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Mark Walhout

Reading, Writing, and Charity

A theology of reading.

His purpose in writing A Theology of Reading, Alan Jacobs informs us, was to make "an academic case for governing interpretation by the law of love." Hence his frequent references to the work of literary theorists and moral philosophers, the most important being Martha Nussbaum and Mikhail Bakhtin. But this is by no means a purely theoretical exercise; readers fearing a heavy dose of academic prose will be delighted by Jacobs's light touch and charming examples from Shakespeare, Dickens, and company. A Theology of Reading is best described, perhaps, as a cross between a scholarly monograph and a collection of essays aimed at Christian readers. It is obviously a labor of love: of Jacobs's own passionate love of reading.

The patron saint of Jacobs's "hermeneutics of love" is St. Augustine, who made charity the test of biblical interpretation in On Christian Doctrine. Early on, Jacobs quotes Augustine (as translated by D. W. Robertson):

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived. (1.36)

Later, Augustine offers the following example of charitable interpretation:

It is written, "Give to the merciful, and uphold not the sinner." The last part of this lesson seems to condemn beneficence. It says, "Uphold not the sinner." Therefore you should understand "sinner" to be used figuratively for sin, so that you should not uphold the sin of the sinner. (3.16)

The question is whether Augustine's rule of charity ought to be extended to the interpretation of "profane" texts, where there is no presumption of divine meaning.

Jacobs's answer is yes, but it involves a significant twist. In the case of secular literature, he suggests, the rule of charity applies not to the meaning ...

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