Let us Ramble: Within the Text

During this past Sunday’s sermon I referenced the book “Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles.” Written by Walter Brueggemann, “Cadences of Home” does an excellent job at delving into the work of the ministry of preaching. In particular, I referenced the chapter “Rhetoric and Community.”

In that chapter, Brueggemann delves into concepts explored by the French Philosopher Paul Ricouer. In particular, Brueggemann explores the application of Ricouer’s conceptions to the scripture. To summarize that work (with a hearty encouragement to read the entire book), Brueggemann argues that any passage might be seen as an interaction between three worlds.

The first world is the world where the events described in the passage took place. This physical world had people walking around and interacting. In considering gospel passages, this is the world in which Jesus walked, talked, and preached.

The second world is the world in which we live. As people, we read books, walk around, have conversations, and live out our lives. This world is the world in which we act, live, and have our being. This world will be the world of the future’s past and is the future of the past. This is the world of the present.

The third world is the world within the passage. The world is one which is described within the stories of scripture. While it is the inspired word of God, it is also the world described by the authors of the texts. The words are often challenging, purposeful, and occasionally reference other texts and stories which we no longer have access to in our own libraries.

Unfortunately, the world described in the text is the only one of the other worlds which can interact with the present. Unless we invent a means of either time travel or the means to travel far faster than the reflected light headed out into space, we will never see the world of the far past. We can observe remnants and artifacts of the past, but not the events. Without divine blessing, technological innovation, or something beyond our current comprehension, we will never experience the days described in scripture.

I rehash this bit of scholarship from Sunday’s sermon for a reason. I reference it because this morning I was reading a different book by a different author which works hand in hand with this passage. I was reading Robert Alter’s “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” Alter is a large proponent of paying attention to the texts of scripture. Indeed, Alter writes (37) “All of these narratives are presented as history, that is, as things that really happened and that have some significant consequence for human or Israelite destiny.” For the record, Alter immediately points out Job is an exception to this rule. It should also be noted that Alter’s work focuses on the Hebrew Bible.

What is interesting about this concept of the Hebrew scriptures being presented as history is that there are a lot of details about the stories of scripture that are presented as history, but which had no witness at the time of the authorship of these stories. Alter points out that there is a “tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events…” (37).

Alter refers to a lot of this presentation not as a form of historiography accounting for the events of the past as a form of intensely accurate chronicle of events. Rather, the scriptures are written in the eyes of Alter with a purpose. Speaking on the author of David’s story: (40)

“…these stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters. He feels entirely free, one should remember, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays.”

Alter goes on to describe how Shakespeare wrote beautifully and powerfully on historical events as a form of dramatic expression. Scripture itself creates a world in which something powerful is expressed. I believe that even if God were to divinely inspire every word and every translation of scripture, we should still pay attention to the world in the text as described by individuals like Brueggemann and Alter.

As readers of scripture, we should spend time within the world created in our texts and in the purposes behind the description of that world because that is the world we can still interact with as a people. We may never see the Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus, but we can still interact with the Sermon as recorded by the gospels. We may never meet Paul before the day of resurrection or our own journey to that other shore, but we may interact with the concepts presented through his letters. We may never interact perfectly with the world that once was the present, but the world described in our holy texts can still be powerfully a part of our lives.

As time permits I hope to delve deeper into how the texts we read call us into a world influenced by this third world explored by this “rhetorical criticism” which is found within the scriptures, but for tonight, I invite you to ask a simple question. How does the world within the scriptures influence your personal life?

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