As an intellectual, I am fastidious in my choice of reading material. Usually this is Men’s Health magazine, Nuts and Zoo. And, just to demonstrate that I’m a right-on liberal Christian and not fazed by “gender issues”, I steel myself to the alien crotch and occasionally peer into Gay Times. Cor, if I continue in this broadmindedness, they might even make me Archbishop of Canterbury!
But I confess I do occasionally depart from all this intellectual rigour, award myself the afternoon off, and turn to some lighter reading. It was in this frivolous mood, therefore, that I picked up Myles Burnyeat’s commentary on The Theaetetus of Plato. As everyone knows, this is Plato’s account of his theory of knowledge. Now what I found interesting about this book is that Burnyeat’s commentary stretches to 255 pages while the actual text of the Theaetetus is only about 80 pages. Moreover, Burnyeat places his commentary first and the text of Theaetetus after it. So, if like me you usually start a book at page one and continue to the end, you might come away with the idea that Burnyeat is the main event and Plato only there to make up the numbers.
Well, let me try to lay aside such prejudice for a moment and look at what Burnyeat says. This is how he writes:
“The issues of substance mentioned here are those that connect the definition with Protagorean relativism. It is Protagoras himself who, in response to this parade of verbal objections, brings the discussion back to the epistemological and metaphysical implications of the definition…”
Are you with me so far? By contrast, this is how Plato, putting words into the mouth of Socrates, writes:
“God compels me to attend to the travails of others but forbids me to procreate. So that I am not in any sense a wise man; I cannot claim as the child of my own soul any discovery worth the name of wisdom.”
And so the book reveals itself throughout: the infelicities and desecrations of Burnyeat’s forensic syntax lie next to the calm, lucid and, above all, modest prose of Plato himself. But why am I telling you this? Because to do so is a good way into describing what’s been wrong with most theological writing – and especially biblical criticism – these last 200 years. It is generally tedious and uninspired. Reading, for instance, David Strauss is like trying to find your way through Hampton Court maze while wearing a blindfold. And Strauss was not by any means the worst. There are even more indescribably boring and circumlocutionary writers such as Pannenberg and Kung. While Bornkamm makes Heidegger seem positively racy by comparison.
It is all because this so-called scholarly and academic tradition is so forensic, unimaginative and sterile. These men will ponder 50 years over “a missing word in Deutero-Isaiah” – while paying no imaginative attention at all to the many thousands of words in Deutero-Isaiah that are not missing. I recall, with a hiccup of misery, spending years at theological college, at the command of my teachers, trying to discover the exact date of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It was like attempting the Rubik cube with your hands tied behind your back. Facetiously, I think I answered in the exam: “It was about half past three on a Thursday afternoon in late September 1220 BC”.
It’s a wonder I ever got myself ordained, isn’t it? Some would even say, a pity.
My advice is this: don’t waste your time on these tedious, self-obsessed pedants and professional circumlocutionists. Read those inspired creatures of God – St Augustine for instance – who could actually write:
“O Lord, thou hast made us for thyself; and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.” And, “Then came I to Carthage, burning, burning; and a cauldron of unholy lusts sang all about mine ears.”
By comparison, the dullard critics of post-Enlightenment biblical scholarship wouldn’t burn if you poured a can of petrol over their numbskulls and threw in a match.
Tyndale and Luther put the Bible into the hands of everyman. I urge you to thank God for this grace and then actually to pick up your Bible and read it. In the words of Ezra Pound: “You will find that from time to time you are refreshed with shards of ecstasy.”
Open it at almost any page:
“And Adam heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day….”
“Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground…”
“And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
“And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house. Thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she hath washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss; but this woman, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet.”
There is a way to make sense of the Bible but it’s not what these Enlightenment critics, blind guides, do. And the posh word for this is “typology.” It just means making connections. As EM Forster said, “Only connect,” And if you try this, you will find, to take just one example, that the Trinity is prefigured in the three who turn up outside Abraham’s tent 1,500 years before St John’s Gospel; and the Trinity is imagined again in the three on the Mount of Transfiguration and the three crosses on Calvary.
You are meant to understand with your feelings and intellect combined for, like Our Lord Jesus Christ, we are incarnated, bodies, parts and passions.
Take your courage in both hands and open Luther’s Bible. It’s not difficult: the rhythms are almost the same as the King James:
“Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! Und es ward Licht!”
And then Haydn’s Creation and his glorious C-major chord will break all about your ears. And your personal chaos will be set in a wonderful order.
Goodnight Mr Burnyeat and all ye forensics. I prefer inspired utterance.