Next month, we’re excited to be publishing Zoë Bennett and Christopher Rowland’s In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life. The book offers for the first time a critical dialogue between practical theology and biblical hermeneutics. It considers the role of emotional engagement and critical understanding in biblical interpretation from here and presents being critical as an act which is just as much appreciative as it is suspicious.
In this extract from the introduction, the authors give their thoughts on what they hope the book will offer.
T.S. Eliot wrote of the need to ‘remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it for criticising our own minds in the work of criticism’. Substitute ‘practice of Bible reading’ for ‘reading a book’ and we have an apt description of what we are trying to do in our book (Eliot 1951: 3).
A key theme of this book is that the Bible has a part to play in thinking about life. Learning to be critical must take place in the midst of everyday life. The Bible can be a part of this process, in which it is not an authority to which we defer but a catalyst for change and a tool of reflection. As such, criticism is not something done after the day’s work is done (though it may include that), but in the midst of life, as patterns of analysis and reflection become part of the habit of everyday living. We think that engaging with the Bible is a neglected way of developing a critical perspective. For this reason we have attempted to indicate the ways in which the Bible has been a resource to us, and how we have developed a critical awareness through it. To quote the words of the Brazil-based liberation theologian, Carlos Mesters, Chris ‘understands life by means of the Bible’, while Zoë ‘understands the Bible by means of life’.
Our backgrounds are in practical theology and biblical studies, but we have both explored how we can learn from the ways in which the Bible has been used in the past, and by others who have explored the way in which critical theology emerges from life rather than from the study. We bring to this subject a shared interest in what is commonly referred to as contextual theology (though as will become clear in the book we think all theology is necessarily contextual). We have both learned much from the psychotherapeutic tradition and the skills that it encourages – to be aware, to listen, and to analyse and discern the next steps.
We hope to stimulate readers’ imagination to engage with the Bible, by showing how and why it has been important for us. That has meant learning what we call ‘critical reflexivity’ which above all else requires an acknowledgement that there is no Olympian place from which to do our criticism. We will look at an ‘archaeology’ of our own Bible reading history. Understanding how we already interpret ‘inhabit’, and use the Bible, and how it is already in us, is a good starting point. The archaeology of one’s reading history is a means to an end. This is not introspection for its own sake. Rather it is an essential part of the task of teasing out our prejudices. Self-reflexivity is a crucial tool whereby we might live better lives. Criticism is not an optional extra in life but is central to our humanity: ‘as inevitable as breathing’. Socrates words quoted earlier ‘for the human being the unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a), embody a conviction which we would want to endorse as we too go on our journey of finding ever-new ways of being self-reflexive. Being self-reflexive is an indispensable part of allowing ‘the Poetic Genius, the Spirit of Prophecy’ (Blake, All Religions are One) full rein to do its work of protest and imagination rather than getting caught up in a self-centred ego-trip. We want to find ways of becoming more critically self-aware in our lives, and the Bible may assist us in that. For us a ‘wrong’ interpretation of the Bible’ is one which is promoting inhumane behaviour largely as a result of not being sufficiently critically reflective.
Writing about the task of discerning a critical space for us includes describing and reflecting on what it is like to live with (or even in) the Bible. We indicate why we have lived with the Bible for so long, why it has given as an intellectual framework which informs who and how we are and helps to carve out a critical space for us. So in a sense what we want to do is explore that which is endemic in critical study in the humanities, but in the process try to broaden the notion of what constitutes criticism by suggesting that the Bible is not just the object of criticism but a means of practising it.
An important part of our somewhat different critical journeys has been learning from the way others have engaged with the Bible. Ruskin and Blake have meant much to us, and we would like to see them informing biblical interpretation more than they do. What we have learnt from our discovery of the differing ways of engaging with the Bible is that developing a critical perspective will not just be a resort to familiar theoretical, doctrinal, or historical examples.
Whatever we have to offer arises out of how we have attempted over the years to reflect on the various ways in which the Bible has informed our lives and the ways in which we have sought to establish patterns of discernment to be able to reflect on this. We attempt to condense from these some guidance on developing good practice. Our major aim is the creation, articulation and cultivation of a critical space in which the theological tradition of which we are part informs what is going on, albeit in ways which are in an appropriate dialectical relationship with our context. This will enable the interpreting subject to see more clearly and as a result make informed judgements. In this task we have come to expect theology, and biblical studies, to have their part to play, along with experience, in cultivating a critical perspective. There is no assumption that theoretical reflection, historical enquiry and sociological theory, have no part to play in learning to be critical and reflective, but we have resisted giving them the dominant role in working out how it is we learn to be ‘critical’, in order to make space for illustrating how the Bible has been as much assistance as the human sciences. Our view is that the Bible itself can offer a contribution to criticism, but the negotiation of a critical perspective comes not by detachment, but by finding that everyday life can be informed by the Bible and equally illuminate what the Bible is about. The ancient saying, Solvitur ambulando, (it is solved as one walks) evokes well the way in which insight is gained through practice, and criticism emerges as much, if not more, in the doing as in the withdrawal from the doing. Finding critical space and perspective in the midst of the confusion of life, is a perspective which sheds light on the particular character and context of life as it is lived, to enable that life and context to be better understood and managed. That is the focus of our thesis.
What we set out to do has much in common with the ways in which the discipline of practical theology works. The traditional ‘pastoral cycle’ is in itself potentially a model for critical discernment, and is often used as such. It is what Don Browning, has referred to as ‘practice-theory-practice’ (Browning 1991). For some the Bible is the senior partner at the conversation table and takes precedence over other sources of knowledge. In this view the Christian tradition, mediated through a reading of the Bible which honours it as the privileged word of God to humanity, takes ‘logical priority’ (Swinton and Mowat 2006: 89). For others the Bible is too much of a ‘hot potato’. They are reluctant to draw on biblical resources in their understanding and presentation of situations in real life, partly because the Bible has so often been used in an uncritical and oppositional way to cut short all discussion by proof-texting and ‘Bible-bashing’, and partly through a sense of clumsiness and ‘deskilling’ when they try to engage with the Bible critically (Cameron, Reader and Slater 2012: 74-93). In fact ‘critical conversation’ is at the heart of practical theology (Pattison 2000: 135-48) and the interpreting subject is indispensable (Graham, Walton and Ward 2005; Leach 2007). Here we explore that self-reflexivity, that activity of the ‘interpreting subject’, more deeply, and specifically explore it in relation to the Bible.
We challenge the exclusive focus on the hegemonic detached readings which historically have been an episode in the history of biblical hermeneutics and which characterise much current scholarship. While we adopt some of the critical perspectives of such scholarship, our book retrieves an older kind of ‘self-involving engagement with the Bible. We do think that there is an ethical component to all of this and so wish to challenge the notion of the priority of Bible, tradition or church, which should be applied to situations. We want to commend the reverse process in which situations, including especially those which involve human relating, take priority, and institutions and traditions serve human flourishing. It is what ‘the sabbath was made for humans not humans for the sabbath’ is all about. So it is a challenge to an ‘applied theology’ notion of practical theology, or indeed of any theology.
Our approach offers a means of thinking and critical reflection in which the Bible is less an object of criticism and more one component among several in a process of critical reflexivity. It is not that we have found some kind of privileged perspective, whether academic or otherwise, from which we can look down on life and texts, for there is no escape from the critical process taking place in the middle of things. Discernment is going to take place in the process of learning more about ourselves, our world and the ways in which we interpret the Bible. Each of us is formed in a particular time and place. For both of us the Christian story, warts and all, has continued to be a powerful stimulus as well as an irritant, though for differing reasons. It is part of the mix of what informs our critical perspective. The Bible has helped form us and continues to act for us in ambiguous ways.
We have both been formed by modern theology but have become resistant to its bracketing out of the understanding of the personal and existential from the intellectual task. Equally, we have found ourselves deeply resistant to the siren voices of neo-orthodoxy, in whatever guise. It may seem strange in the light of such caveats to assert that we still want the Bible to be part of the critical mix. Distancing ourselves from the Bible would be like losing something which has been an indispensable tool for our lives. It is not the only tool we use but for us both it must be one of them for it is part of who we are. Bolstered as we have been by our historical study, we are confident that what we are attempting to do is not only worth doing but of use to a wider group of Christian practitioners. What we do is personal and ‘self-involving’, but all the time it seeks to be critical. It offers a possible model of how one may go about critical reflection. What we are seeking is akin to Ernst Bloch’ ‘educated hope’, in which we can learn to discern and intervene in the midst of ‘the darkness of the lived moment’ (Principle of Hope, i.290), informed by past experiences as well as by the growing ability to catch a glimpse of the world as a better place.
Zoe Bennett is Senior Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Studies in Pastoral Theology at Anglia Ruskin University and the Cambridge Theological Federation. She is the author of Your MA in Theology (SCM Press 2014).
Christopher Rowland was formerly Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture and Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford from 1991 until 2014 and is a co-author of Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing (SCM Press 2012).
In a Glass Darkly is published on December 31st, but if you preorder a copy now via our website you’ll get an extra 20% off the cover price. Click here for details.