Saturday, October 27, 2007

Streetwise: Rowan Williams on Reading Scripture

First off, let me be entirely upfront that I owe this reference - even down to the post title - to Sean the Baptist. (Thanks, Sean!) Thankfully, the internet allows for (perhaps even encourages) endless iteration, and so it is not entirely beside the point to reproduce a great quote from Rowan Williams on the dynamics of reading (and just as importantly, re-reading) Scripture.

The address as a whole is great and well worth a thoughtful read through. Here are a few quotations from ++Rowan's speech to whet your appetite (including Sean's original quotation):

[B]efore Scripture is read in private, it is heard in public. Those of us who assume that the normative image of Scripture reading is the solitary individual poring over a bound volume, one of the great icons of classical Protestantism, may need to be reminded that for most Christians throughout the ages and probably most in the world at present, the norm is listening. ...the Church in reading Scripture publicly says both (i) that it is not a self-generated reality, created simply out of human reflection and ideals, and (ii) that what is read needs to be read as a communicative act, - that is, not as information, not as just instruction, but as a summons to assemble together as a certain sort of community, one that understands itself as called and created ‘out of nothing’. Whatever we do in private with our reading of Scripture, we must do in awareness of this public character. The Church – a familiar enough point – is in the language of the Bible itself an ‘assembly’, a ‘convocation’: an ekklesia. It declares its basic character when it represents itself as listening to the act of ‘convoking’, calling together.
. . .
what I am trying to define as a strictly theological reading of Scripture, a reading in which the present community is made contemporary with the world in front of the text, is bound to give priority to the question that the text specifically puts and to ask how the movement, the transition, worked for within the text is to be realised in the contemporary reading community. To move too rapidly to the use of the text to make a general point which does not require the reader to be converted is to step outside what I have been calling the time of the text, the process by which it shapes its question. It is to make the text more passive than active, and so to move away from the stance of the listener, from the stance of the Church as trying to be still enough to hear and free enough to respond to God’s summons to be his community. Of course the work of exegesis to establish doctrine and ethics is unavoidable; commentary is always going on. But the first moment of commentary – if this emphasis on the basic character of listening is correct – needs to be the tracing of the ‘time’ of a text so as to chart where it is moving.
. . .
A written text inevitably has about it a dual character. It comes before the reader/hearer as a finished product, and so as something that can in some ways be treated as an object. If we are not careful its written character can be misused by working with the text as if it were passive. In contrast to the event of a voice speaking, it can be abstracted from the single occasion when the hearer has no control over what comes to her or him from outside. At the same time, a written text requires re-reading; it is never read for the last time, and it continuously generates new events of interpretation. It is fruitful of renewed communication in a way that the spoken word alone cannot be. So to identify a written text as sacred is to claim that the continuous possibility of re-reading, the impossibility of reading for the last time, is a continuous openness to the intention of God to communicate. Just as the text itself contains re-reading, is almost constituted by re-reading, so that it repeatedly recreates a movement towards conversion (towards the cross of Jesus, in Christian terms), so the eternal possibility of ‘reading again’ stands as a warning against ignoring the active ‘restlessness’ of the text in summoning the reader to change. The writtenness of the text is from one point of view risky as a strategy of communication: it risks the appearance of passivity, and the re-readability of the text risks the appearance of indeterminacy. Yet from another point of view it can be seen as inseparable from the risk of the communication it itself describes as well as enacts – a divine communication that is never without human speech and narrative, never just an interruption of the created continuum but a pressure upon it that opens up to the divine by the character of its internal relations and connections, the shifting, penitent perspective of a story enacted in time. The writtenness of the text is like the sheer factuality of the historical past as the vehicle of revelation: it is
something irreversibly done, but for that very reason continuously inviting or demanding.
Read the rest here.

This is classic Williams. For all the occasional pains of living in communion with Anglicans, it is truly gratifying to have a primus inter pares archbishop who can theologise well in public.
Credit for the picture of Archbishop Williams and his wife Jane goes to Lambeth Palace. Similar such pictures may be found here.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger Sean Winter said...

You are welcome Jason!

Monday, October 29, 2007 9:43:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home