BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: The meanings of Scripture — past and present

02 November 2006


T. & T. Clark £75 (0-8264-6968-X); Church Times Bookshop £67.50

HOW should one distil the topic of biblical interpretation into a normal-sized book? This volume has a formidably large brief, and covers a vast chronological span, but it takes a “sequence of historical soundings” rather than aiming for exhaustiveness. Origen and John Chrysostom are at the far end, and the present day is represented by computers, feminist theology, and rainbow hermeneutics.

The essays are mostly pitched at an introductory level, and the range of topics is deliberately eclectic. One does not often see George Herbert discussed as a biblical interpreter side by side with the Church Fathers — let alone William Blake and James Hogg.

This volume’s greatest merit is a willingness to take imaginative writers seriously as commentators on scripture, even where they are not easily assimilated into orthodox piety. Blake, after all, is notorious for being a one-man Church, while Hogg, author of the Gothic novel Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is remembered most for his scarifying imaginative portraits of Protestant-ism gone wrong.

Conscripting novelists and poets into the company of authoritative biblical interpreters can be seen either as a loss of nerve or a healthy development, but at least it testifies to the idea that the creative imagination is now officially a good thing within Christianity.

This volume is a brave attempt to get people to read outside their usual period and field; and, in many ways, it is a successful one, especially for those interested in the Bible as literature. Once one has accepted the impressionistic nature of the volume, it does attain coherence; and the editorial abstracts at the beginning of each paper are particularly helpful.

Nevertheless, there remains a slightly uncontrolled feel to the book. Some of the essays are conspicuously more on top of recent scholarship than others; some adhere more than others to the volume’s overall aims.

Commenting on the revolution in information technology, John M. Court asks in his introduction: “If books in the future have only minimal significance, what will be the consequences for the so-called ‘People of the Book’?”

On the face of it, this seems an odd question — after all, the decline of the book as a physical object is not the same thing as people stopping reading. But, as he goes on to comment, the physical realities of a book or text undoubtedly affect the way in which it is interpreted; and so it is disappointing that, with the exception of a piece on biblical structuralism and the computer by Ian Mitchell Lambert, hardly any contributions explore this particular interface.

Book historians looking back at our times will find the price of this volume steep, even compared with the general run of academic publications — which is certainly one way to bring about the decline of the book.

Dr Shell lectures in English at the University of Durham.

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