Interview by Garrett Brown
The Deep and Subtle Unity of the Bible
Would you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Oklahoma, went to an Episcopal day school as a high school student, and had a rich education there that included daily chapel. That had the effect of getting the Book of Common Prayer into my bones, although I was a Methodist by family upbringing.
I went to Yale as an undergraduate and ended up being an English major. I was particularly immersed in poetry and drama of the 16th and 17th centuries. After that, I went to seminary, graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1977, and continued on to a PhD at Emory in New Testament Studies.
How did you switch from English to New Testament Studies? What led to that decision?
When I graduated from Yale, I had no intention of pursuing an academic career. I got a job teaching high school English in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I did that for a couple of years, but I found myself frustrated because I kept discovering that the great literature I was teaching inevitably raised fundamental questions about the meaning of life and how people respond to suffering and the complexity of the human predicament.
As a public school English teacher, I felt constrained, not being able to speak very freely about religious matters. I ended up deciding that I needed to go back and learn more about Christian tradition, theology, and Scripture in order to be able to answer the questions I myself had.
Then, once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.
My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I've been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.
It is certainly a pattern that distinguishes your work. You're always attentive to the larger work and the way in which a coherent reading of the text has to inform each of its parts. Was there a part of your literary training or sensibility early on that helped to discipline that kind of reading?
That's a nice observation. I think so. When I was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1960s, the English department was still fundamentally shaped by what was called the New Criticism. That approach predated the emergence of deconstruction and the various kinds of postmodernist approaches to literature that have since become dominant.
The New Critics were not particularly concerned about the historical circumstances of the production of the text, or influences on the author, or those kinds of things. Rather, I was taught to look at the way in which the language of the text itself worked—its imagery, music, metaphor—and to think about how the text functioned as a complete work of art. I think that approach to interpretation has informed the pattern you're describing in my scholarship.
The Bible is just not a collection of little verses or tidbits of wisdom. When we're reading the Gospel of Luke, for example, we're reading a text that has a narrative shape to it. To see what's going on in the text, you have to read the thing whole and see how the parts relate to the whole.
And the same thing applies not only to individual gospels but also, analogously, to the Bible as a whole. It has a deep and subtle narrative unity—not because unity has been superimposed by ecclesial fiat or by some clever editorial design, but because the diverse biblical witnesses bear common witness to God's grace-filled action in the story of Israel. The emergence of the biblical writings themselves, in their complexity and diversity, is itself part of God's mysterious "authorial" action. That's why I believe that the Old Testament and the New have an underlying narrative unity that can be discerned only in retrospect, when we read the whole thing together.
That approach is uncommon these days. Our interpretative efforts can be so focused on a certain strand of narrative or a theme. There are many reasons why that happens. But it can also make one blind to the way in which these things function as a part of the larger narrative.
Yes, I think you're right about that. It's partly a function of the decline of humanities in general in liberal arts education. We are taught to read instrumentally to extract information. We're not taught as well as perhaps we once were to read texts as literary works of art that have their own integrity and their own way of addressing us.