Systematic Theology may have been the pump that rendered my head far too large to carry around. A course on interpreting Scripture taken the very next semester was the antidote I didn't even know I needed.
Under the bland, rather presumptuous title, "Texts and Exegetical Methods", the class offered itself as an introduction to a variety of interpretive strategies, including using various extra-Biblical resources for exegesis.
The professor who taught that class was a tall, thin, good looking, charming man named David Hopkins. I'd taken David's Hebrew Bible survey class and was more than impressed with his intelligence, wit, and teaching style. Looking forward to his class, I had no idea that David, being witty and intelligent, was singularly unimpressed by those qualities in his students unless they were amply demonstrated with output. It took very little time for me to realize his class was not going to be easy. For which I will be forever thankful.
The goal of the class is easy enough to understand: Take all that stuff you learn in the survey classes about different literary styles and historical criticism and the various other types of critical reading styles, and demonstrate them using specific texts. Along the way, I learned, for example, that the story in Genesis is not about Cain and Abel. Abel is, for all intents and purposes, a prop. The story is about Cain and God (which should be a hint to folks paying attention; if at least one of the characters in a Biblical story isn't God, you might not quite understand what's going on). I also learned that there is a passage at the end of the story of Lot fleeing Sodom that would be difficult to preach. David actually challenged us to preach a sermon on it: it's the passage where, hiding in the caves, Lot's daughters get him drunk and after he passes out, rape him. The children conceived this way become the leaders of the tribes that were the traditional enemies of the old Kingdom of Israel.
At its heart, the class was about reading. Rather than treat any particular text as "Biblical", as if that was enough information for getting on with, the reader needs to understand what kind of text it is. Reading different texts requires different interpretive tools and exegetical mindsets. Part of the exegetical task is understanding not only what questions to ask, but even more basic, what the text is NOT saying. Reading the Bible, like reading anything else, leaves us with nothing more than . . . text. It's right there in the course title, a big clue to some of us not quite smart enough to get it for the first couple weeks. In order to understand what questions to ask, we have to understand there are certain things, as text, the Bible does not and cannot say to us. It does not give us "facts". It does not give us "truth". It does not give us historical information or details on the lives of famous people. As a particular kind of text - a religious holy book that contains the stories and claims about who God is - these are the matters that should always be in the front of our minds when reading the Bible. Searching through the Bible for clues about, say, when Abraham might have made his journey to Palestine, say, or whether or not Job actually lived (I heard of a preacher who not only insisted that Job was a real person, a contemporary of Abraham, but that it says so right there in the Bible; I've searched in vain for that information, and anyway, I'm still waiting on the whole "Abraham" as a real, historical person) is a bit like rooting through property deeds at a county records office and asking if the people who lived in these houses were alcoholics, say, or if they were good parents. It is possible, in other words, to ask and answer the wrong questions. When we do that, we may not be committing some mortal sin, but we certainly aren't interpreting the Bible.
During the class, David would drop a few names that intrigued me. One was Gerhard Ebelling, not very well known except among some few rarefied circles in English-speaking theology studies. Another, Roland Barthes, seems far more the preserve of literary critics. Both offer not so much method as something far more basic - an awareness that reading is a playful, interactive activity. Even something as simple as a novel can offer a reader rich rewards who comes to the text seeking something, not just passing one's eyes over a page. Reading is a playful activity, in which human imagination is as engaged as the critical faculties. Not elaborating too much on the role these particular individuals played in his own approach to reading Scripture, David did seem to see, and offered to his students, the marvelous notion that reading the Bible could be surprising and fun. As long as one kept in mind that all we were doing was reading.
Few classes I took at seminary were more liberating, not least because the class wasn't geared toward providing a bunch of information. It was, rather, about inculcating a habit, a practice that engaged one's eyes and ears, one's imagination and critical faculties. At its heart, David's class taught us that we did not know how to read the Bible; here were some intriguing possibilities for moving forward.
There was one vital piece of information, however, that hit like a ton of bricks. In an early paper I turned in, David came down pretty hard on me for ignoring certain historical trends in interpretation. I went to him - David was tough but fair, always accessible, and even at his most adamant always cheerful and friendly; needless to say, he remains one of the great teachers for whom I'm always thankful - and asked him about this and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that it is always necessary to be aware of the history of interpretation when making exegetical choices. Even if that history is disagreeable, we cannot ignore it for the sake of convenience.
It was a nice surprise, at the end of the course, to discover that, twenty-two years after my mother first taught me to make sense of the marks on paper, I was finally learning to read. It involves being attentive to the text on the page. It involves understanding that text may well exist within a history of its own. It may also exist within a history of interpretation, which may itself be involved in larger circles of understanding. Even if we can never know everything about that whole history of overlapping discourses, we should at least be aware they exist. These thoughts were swirling about me, and, in a bit over three years, I would put them to good use in a totally different context. If you want to understand why I do the stuff I do the way I do, you need to understand it has a history, and is part of larger historical discourses. A realization I owe to David Hopkins.