How (/Not) To Read

May 9, 2018

Intellectual Hunger

Before we begin, let me first survey the terrain from where I stand.

Not quite six months ago I engaged a little (on Facebook and my blog) with this question of books, and I credited Bayard with having “empowered me to unworriedly admit that I skim books and forget them. But I try to remember the lessons I learn from them. And I do this by coming to books with specific questions. And letting them modify my questions. And supply with new questions. And also launch me on to other books.”

This then is the moment that I admit to myself that my ‘specific questions’ are not nearly as specific as they could be. They tend to be intuitive, imprecise and half-formed at best, and at worst might be a foolish distraction from the work that I should be doing, an immature indulgence of my mind’s childish inability to sit still and focus deeply on any one particular thing, and – because they lead to me impatiently ordering yet another book and another through Amazon’s addictively comprehensive and approximately infinite selection of literature – an unnecessary and idiotic expense. ‘Might be’. For I do love books – and the glimpses of gloriously novel insights and ideas that they offer to all with the eyes to see and the intellectual hunger to feast.

So, today I find myself with the possibility of an intelligent life stretching ahead of me. If I can just be faithful with what I have been given, then I might have the privilege of spending these next forty years in deep thought and mindful attentiveness to the voice of wisdom and revelation. Embodied in the human person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, born of a virgin, crucified by Pontius Pilate, raised by the power of an indestructible life, seen by eyewitnesses, exalted to the right hand of the Father – where He now ever lives to make intercession and so is able to save to the uttermost all those who come to Him. Yes, this I believe – therefore I seek understanding. ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought’ – so I seek the holy help of the Holy Spirit to clarify the whats and wherefores of this world, in all its perfection and with all of its problems.

‘And if anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives to all without finding fault’ (James 1:5). And what does God say: ‘the beginning of wisdom is this—get wisdom!’ (Proverbs 4:7). And there is much wisdom to be found in books. Firstly, most obviously, the books of the Bible: Peter writes “in both of [his letters]… by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:1-2), but this is not an injunction to study nothing but the Scriptures, for he goes on to warn that “there are some things in [Paul particularly, but “the other Scriptures” too] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” – so “knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:16-18). Since the Scriptures are particularly difficult to understand, and dangerous when misinterpreted – let’s read other books too! I’m such a fundamentalist that I find such a sentence difficult to write and I remain doubtful and wary of putting much significance on the study of any book that is not in Scripture. And yet my mind is hungry for other sources of wisdom and insight.

There’s the warning of Ecclesiastes: “like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings [presumably of Scripture]; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-13). But to never engage at all with any book other those of Scripture will not do, for we need to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every though captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5-6), and to do so, and keep from being “outwitted by Satan… [we must be] not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11).

So, I will remain wary of all other books (Eccl. 12:12), and I will “count them as rubbish” (Phil 3:8) compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ my Lord. But I will not be unaware of them, and I will not be afraid of them.

A Sermon

And he came teaching and preaching – and the people were astonished at his saying, for he was teaching as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. And he said unto them, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets! For I say to you that not a jot or a tittle of all that is written will pass away. I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes, you shall not enter the kingdom!’

And the scribes began to plot against him. And he turned to them and began to denounce them, saying ‘Woe to you scribes, hypocrites! For you shut the door to the kingdom in people’s faces, and yet you yourselves have not entered in! Woe to you scribes, hypocrites! For you put your learning on display for all to see but inside you are foolish and unteachable – you whitewashed tombs! Woe to you scribes, hypocrites! For you know not the Canonical Scriptures nor the power of their Wisdom, and so you go astray! Woe to you scribes, hypocrites! For you are blind guides.’

And then he turned to the people and said unto them, ‘Do not call anyone teacher, for in order to learn all you need do is learn to ask questions like a little child. Do not call anyone Rabbi, for the spirit of wisdom will teach you all you need to know.’ And the people were afraid, and whispered one to another, ‘Who taught this man these things? How did he gain such wisdom, having never been educated?’

Mortimer Adler: Careful Reading

The above is a (slightly paraphrased) collage of quotations from the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus Christ. But the description applies with equal accuracy to Mortimer Adler. “Born a Jew//in 1902” (as a prophetic poet might have foretold), he was of the same ethnicity as Jesus. Like Jesus, he was without conventional educational qualifications: although a successfuly student of Colombia University, he was refused his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree due to his refusal to take the required swimming test (though they did grant him his Ph.D – making him the only person in America to have the higher degree without the others), and afterwards he became the first non-lawyer to join the University of Chicago’s law school faculty, as Professor of the Philosophy of Law. Central to his career was the theme of ‘The Great Books’ of the Western intellectual tradition (including but of course not limited to the Bible) – in fact, he led Encyclopaedia Britannica’s project to compile and release a definitive fifty-four volume set of five hundred Great Books – and it was this relentless focus on The Great Books that brought him into conflict with the academic faculty of first Columbia and then Chicago (AmericanHeritage gives a thorough account of the story of Adler and The Great Books).

If Adler is a type of Christ, then his Sermon on the Mount would be the best-selling ‘How To Read A Book’. First published in 1940, it was updated and rereleased in 1972. Having divided the activity of reading into four hierarchical levels: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical (pp.17-20); and advised a Six-Step Formula for the Systematic Skimming of a book (pp.32-36); Adler authoritatively states fifteen rules for Analytical Reading (pp.163-164), and then gives more specific contextualised advice for every genre from lyric poetry to classic historical scientific writing. Finally (in his updated edition), he gives five steps for what he calls ‘Syntopical Reading’ – inviting the wisdom of diverse books into mutual conversation by comparing and contrasting their views on some particular topic.

But for all the parallels we might find with Jesus, when it comes to one of my favourite qualities of the Rabbi from Nazareth – his creatively child-like, exuberant playfulness – Adler falls disappointingly short. Jesus, the writer of Hebrews rhapsodises, ‘loved righteousness and hated wickedness – therefore God anointed Him with the oil of gladness, above and beyond all his companions!’ Unfortunately, for all Adler’s righteous defence of the rigorous science of reading and evident hatred of the wicked trivialities that might distract modern man from the weighty privilege of learning from the ancient wisdom of the written word – unfortunately, that superlative joy is absent. Not that Adler is dull, rigid or boring – but there is a certain self-seriousness, perhaps even a humourless harshness. He is not so much the Christ ‘playing the flute, that the children might dance in the marketplace’ – more John the Baptist ‘singing a dirge, that the people might mourn’.

Pierre Bayard: Carefree Non-Reading

Now if Adler is John the Baptist, who then is The One Who Comes After, who is in fact greater?

Perhaps we should now desist from our Messianic analogies, lest we find ourselves blaspheming the Son of Man (–or, unforgiveably, the Holy Spirit!–). At any rate, the writer I invite you to now behold is Pierre Bayard, author of the provocative ‘How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ (2007). His book bubbles and brims with the sort of evangelical-irony of which I’m sure Tim Keller (the apostolic New York Presbyterian church-planter and apologist) would approve (Keller contrasts the sarcasm and self-seriousness that grows naturally out of the need for self-justification, with the gentle, playful humour that results from accepting the gospel-shaped irony of a world in which a righteous God has turned the tables on the self-righteous and forgiven undeserving sinners – see here).

Bayard begins his book with his own (tongue-in-cheek) personal testimony: “Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote myself to it, I have often found myself in the delicate situation of having to express my thoughts on books I haven’t read. [But] Because I teach literature at the university level, there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven’t even opened[!]”. He then announces his “general thesis… that the notion of the book-that-has-been-read is ambiguous” (p.xviii) and “that our relation to books is not the continuous and homogeneous process that certain critics would have us imagine” (p.xix).

Instead of the simplistic and consequently misleading category of ‘book-that-has-been-read’, Bayard proposes instead that we talk in terms of Books-that-have-been-Skimmed (SB), Books-that-have-been-Heard-Of (HB), Books-that-are-Unknown (UB), and Books-that-have-been-Forgotten (FB). He then takes his readers on a merry waltz through the labyrinthine library of the canon of European literature (each chapter makes its point through a discussion of some classic text or author), demonstrating as he goes that the boundaries between reading and not-reading, between worth-reading and not-worth-reading, between canonical and non-canonical, indeed between real and imaginary – all these neat classifications turn out on inspection to be rather less certain and certainly more confusing and chaotic than one might naively have supposed.

Although laced with wit, his point is made seriously and precisely – hidden in the footnotes is a comprehensive suggestion for reframing the books we read (or don’t read) in terms of three overlapping sets of hypothetical libraries and their constituent books: the ‘collective library’ (p.12), the ‘inner library’ (p.73), and the ‘virtual library’ (p.125): “the realm in which books are discussed, in either written or oral form, with other people. It is a mobile sector of every culture’s collective library and is located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion”. In the first we find the ‘screen book’ (p.44); in the second, the ‘inner book’ (p.82-83): “the set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it. Largely unconscious, this imaginary book acts as a filter and determines the reception of new texts by selecting which of its elements will be retained and how they will be interpreted”; and in the third, the ‘phantom book’ (p.160): “that mobile and ungraspable object that we call into being, in writing or in speech, when we talk about a book. It is located at that point where readers’ various screen books meet–-screen books that readers have constructed based on their inner books. The phantom book belongs to the virtual library of our exchanges, as the screen book belongs to the collective library and the inner book belongs to the inner library.”

Points of Agreement

At first glance, Adler and Bayard seem to be in utter contradiction, but in fact the more I listen to what each is actually saying, the more I find that they are almost entirely in agreement.

First, both writers agree that the wisest way to relate to a book – at least to begin with – is first to skim it. Bayard absolutely denies the possibility of doing anything more than skimming it – of his four non-exclusive categories, ‘SB’ is the one that implies the most direct encounter. Adler explicitly proclaims that “skimming or pre-reading is always a good idea”, and offers a precise method for doing so.

Second, both writers agree that many (indeed, most) books would be a waste of precious time to read. Bayard suggests we learn from Oscar Wilder that “reading is not always a beneficial activity, but can turn out to be harmful”. Adler makes it a formula that “every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves”.

Third, both writers are united in the conviction that the question of ‘the canon’ is the fundamental question of intelligent reading. Adler’s life was a demonstration of this belief, as he sought to delineate the Holy Grail of a clear list of The Great Books of The Western World, from which Everyman could drink the sweet ambrosia of immortal wisdom. Bayard’s book is a witty deconstruction of Adler’s classic guide to intelligently reading ‘a book’, on the correct insight that intelligent reading is rarely “about the book itself… but about the larger set of books on which our culture depends”.

Fourth, both advocate the necessity of active engagement on the part of the reader. Adler begins his final chapter by congratulating himself rather smugly on having “completed the task… We have shown that activity is the essence of good reading, and the more active reading is, the better it is. We have defined active reading as the asking of questions…” And Bayard is at pains to demonstrate that “non-reading may be quite active rather than passive”, for “non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books…”

Fifth, they agree that the reader’s task is not finished after reading, but that truly active reading requires an explicit response from the reader. Adler puts it like this: “reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks”. Bayard too thinks reading must lead to writing: “Becoming the creators of our own works is thus the logical and desirable extension of an apprenticeship in commenting on books…”, though his rationale is focussed not on clarity of thought and demonstration of understanding but on what he considers “truly essential… the world of [one’s] own creation”.

This difference in underlying rationale forces us to confess that for all Adler and Bayard’s similarities, there is a basic disagreement between the two, concerning the fundamental issue of book-reading. Is it necessary, as Adler would earnestly have us agree – or, as Bayard suggests, is it “ourselves we should be listening to, not the ‘actual’ book”, in which case book-reading is only worthwhile insofar as it “sometimes provides us momentum” on our journey of self-discovery?

Literary Epistemology & Religious Heresy

Abstract questions of literary epistemology transform immediately into sources of existential anxiety in the presence of a thoughtful Christian, for to be a Christian is to be one who has – like the disciples on the road to Emmaus – encountered Jesus in the written words of the Scriptures, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” (cf. Luke 24:27). On the one hand, the integrity of this encounter relies on the objective correctness of the claim that the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection was indeed “according to the Scriptures” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3,4), which itself implicitly assumes the possibility of some sort of objectively correct interpretation. On the other hand, such an encounter is far less concerned with the communication of objective information, and far more concerned with an invitation to relational communion and personal existential transformation. “The letter kills, the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). To be a Christian, we must affirm “the letter” – Moses, John the Baptist, ‘the law’, and Adler – but we must press on for the fullness of “the Spirit” – Jesus, ‘the gospel’, and Bayard… or is Bayard a heretical Marcionite?

Bayard might not be overly surprised at being condemned of heresy by a religious reader. In his third chapter, on ‘Books You Have Heard Of’, he demonstrates with the help of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, that “it is wholly unnecessary to have held a book in your hand to be able to speak about it in detail, as long as you listen to and read what others say about it”. Eco’s novel is an ironic postmodern spin on the detective genre set in a medieval abbey; and in this monastic murder mystery, the solution hinges on the contents of “the lost second volume of Aristotle’s celebrated Poetics… [in which] the Greek philosopher is known to have continued his reflections on literature, this time exploring the theme of laughter”. (Bizarrely, in searching the Liverpool Library catalogue for a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics to skim through I came a genuine scholarly attempt at reconstructing Aristotle’s Poetics II ‘On Comedy’, by Richard Janko, published the year after Umberto Eco’s novel was first released – I can’t immediately ascertain whether the academic project was inspired by Eco’s book, or occurred entirely independently). Bayard explains that “It turns out that the murders were committed to prevent the monks from gaining knowledge of this book” because “rather than condemning laughter, the book dignified it as an object worthy of study—and to Jorge [the villain of Eco’s novel], laughter is antithetical to faith… in that is serves as a vehicle for various forms of doubt” and therefore “might subliminally undermine Christian doctrine”.

Bayard does not focus on the compatibility or otherwise of humour and orthodox Christian doctrine – his point is that the reconstruction of Aristotle’s lost text as achieved by the novel’s (referentially named) detective Baskerville is an illustration of his claim that one can speak in some detail of a text that one has never read – indeed, Baskerville “takes care not to have any direct physical contact with it”, for Jorge “has decided to dispatch troublesome researchers by applying poison to the upper part of the book”. But it seems fair to presume that he would be unworried by the possibility that his approach to literature might be considered unwelcome by Christians anxious about orthodoxy. Indeed, his first suggestion for speaking about a book you haven’t read is “not to be ashamed”.

The Self-Referential Bible

The Bible is a self-referential book.

The Torah is the national constitution – ‘the Law’ – of ancient Israel. But it is law embedded in an account of history, indeed a history that begins with the very beginning of time (Genesis 1:1), and culminates with a prophecy of things yet to come (Deuteronomy 31:28-29). It is a book which tells a story about how the (equivalent, if technically not identical) “Book of the Covenant [was] read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient’” (Exodus 24:7).

It is a book which sees its reading as an uncompletable yet continually necessary task. It urges that its words “shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6ff.).

It ends with the (straightforwardly unlikely, if not downright unbelievable) claim that “Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests” (Deuteronomy 31:9 – must a pious Bible-believer suppose that Moses was being thoroughly self-referential?), and continues with the command that “At the end of every seven years… you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing… that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law” (31:10,11,12); he then instructs the Levites to “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God”.

The Prophets then immediately continue with the LORD’s exhortation to Joshua to “do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you” (Josh. 1:7), by ensuring that “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall mediate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (1:8). When “Joshua was old and well advanced in years” (23:2), he repeats this exhortation to “be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses” (23:6). Then we are told that Joshua added his book to the canon of Holy Scripture, and “wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God” (24:26).

When the nation of Israel embraces revolutionary constitutional change and transforms from republican theocracy to hereditary monarchy, “then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD” (1 Samuel 10:25). Israel’s first king, Saul, is later condemned by Samuel for having “rejected the word of the Lord” (15:23), first by offering unauthorised sacrifice, then by failing to execute the death sentence upon the Amalekite ruler. Saul is replaced by the psalm-singing David. David’s psalms are musical meditations upon the written revelation of the Law of the Lord (cf. Psalm 19:7-11), and upon the challenges which would face the person who would set himself to whole-heartedly live in loving obedience to the Lord of the Law. They become the central feature of an unprecedented evolution of Israel’s religious system – still working within the basic boundaries of the Law of Moses, but it now includes singers and instrumentalists in a way (largely if perhaps not entirely cf. Ex. 15:1-21; Numbers 10:1-2,35-36) unanticipated by Moses.

The historians of Israel then judge their kings in terms of whether they did “what was right in the eyes of the Lord”, as specified “according to what is written in the Law of Moses” (eg. 2 Chronicles 25:2,4) – but the judgment is almost entirely negative, for the attention to the Law of Moses is negligible. And by the time we hear the dramatic declaration from “Hilkiah the high priest… to Shaphan the secretary: ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD’” (2 Kings 22:8), it is all too little, too late. In spite of King Josiah’s commendable response to the discovery of the Book (“Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” 23:25), it has already been prophesied that God will “bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read” (22:16).

The Book of Jeremiah (to focus on one prophet in particular) tells us that it contains “the words of Jeremiah, the son of [that Bible-discovering high priest?] Hilkiah, …to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah… until [the prophesied judgement of] the captivity of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 1:1-3). Jeremiah is possessed by an imagination saturated with the words of Scripture, and finds himself unable to observe even the most mundane scene (almond tree, 1:11-12; bubbling saucepan, 1:13-19; dirty underpants, 13:1-11; earthenware jar, ch.18-19) without finding himself inescapably drawn into conversation with the booming echo of the voice of the Lord.

His legal analysis of the constitutional implications of Israel’s religious nominalism (namely that their covenantal infidelity would lead to exile unless they turned from paying superficial lip-service to the architectural symbols of God’s favour and actually actively sought true and thorough justice, 7:1-15) causes him to suffer increasing degrees of political punishment, from beating (“Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks…” 20:2) to a narrowly averted death sentence (“then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, ‘This man deserves the sentence of death…’” 26:11 – fortunately “certain of the elders of the land arose and spoke to all the assembled people, saying “Micah of Moresheth prophesied [judgment upon Jerusalem]… Did Hezekiah king of Judah… put him to death? Did he not fear the Lord? 26:17-19). Jeremiah’s powerful juxtaposition of both the typological fertility and the national political authority of the Book of the Law mean that questions of hermeneutical interpretation take on critical life-or-death significance (eg. Jer. 28).

We see in Jeremiah the possibility that a book provides for an author to communicate transformative truth without being physically (personally?) present (Jer. 36:5-6 “And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, ‘I am banned from going to the house of the LORD, so you are to go, and on a day of fasting in the hearing of all the people in the LORD’s house you shall read the words of the LORD from the scroll that you have written at my dictation”); we see also the ambiguity this creates as to the precise boundaries of ‘that book’, as when that first ‘Book of Jeremiah’ is destroyed it is replaced by an equivalent but non-identical publication: “then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch the scribe… who wrote on it at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them” (36:32).

The Book of Daniel tells the story of four young literature students who find themselves faced with the impossible hermeneutical task of interpreting a dream without being told its content. Is interpretation without communication possible or even coherent? – “with God nothing is impossible”. With supernatural assistance they succeed at this unusual challenge, thus commencing high-flying political careers in spite of what one might expect to be an incompatibility with their inflexible loyalty to the distinctive requirements of remaining faithful to the Law of their God.

And we find Daniel engaging specifically with “the word of the Lord to Jeremiah” (Daniel 9:2), as he “perceived in the books [that] the number of years… [which] must pass before the end the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years”. Realizing that this time frame is near completion, Daniel turns to God, with “prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (9:3). And in response, God sends the angel Gabriel to tell Daniel that the more significant interpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy is not the completion of the literal seventy years of exile, but rather the “Seventy sevens [presumably meaning 70 x 7 = 490 years], [which] are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place” (9:24). The angel continues to warn Daniel of ‘the abomination of desolation’ (9:27), to which Jesus late makes apocalyptic reference (as Mark tells us, together with a cryptic invitation for “the reader [to] understand”, Mark 13:14).

Meanwhile, Ezra-Nehemiah tells us that “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia…” (Ezra 1:1) so that he issued a proclamation allowing all the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. The archaeological discovery of the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ has confirmed that Cyrus did allow the restoration of cult sanctuaries and repatriation of deported peoples—not limited to the Jewish people. The narrative follows three waves of return to and restoration of Jerusalem, led by Zerubabbel, Ezra and Nehemiah, culminating in the keeping of the Feast of Tabernacles required by the Law of Moses, together with the public reading of “the Book of the Law of Moses… [which] Ezra the priest brought… And he read from it… from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law… And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform… And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:1-8). In response to hearing the written word of the Law of God explained, the people are moved themselves to “make a firm covenant in writing: on the sealed documents are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests” (Nehemiah 9:38).

It is during this same epoch that the prophet Malachi rebukes the priests for failing to live up to their high calling – “for the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” – and urges the people to “remember the law of my servant Moses” (Malachi 4:4) before God “will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (4:5). And “then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another [and] the LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written [presumably by the people, as in Nehemiah] before Him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed His name” (3:16). It is here perhaps that we see the third stage of evolution of Israelite religion: first, Mosaic sacrifice; second, Davidic song; third, covenantal communities of Scriptural separatists.

It is into this world of diverse and disagreeing denominations of Scriptural interpretation that John the Baptist appears, speaking with the sort of prophetic authority that draws the attention of the nation (Mark 1:5) – and eventually gets him killed (Mark 4:14-29). John the Baptist himself shrugs of all suggestion that he himself is anyone of particular significance (John 1:19-23 – of course he does this with reference to a Biblical text), and instead hails his freshly-baptized cousin Jesus as the One they have all been waiting for. And then Jesus starts preaching – “for that is why I came” (Mark 1:38). Initially he seems to be a particularly good preacher – “all spoke well of him and marvelled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). But not only did he declare that the prophetic promises of Scripture were actually being fulfilled “today” (Luke 4:21), he was also quite unworried about preaching in a way that at least made it sound as if he were turning Moses on his (eminent) head: “You have heard that it was said…” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). For all Jesus’ confessions of canonical conservatism (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…” 5:17), this sounded like a revolutionary (7:28-29). And, as Jesus knew (“it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem” Luke 13:33), prophetic revolutionaries eventually get killed.

Which brings us back to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who encountered a stranger who started talking with them about the Scriptures (as Deuteronomy 6:7 instructs a person to do “when you walk by the way”). And the rest of the New Testament then provides us with a series of templates for how to read Scripture, how to join in with the prophetic conversation of the people of God, about God, with God, in (cf. Acts 17:28) God.

The Bible is a self-referential book about the importance of reading a book well – at least in particular reading this book well.