The title of this post is the title of a book I have, for about twenty years now, thought of writing. My thesis would simply be this: We can do almost anything with the Bible except read it.
It is also true that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, tends to resist interpretation — Erich Auerbach famously illustrates this in his discourse on the story of the binding of Isaac in the first chapter of Mimesis — but that’s not what I am talking about here. But I haven’t yet written the book because I find it difficult to explain precisely what I am talking about.
The Bible has a distinctively protean character; it’s a shape-shifter. That is the result, I think, of its being a book that is also a set of books (books that are themselves often stitched together in peculiar ways). Faced with this shape-shifting, we have a tendency to stand away from it to try to see it whole — at the cost of rendering the details invisible — or to zoom in on the details in a way that causes us to lose sight of the greater narrative arc. The former tendency produces books like Northrop Frye’s The Great Code; the latter tendency leads to people receiving Bible verses as text messages.
I think readers of the Bible are always pulled in both of these directions. We may think that in our moment — the moment of text-messaging and the child of text-messaging, Twitter — we are especially prone to fragmenting the biblical text, but let’s recall that when the Bible was first divided into verses — by Robert Estienne in the mid-16th century — one of the most popular books in Europe was Erasmus’s Adagia. Adages or proverbs then, texts now — the impulse to reduction and condensation is the same.
I don’t think we can address this difficulty by assuming and maintaining some kind of ideal middle distance. That proposed solution arises from the twin assumptions that the protean character of Scripture can and should be arrested. But what if neither of those assumptions is correct? What if the only way genuinely to read Scripture is to engage in a constant zooming in and zooming out?
This model of reading resembles the famous “hermeneutic circle” — understanding the whole in terms of the parts and the parts in terms of (our assumptions about) the whole — but reading and interpretation are not the same thing, even if they are often related.
Heidegger’s famous essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art” — an essay he revised repeatedly, which should tell us something about both the importance and difficulty of the issues involved — describes a version of the hermeneutic circle. In this case, though, he is not discussing the relationship between part and whole but between a work of art and the very concept of “art.”
What art is we should be able to gather from the work. What the work is we can only find out from the nature of art. It is easy to see that we are moving in a circle. The usual understanding demands that this circle be avoided as an offense against logic. It is said that what art is may be gathered from a comparative study of available artworks. But how can we be certain that such a study is really based on artworks unless we know beforehand what art is? Yet the nature of art can as little be derived from higher concepts as from a collection of characteristics of existing artworks. For such a derivation, too, already has in view just those determinations which are sufficient to ensure that what we are offering as works of art are what we already take to be such. The collecting of characteristics from what exists, however, and the derivation from fundamental principles are impossible in exactly the same way and, where practiced, are a self-delusion.
So we must move in a circle. This is neither ad hoc nor deficient. To enter upon this path is the strength, and to remain on it the feast of thought — assuming that thinking is a craft. Not only is the main step from work to art, like the step from art to work, a circle, but every individual step that we attempt circles within this circle.
I want to think about this passage and return to it later, because I believe it has implications not just for understanding what art is, not just for clarifying the nature of interpretation, but for helping us to read, even read the Bible.