Good eisegesis

Yesterday, I described a “magic” that happens with writing.  Along the way, I mentioned the particular magic that seems to happen when you practice eisegesis, that is, “reading into” the text instead of just “receiving from” the text, or exegesis.

It’s a phenomenon related to what I have called the Reality Enhancement Factor.  We are built to see a dim and sketchy scene and flesh it out mentally until everything seems clear and bright.  Even though this can lead us astray if we lack self-awareness, it can also draw our attention to important facts:  what was first a guess, a creative filling of the gap, makes us pay closer attention to evidence that is actually there and verifies the guess.

The act of making up a story kicks the REF into high gear.  Consequently, the story writer who starts from a biblical text is not turning on a faculty of creation ex nihilo, but what turns out to be a faculty built for seeing things.  Eisegesis can yield exegesis.

Done in the right spirit, eisegesis can yield striking insights because it is an exercise of creativity within limits.  It begins with the text as a given set of dots and tries to connect them to make a picture; it begins with the text as a series of pictures and tries to supply the story line.  In one way or another, creativity goes places it would never have gone without the specific limits imposed by this particular text, and the eisegete actually learns from his reading.  Anyone who has done creative work knows what I mean.

As a result, the text itself ends up expressing itself through the eisegete’s work.  Good reading into the text does not dominate in the end but serves it.

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A Tribute to John the Theologian

Today’s martyrology speaks of John the Apostle in a way unlike all the other apostles:  “In his Gospel and other writings he shows himself to be a theologian….”  Tradition holds all the apostles to be the foundation of theology, and the evangelists to be the model of the theologian, but even among the evangelists the Fathers single out John as the “eagle,” the one who soars high into the realm of mystery.

In the earliest days of the Church, Matthew’s Gospel was the most popular gospel, but from the days of scholasticism onward theologians of all stripes and denominations have preferred John’s Gospel together with the letters of Paul.  Theologians like arguments more than stories, and John has long, wonderful discourses in which Jesus gives theological arguments.  If you look for example of St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on John, you’ll see that his exposition of the story parts is OK while his unpacking of the discourses is marvelous.  He is just more comfortable with argument.

But of course John’s Gospel blends story and argument, and both elements earn him the title “theologian”.  That’s one reason I have a special devotion to him at this season:  in the coming year, I hope to write stories and I hope to write arguments, and some of the arguments I hope to write are arguments about stories.  As a tribute to St. John, I’d like to share with you an outline of John’s Gospel that I developed over a few years of teaching sophomores at Wyoming Catholic College.  On my account, if you take time and place as dividers of the text, you end up with a liturgically themed chiastic structure–maybe a bit bold, but a lot more fun than what you’ll find in standard commentaries!  Click here for a .pdf file; the outline is on the first page and some explanatory notes on the second.

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How St. Matthew Actually Read Isaiah 7

Our reading at Mass today is taken from the seventh chapter of Isaiah, that wonderful prophecy about the child Emmanuel, born of a virgin.  It is one of those passages where the traditional interpretation, based on Matthew’s Gospel, conflicts terribly with modern interpretations, leaving one seemingly to choose between tradition and scholarship.  Some years ago, a friend wrote to me during Advent with a heartfelt question about this chapter, and I offered him my own approach to solving the age-old debate.  This year, I have decided to share that reply with you.


Your whole family, you say, has been wondering about Isaiah 7:14-15:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

What a joy to hear that your whole family grows anxious over Scripture, when most of the world is anxious over shopping lists, tax deductibles, and gaining weight on holiday goodies!  When most of us hesitate over which Christmas chocolates and cookies and meats to serve, your mind hovers over a more puzzling menu:  what can it mean that Jesus will eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good?

Unfortunately, my answer can be neither short nor simple.  Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most controverted passages in all of Scripture, and I do not know any other scholar who holds exactly my position, but I am happy to share my reflections, and your family can take or leave them.  In essence, I hold that we must depart from the traditional interpretation in order to return to it more forcefully; so I am estranged from traditional interpreters on the one hand and from modern exegetes on the other.  Let me explain. Continue reading “How St. Matthew Actually Read Isaiah 7”

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Metaphor and Analogy

As I rev up for my writing projects in the spring, I have been reading Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s helpful book, Is There a Meaning in This Text?  In the first stage of my academic life, I worked at carving a niche for myself through the combination of biblical studies and St. Thomas Aquinas; then I worked at founding a college in the middle of nowhere; at no stage of my progress did I find the leisure to read contemporary philosophy of language.  Vanhoozer offers a very nice summary of Derrida, Fish, Ricoeur, and others.
As one would expect, everyone he mentions seems to have a finger on some truth or other.  But last night I came across this quotation from Derrida:  “A noun is proper when it has but a single sense. … No philosophy, as such, has ever renounced this Aristotelian ideal.  This ideal is philosophy.”
Misleading at best.  It is true that a word taken in its literal sense has only one literal meaning, but then again the same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of metaphors:  if I say “God is a rock,” then I’m only saying that God is a rock, not that God is a fish or that God is a cloud.  The fact that you can always translate a single metaphor into multiple literal statements does not prove that one word always conveys multiple metaphors.  I can do the same trick with a word taken literally:  it might take several pages amounting to several dozen literal statements to unpack the single word potency in a sentence by Aristotle.
But at worst, Derrida’s claim may be the opposite of what Aristotle meant.  If we look at how a word is used over the course of a page of literal prose, Aristotle will look for constantly shifting meanings.  This is guy who delineated eleven separate meanings of the word “in,” for crying out loud.  One of the most powerful ideas in his philosophy is that every word in every language has multiple non-metaphorical meanings.  In fact, the realization that the word “being” has multiple literal meanings may be his most important contribution to philosophy.
Just thinking out loud here.  I’m no expert on Derrida, of course:  I’m reading about him rather than reading him.  But it has been my year-in and year-out experience as a teacher that people have a hard time separating metaphor from analogy, and the problem leads to endless confusion.
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