Studying the Bible: To Love It is To Know It
You have probably heard of the Phil Spector song, “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, or perhaps one of its later covers with altered pronouns. The gist of the phrase is that knowledge of a particular person and love of that person go hand-in-hand, specifically in the sense that the person is so lovable that one cannot know him without coming to love him.
Love and knowledge are also connected in another and, I think, more vital way: to really know someone or something one must first love that someone or something. The idea here is that one first must make an effort to appreciate the object, to perceive it and all its parts in the most positive light possible, before one can possibly be critical of it in a fair way. It is remarkably easy to dismiss a person or object as having no value or to be overly critical of that person or object when one has not yet made the effort to understand that person or object on their own terms. In my experience, the majority of critics of the arts (art critics, music critics, movie critics, book critics, etc.) fail in their critical duties because they do not make any effort to love the object of their criticism (because negative reviews get more attention, make one sound more intelligent, take revenge for some perceived slight in the reviewer’s past, etc.). In other words, love is the true basis of the fullest kind of knowledge.
These two ways of talking about loving and knowing conceive of loving in two very different ways: the phrase “to know him is to love him” envisions love as the involuntary result of knowledge, while the phrase “to love him is to know him” sees love as the voluntary cause of true knowledge. In truth, both phrases reflect the reality of knowledge: to really know something involves really loving, and knowledge and love feed on one another.
This also applies to Bible interpretation. To one who loves the Bible, quite a lot of criticism of the Bible sounds like an unreasonably biased, even willful misreading of the text. It sounds like someone approached the text looking for something to criticize or disdain and found precisely what they were looking for (or thought they did, at least). Trying to interpret the Bible without first trying to appreciate it results in one finding problems where there are arguably no problems, or perhaps making mountain problems out of molehill problems. Skillful interpretation of the Bible, on the other hand, presupposes a love for the biblical text, a desire to read it in the most positive light possible. It does not preclude seeing problems in the text, but it shapes the way one comes to such problems, giving the text the benefit of every doubt. In the process, it makes it possible to discover things about the text that those who are looking for an easy target very easily overlook.
Recently, I have been reading Joseph Blenkinsopp’s 1995 book Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel. Out the outset, I want to say how much I am enjoying the book and learning from it. I actually met Professor Blenkinsopp on two (very brief) occasions and found him engaging, friendly, and even playful in conversation. I have nothing negative to say about him whatsoever. So in what I am about to say I do not think I am being hypocritical here by failing to give his book the loving benefit of the doubt.
That being said, I have been frequently surprised in the first third of the book to find him so generally dismissive of the value of Israelite Wisdom literature. Judging by his comments, it seems clear that the only Wisdom book (inclusive of the deuterocanonicals) he finds the least bit worthy of the word “wisdom” is Ecclesiastes (and perhaps a few parts of Job). He begins his study by focusing on the low-hanging fruit of The Wisdom of Ben Sira, which, admittedly, reeks of misogyny and pretentiousness whatever value it may have. After using Ben Sira to establish a framework for his conception of the sociological and intellectual framework of the Israelite wisdom tradition (a method I would strongly question, by the way), he then brings these perceptions into his reading of the book of Proverbs and, perhaps predictably, emerges with what appears to be a very low view of the book. It is also a view of the book which is completely foreign to me. Over and over, he evaluates the sayings of Proverbs as banal, derivative, unoriginal, and artificial, accusing it of serving largely to preserve a bourgeois and gynophobic power structure in Israelite society. Without fail, when he focuses in on a particular saying or passage from Proverbs in order to demonstrate his point, I come away from his argument feeling that he has completely misunderstood the text at hand. Moreover, I cannot shake the feeling that the reason he is continually misunderstanding the text is because, whatever effort he has gone through to study and know the text, he has not made the effort to love the text. He strikes me as an expert in all sorts of areas of knowledge surrounding the text of Proverbs, but his grasp of the meaning of the text itself seems hampered by a lack of true love for the text.
Obviously, I cannot read Joseph Blenkinsopp’s mind or heart, but the attempt to know the Bible without loving it that I think I perceive in portions of his book is readily apparent whenever one encounters angry dismissals of Christianity and the Bible in online forums and comments sections. Attacks on the Bible typically follow predictable patterns and aim at the low-hanging fruit of the Canaanite genocide and the Bible’s relative misogyny (“relative” to modern sensibilities, but arguably not so misogynistic in its own historical and cultural context). There is typically an emotional motivation to these attacks over and above any rational motivation. Hatred of something leads one to dismiss that something without really making any attempt to understand the thing being dismissed.
This is as true of people as it is of the Bible. I am sure we have all seen a person who has become more gracious toward a particular lifestyle or attitude after someone they love adopted that lifestyle or attitude. This is not simply hypocrisy or moral compromise; this is love giving that person a fuller perspective on life. We ought to be very careful of being manipulated by politicians and media outlets to hate, dismiss, or otherwise speak ill of any person or category of person that we have not made the effort to know through love. I can disagree with someone I love, but it is only once I have loved someone that I can really know what we really disagree about and what is worth disagreeing about. Likewise, it is only when we have made the effort to truly love the Bible that are able accurately to perceive its real contours and jagged edges and become a faithful critic.
|Buy Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel at christianbook.com.
Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel