The fundamentalist reader and the modern biblical scholar using historico-critical methods are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. They are concerned with the Bible as fact, as real history; so the focus is on the truth behind the text, the exact reference of the words and narratives. Compared with early Christian interpretation, this is earth bound, literalizing–a physical or material approach. the patristic authors consistently show how the words point beyond themselves, how the Bible is really about transformation, about change, about the conversion of the reader. – Frances M. Young, Brokenness & Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality, 29.
Frances Young is, simply put, a brilliant scholar. She is also very much a scholar of the church. When I was a grad student I heard a lecture by her on the Philippians 2:5-11, the kenosis (emptying) hymn, as it is often called. She related this hymn to the life of her son, Arthur, who lives with severe intellectual developmental disabilities. “In the Incarnation,” she said, “God takes on human weakness.” I’ve spent considerable time thinking about that statement, particularly as I have been on my own journey related to the Bible and the lives of people with disabilities.
In 2007, Young published a book with Baker Academic called Brokenness & Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality. In this book, Young proposes what at one time would have been anathema among critical biblical scholars: reclaiming the interpretive methods of the patristic tradition, and particularly the desert fathers and mothers. These early Christians left the comforts of their homes and voluntarily took on a life of renunciation in the desert. They were fighting against the natural human temptation of desire for material things. They saw themselves as engaged in battle with Satan and the demonic. And they expected to encounter God in the silence and solitude of the wilderness.
The method of the desert fathers and mothers could be called a “typological” or “figural” reading of the Bible. As Young puts it, “I do not propose that we simply follow them uncritically, but I do want to urge a creative appropriation of this approach” (28). She suggests that when we read the Bible, we should self-consciously make the stories of the Bible our own stories. We should develop empathy for and identification with biblical characters. We should see our own lives in the stories and poems of the Bible and interpret our own experiences in light of these readings. And, perhaps most importantly, we should expect to be changed by our reading of scripture. God works through the Bible to bring us healing and redemption from sin.
Back when I was in seminary, many biblical scholars would have looked askance at this kind of reading. We were taught a distinction between exegesis and eisegesis. The first of these was a disciplined, responsible, and informed reading of the biblical texts on their own terms and in light of their historical milieu. The latter was an undisciplined and undesirable practice, though never entirely avoidable, of reading one’s own thoughts and ideas into the text. It was thought to distort the meaning of the text and, left unchecked, ultimately to lead to misreadings.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that time. Much has been written on the importance of the context not only of the text, but of the interpreter. Personally, my readings (and limited writing) on the Bible and disability have driven home the significance of context. One could also think of the the Global Bible Commentary, published by Abingdon, the Texts @ Context series published by Fortress, the Africana Bible, also published by Fortress, or WJKP’s Women’s Bible Commentary. I was really disappointed when IVP stopped publishing its own Women’s Bible Commentary because it brought another important group of voices into the conversation, those of women who were also evangelical Bible scholars. Suffice it to say, over the past couple of decades biblical scholars have developed a greater appreciation of context, reader response, and the making of meaning.
Young, then, calls us to attend to something that is both old and new, and she constantly calls us back to the presence of God as we read. As she puts it, the patristic authors “were able to develop a creative use of the Bible, rather than a defensive or aggressively dogmatic use, because they began with the idea that the Bible points beyond itself. They knew you needed inspiration to interpret the sacred text, and so to develop it in homiletic, pastoral, evocative, and imaginative ways” (28). It is not simply social context or individual experience that shapes readings, then, but the living God who works in and through these texts for our salvation.
The value of the desert fathers and mothers, moreover, is not only in method, but in the desert motif itself. It reminds us of our own vulnerability. As she states, “we should remind ourselves of the post-Enlightenment tendency to view suffering, atrocity, and so on as grounds for atheism” (30). This perspective is quite different from the desert fathers and mothers, who understood their own suffering in light of God, and particularly through the words of the Bible. Young talks about her journey with her son Arthur as “a kind of exodus, through the wilderness to the promised land” (32). The Exodus narrative became very important for the way in which she understood her own struggles. Our lives are at every moment steeped in vulnerability. The Bible not only teaches us this, but teaches us to know God more fully through circumstances of trial and struggle.
The book examines a number of biblical themes: the Exodus, Jacob’s wrestling with God, the exemplary life of Jesus, the experience of being a stranger or exile, and the love poetry of the Song of Songs. In each of these, Young not only discusses the ways in which various desert fathers and mothers interpreted these themes, but engages with the patristic interpretive method herself and offers her own interpretations.
This short book is a rich and rewarding read. If you decide to pick up a copy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.