Texts, Rocks, and Talk: Reclaiming Biblical Christianity to Counter-imagine the World
Slattery, Dennis Patrick
Texts, Rocks, and Talk: Reclaiming Biblical Christianity to Counterimagine the World. By John R. Land. The Liturgical Press: PO Box 7500, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321, 2002. Pp. 290. Paper. $19.95.
For most of my childhood and adolescence, I often circled, like a suspicious cat, around the Bible in our house. It was a strange and imposing booklarge, with a white leather cover that said: “Do not dirty me.” The edges of all its pages were smooth and gilded. I was both attracted and repelled by such an imposing tome, which, I learned in twelve years of Catholic education, was full not of stories to enter and imagine but rather stuffed with God’s pronouncements. Such an attitude toward it kept me from seriously opening a Bible until well into adulthood. I just did not want to be lectured to. No one ever really told me this marvelous book was full of interesting stories open to interpretation.
So, while there are parts of John Land’s Texts, Rocks, and Talk I do not care for, though that may be the effect in part of the audience he is pitching it to, I find on the whole that its essential message is that the Bible is a living entity that must be grappled with in both its factual/historical as well as in its metaphorical and symbolic levels. Furthermore, the way we approach and interpret it, our own method of interpretation-our hermeneutic or art of interpreting-must be studied as much as the content gleaned from our method of exploration. Early on he calls this the difference between “steno language” and “tensive language.” While the former consists primarily of “facts and definitions,” tensive language “creates tension” through the media of symbol and metaphor” (p. 9) that allow the events of the stories to deepen into more personal and collective experiences. Knowing the difference between the two kinds of language can help anyone approaching this or any other text.
The structure of the entire book is very interesting and from which the title emerges. The author and four of his students travel from Israel to Egypt to Greece primarily to explore The Song of Songs and 1 Corinthians, and then to imagine both of these sections of the Bible in their textual significance as well as their “rock” significance, namely, studying ancient rubble as a “way into the social world of antiquity” (p. 5). From here one looks at where text and rock coalesce to define a sacred text’s quality, which is for the author God calling ordinary people into conversation with him through the Bible’s stories. So the Bible is a given at the outset as a place of opening or a corridor into an experience of God and with God. In the process and the pilgrimage, the four students-Jeremy, Thad, Yvonne, and Marjorie-enter into conversation among themselves and with the author, as well as with the archeology and sociology of place. These events and dialogues are transcribed and make up the essential content of the book.
Over time, the idea went from seeming a bit forced and contrived to becoming an authentic approach to making the Bible less a beast arrested in dogmatic slumbers and more a vibrant and thought-provoking text. For me as reader, what happened is that the eras that had been drained from the Bible began to flow back into it. It became a viable and exciting hermeneutic journey toward understanding not a fixed God absolute in authority and decree but a God living out his presence through the way people enter the stories about him. In the process, the students and the reader, under the sure guiding hand of their teacher, allowed room in reading of the Bible for both historical fact and imaginal seeing. Photos of the sites throughout the book made the journey more concrete. As an adult approaching sixty, I have learned once again to love books with pictures.
The other strength of the book-in addition to informing me of the social and cultural matrix out of which The Song of Songs and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, as well as side trips to Romans and Galatians, surfaced-was the authentic Socratic dialogue between students and teacher and between students and students. This book is not just about “Bible study” but about entering the hermeneutic culture of interpretation itself, with the assumptions, prejudices, and biases that attend all of our attempts to make meaning of what we read and experience.
A reminder of the goal of the group is restated far into the journey: “to learn about how biblical scholars interpret Scripture so that later we can suggest how the rest of us can do it” (p. 141). But there is more: the pursuit of what makes the Bible not just another historical document but a sacred text, and what is in its nature that separates it out from other texts. One key way, according to the author, is to merge tensive with steno language in a close exegetical reading, especially of Paul’s 1 Corinthians, to look at the social and cultural matrix out of which it rose in order to enliven not further deaden the spirit of the writing.
I especially liked the section in Chapter 19, “The Great Reversal,” on the history of crucifixions. Significant space is given to this important form of capital punishment because, according to the author, we as a culture “have theologized the crucifixion of Jesus. We’ve sanitized it, and in the process we’ve tamed it” (p. 202), robbing it of its power. His solution: “we need a paradigm shift in our approach to the Bible” (p. 222). This book is one foray into such a shift in direction and momentum. Lanci, and I as reader, like the paradigm shift outlined by biblical theologian Sandra Schneider when she describes three worlds included in the sacred text: “the world behind the text (the social world of the author); the world in the text (the content of the documents we have); and the world before, or in front of, the text (the world of the audience).” These are essentially the worlds explored by both students and teacher that comprise this volume.
Scripture, then, is an “invitation to construct the world in a different way” (p. 229). The heart of this study is “to see the Bible as a channel, a conduit, between the human and the transcendent” (p. 230). I think it succeeds.
I did not care for the quality of many of the “Questions for Reflection” at the end of the chapters. It made the study too much of a textbook for me, exactly what the contents were helping me to move away from as a predominant image of the Bible in our culture. But if the intention was to market this study as a textbook for class use, then I see their relevance. I would have preferred that they were not there. Questions at the end of chapters can shut down thought by too stiffly directing how one should think, as much as they can open up further conversation.
But that is offset by the fine finale to the book: “The Bible is our memory, and if we remember who we are as a people we will not return to the den in comfort. We Christians have as a Church forgotten who we are…. We want a god that we can manage” (p. 265), a god who becomes an idol of our own reflection. Bravo. I take these last accusations seriously, as anyone must to truly enter into the conversation Lanci so convincingly, and, yes, entertainingly outlines here with his energetic and thoughtful students.
A fine annotated bibliography at the end offers dozens of additional works that allow the reader to stay on the journey of Biblical interpretation.
Dennis Patrick Slattery, PhD, teaches Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California. His latest book, Grace in the Desert: Awakening to the Gifts of Monastic Life, was published by Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Copyright Spiritual Life Fall 2004
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