  I mentioned that I might sound more like J. K. Gayle than John Hobbins when I got around to writing.  John since drew blood (only in the very best sense!) when he drew attention in a comment to the list that is shown in my own masthead.

And indeed my masthead (or header) is a list, and perhaps a more specialized list than either Hobbins or Gayle were discussing.  I produced the header by cropping a section from a picture of my “ready reading” bookcase, the one that sits on my desk and provides my “at arm’s reach” reference and reading.  Those are books I either use regularly in study or that I’m reading or planning to read soon.  There are two more shelves in that bookcase, but those shelves wouldn’t change the composition.  The books would still generally be written by “privileged white males” and the range of subjects would remain largely the same.

But that list also has a context.  It’s the one on my desk.  In my office there is also a computer table, at which I sit more often than I sit at my desk.  There are also eight additional bookcases around the walls, generally much larger than the one that actually sits on my desk.  On these shelves you will find books that vary from mystery and science fiction to literary classics.  You’ll find books in a number of languages.  One of those bookcases is given over to various Bible translations and editions that have interested me over the years.

There are books that reflect my theological history, such as a substantial selection of the books of Ellen G. White, early leader and prophetess of the Seventh-day Adventist church and the full set of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary and associated reference series, with my uncle Don F. Neufeld as associate editor of earlier volumes and finally editor of the later ones, such as the Bible Dictionary.  There are books reflecting my search through various traditions and through skepticism, and there are others that reflect my examination of the United Methodist Church.

Finally, I can point to the list of books my company publishes.  We’re about to release our 28th title, The Character of Our Discontent by Dr. Allan R. Bevere.  One might make a similar criticism of that list, which is that it is largely written by white males of privilege, though the list does include some women as writers, one of whom is my wife and partner in this business, Jody.

But as I noted in the previous post I have made many lists myself.  When I teach classes, even Sunday School classes, I make suggested reading lists.  I have suggested reading lists in my own books, trying to tell learners where more can be found.  So it is not so much the idea of lists in itself that I find objectionable, though I approach them with mixed emotions.  It’s particularly the idea of lists that try to specify what one must read in order to be regarded as literate, or, for that matter, in order to understand the Bible or some other piece of literature.

And even there I must try to nuance my point.  It’s not that lists of suggested reading that will help one understand a particular text are not of value, or even necessary.  The problem is that they are, I believe, at one and the same time both incomplete and too overbearing.  A few times over the years I’ve heard two list builders get into debates about their particular lists, claiming that you really didn’t know ____ unless you had read ______, but the lists didn’t coincide.  Then come the accusations that one or the other person hasn’t done his or her homework because of the missing reading.  It’s especially humorous if the accusations can go both ways–and they usually can.

But here’s what set me off about John’s post in the first place:

Frye taught me, in my own words, that you cannot understand the Bible unless you’ve read Ovid, Milton, and Blake first. Who do you think one must read first in order to understand the Bible?

Really?  I cannot understand the Bible unless I’ve read those particular people?  I just don’t see it.  They’re all pretty good reading recommendations, and I think it would be interesting to take a class discussing reading through that particular set of lenses, but I see no reason whatsoever to privilege that set of lenses over another.

There are many possibilities for how I might be reading and studying the Bible.  I would place considerable emphasis, for example, on finding the historical meaning.  That quest is being ridiculed now in many quarters, but I’m not in agreement.  I think there’s a point to being chastened in our assurance that we actually can get to the precise historical meaning, but I don’t agree that there’s little point in trying.

Studying through reception is itself an interesting and valuable quest, but it is not the only one.  It seems that this particular quest shares a failing that I see through the entire history of modern Biblical studies and even leading into postmodern–the notion that one’s particular approach to the Bible is the whole story.  Form critics tend to see everything as orally transmitted even when it isn’t, and once form criticism is done, one “understands” the text.  Redaction and source critics think that once they’ve untangled the threads (or think they have) and described how they were woven together, they understand the text.  Canonical critics, in turn, think that everything about the text when they understand it in its canonical setting.  (This is the form of the error to which I believe I am personally most susceptible.) When we move to reader-response, suddenly the historical writer gets lost and it’s all about readers and how they feel about the text.

Now doubtless I have oversimplified the picture here and aficionados of various of these methodologies will likely point out to me where they do not entirely ignore any valid data from the other disciplines, but it is a rare book that really pays tribute to the various approaches, and I suspect it’s unfair to ask that.

But what I would ask is that when providing lists, one might nuance them by saying something like, “You need to read ______ in order to study the text in the way that I prefer.”

My training emphasized languages and ancient near eastern literature.  That’s the way I wanted to study the Bible, particularly the Hebrew scriptures–as a piece of ancient near eastern literature.  Now a number of other approaches have become part of my arsenal, precisely because I ended up both teaching in the church, largely teaching people who will never see a seminary, and they need to hear the Bible as something other than a merely historical text.  That doesn’t mean I abandoned history.  It does mean that I picked up some of these additional tools.  But I find Milton and Blake distinctly unhelpful in the historical part of my studies.  (I can’t say the same for Ovid, but that would be another topic.)

If I might now turn to J. K. Gayle’s response, I was planning to write something which would doubtless have occupied may words, but Bob MacDonald already said it, and did so much more efficiently than I would have in this comment.  I would copy it here, but I think that would blunt the point.  You really should read J. K. Gayle’s post first (and preferable go back from there to John’s post) before you’ll hear it.  Then Bob applied a few more good words to the topic in his post a good argument for wider reading.

Just so, Bob.  Just so!

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  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks for the links in this post and the earlier one. I bet it would trouble Milton to know how set up he is, for bible reading. But this whole notion smacks of exclusivity. I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts here, and many of us like to see what (and who) you read! Reading and reading lists are a very subjective thing, don’t you think?

  2. John Hobbins says:

    My training is similar to yours, Henry. But it continues to strike me that those who come at the text without training of that sort, or who in any case leverage entirely other methods – Erich Auerbach, Meir Sternberg, Robert Alter, from a lit-crit point of view, Jacques Ellul from a background in the social sciences and law, Mary Douglas, from an anthropological point of view, Phyllis Trible from her location (just examples) – end up shedding more light on the texts.

    I chose in my question to concentrate on the history of reception as a prism of understanding. But I could just as easily have said that you cannot understand Leviticus unless you have read anthropology in the sense of Mary Douglas (or similar) first.

    There is a lot, too, that I missed in the New Testament until I read Schuessler-Fiorenza, Osiek, and Thurston. Don’t let Kurk know, though. He might start liking me again if he reads this.

    So it’s not about excluding anyone; quite the contrary. As often, it is Bob MacDonald who understood immediately. That’s why he repeated my Rudy Wiebe quote:

    “John has given us a koan of marvelous simplicity from Rudy Wiebe. “it is nothing for one to drink alone when there are two by the fire” (Believe it or not, I studied writing under Rudy Wiebe’s direction one summer here in Victoria.)”

    Reader responses matter, and they matter a lot. The responses of “white males of privilege” included. I put the expression between quotes because its deployment is almost inevitably an act meant to cross out and demean.

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    John, I don’t dislike you. I do like you also for liking Douglas, Schuessler-Fiorenza, Osiek, and Thurston. But enough about me. Haven’t you foregrounded men, white men, as your influences (your mentors and your must-reads)? Why bring up your womanly influences now in a comment on a second post at someone else’s blog when the post you write first, the one Henry links to, mentions more than 20 white men (yourself included among them) and 0 women (of any color)?

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    Henry, Please feel free to call me Kurk. It’s what all my friends call me.

  5. John Hobbins says:

    LOL, Kurk. Group-hug.

    For the rest, you are merely misinformed. Here is an earlier list:


    Lately I’ve been blogging about Judith Shulevitz, Marilynne Robinson, and Margaret Hebron. But you’re right if you are suggesting that the fact that I cherish their contribution is not based (solely) on their gender. Nor do I ever count the fact that someone is a white male of privilege, as all three of us on this thread are, as a strike against them.

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