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A richer method of reading scripture

16 September 2016

Peter McGeary on a study provoked by biblical literalism

“The woman”: Albrecht Dürer’s The Woman Clothed with the Sun, and the Seven-Headed Dragon, 1497-98. An illustration from the book under review

“The woman”: Albrecht Dürer’s The Woman Clothed with the Sun, and the Seven-Headed Dragon, 1497-98. An illustration from the bo...

The Woman, the Hour and the Garden: A study of imagery in the Gospel of John
Addison Hodges Hart
Eerdmans £11.99
(978-0-8028-7339-2)
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

 

 

AS IT IS the year to do such things, and just before I received a copy of the book under review here, I read a superb new book about Shakespeare. Among the many points the author makes there is that the text of a great play, although it comes alive in the performing, will never entirely reveal itself to the audience at one performance. Greatness is discerned in the repetition, the reinterpretation of the text: we think we have got the point, and then the text or the performer surprises us and makes us think again.

What is true of a great play is true also of scripture. One of the main purposes of the liturgical use of the Bible is to instill a language, a vocabulary, a narrative from the past, that gives interpretation and meaning to the present. And the resonances between the two are mutually enriching and enlightening.

This is not just an exercise in intellectual inquiry, but a use of the imagination: of course the text should be the subject of our curiosity, our questioning; but it should also interrogate us, transporting the reader or listener to new places by unfolding new meanings and images.

Addison Hart is a retired chaplain living in Norway. In his admirably brief book on the Fourth Gospel, he looks again at an all-too-familiar text in a properly old-fashioned way. The book is a reaction to the suggestion that Jesus was married to St Mary Magdalene: often repeated but no truer in the repetition.

I suppose that for Hart this is a symptom of a kind of literalist way of thinking which has impoverished the reading of scripture for too long. Not interested in “official” teaching or quick apologetics, Hart wants the reader to think more richly about the text. He focuses here on St John’s Gospel, and certain images used by the Evangelist (the woman, the hour, and the garden of the title); but his point is a more general one, I think.

In the very best sense, this book is saying nothing new: it is in many ways a plea for the multi-layered, metaphorical, poetic reading of a scriptural text which would have been second nature to the early Fathers, and held sway until the Reformation.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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