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But that doesn’t mean that much care is not required. Each book has its own way about it, and generally a careful reader begins to learn how to read a book by slowly and carefully poking around in it for a very long time until a way is found. A careful reader (an exegete!) will proceed with caution, allowing the book itself to teach us how to read it. For it soon becomes obvious that our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyperspiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncracies of local history and peasant dialect expunged. There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be recovered.
This is an enormous inconvenience, particularly to those of us who feel an inclination and aptitude towards the spiritual. It is almost impossible for those of us who have picked up the word spiritual from hanging around church parking lots or off the internet not to feel that our attraction to the spiritual confers a slight edge of privilege to us, exempting us from the bother of exegesis. We sense that we are insiders to the ways of God; we get intuitions that confirm our ideas and insights. After that happens a few times, we feel we’ve graduated from tedious recourse to lexicons and grammars. We are, after all, initiates to the text who cultivate the art of listening to God whisper between the lines. It isn’t long, as newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman once put it, before we’re using the Bible more as a Rorshach test than a religious text, reading more into the ink than we read out of it.3 It isn’t long before we’re using the word spiritual to refer primarily to ourselves and our ideas, and only incidentally and by the way to God.
Inconvenient or not, we are stuck with the necessity of exegesis. We have a written word to read and to attend to. It is God’s Word, or so we believe, and we had better get it right. Exegesis is the care we give to getting the words right. Exegesis is foundational to Christian spirituality. Foundations disappear from view as a building is constructed but when builders don’t build a solid foundation, their building doesn’t last long.
Because we speak our language so casually, it is easy to fall into the habit of treating it casually. But language is persistently difficult to understand. We spend our early lives learning the language, and just when we think we have it mastered, our spouse says, “You don’t understand a thing I’m saying, do you?” We teach our children to talk and just about the time we think they might be getting it, they quit talking to us; and when we overhear them talking to their friends, we find we can’t understand more than one out of every eight or nine words they say. A close relationship doesn’t guarantee understanding. A long affection doesn’t guarantee understanding. In fact, the closer we are to another and the more intimate our relations, the more care we must exercise to hear accurately, to understand thoroughly, to answer appropriately.
Which is to say, the more “spiritual” we become, the more care we must give to exegesis. The more mature we become in the Christian faith, the more exegetically rigorous we must become. This is not a task from which we graduate. These words given to us in our Scriptures are constantly becoming overlaid with personal preferences, cultural assumptions, sin distortions, and ignorant guesses that pollute the text. The pollutants are always in the air, gathering dust on our Bibles, corroding our use of the language, especially the language of faith. Exegesis is a dustcloth or, better, a scrub brush scouring the words clean.
Exegesis is the farthest thing from pedantry; exegesis is an act of love. It means loving the one who speaks the words enough to want to get the words right. It is respecting the words enough to use every means we have to get the words right. Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully. It follows that we bring the leisure and attentiveness of lovers to this text, cherishing every comma and semicolon, relishing the oddness of this preposition, delighting in the surprising placement of this noun. Lovers don’t take a quick look, get a “message” or a “meaning” and then run off and talk endlessly with their friends about how they feel.
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