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"Do You Understand What You Are Reading?"

The Formation of a Scriptural Imagination
Scriptural imagination is a way of being in the world in which all of life is shaped by the habits of reading Scripture

Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.

One of the most important and distinctive emphases of Duke Divinity School is our commitment to developing a scriptural imagination in those whom we train. Our hope is that Scripture becomes the keyboard of the imagination, the ordering structure of all the various notes we play in our lives. It is common to hear that order can only be imposed from without, that it is inherently oppressive to the originally free self, that true human freedom is to be unconstrained by order, and that the best ethic is one in which we refrain from claims to know the right or healing order of life. But order is in fact fundamental to Christian understanding. Chaos is neither the rule of God’s creation at its heart nor of new creation in Christ, as Christians ought to know from Genesis and the letters of Paul. No more could an entirely disordered keyboard yield beautiful music than chaos could lead to freedom and a well-lived life. The imagination that works freely and creatively is the one that has been ordered scripturally—a keyboard of virtually endless combinations and beautiful configurations that are the patterns of Christian life. Since speaking of a “scriptural imagination” is not necessarily a common way to talk, however, it makes good sense to explain what we mean.

By imagination we do not mean so much the capacity for certain kinds of play that we have in abundance as a child and often lose as we age, or a distinct area or activity of the brain that corresponds to creativity, fantasy, and the like. Imagination, rather, means more the way the total person is involved in interpreting and being in the world—the part we actively play in constructing a vision of life for ourselves and for others.

Imagination in this sense is thus not something that exists only in our heads or is used only for particular activities such as artistic depiction; it is also practically dense, or lived. The shape of our lives both testifies to and influences the way we imagine the world, and, conversely, our imagination helps to structure the concrete patterns of daily, lived existence.

A Scriptural Imagination and Reading Well

To speak, then, of a scriptural imagination is to speak about the scriptural shape of a whole life, a way of being in the world that evidences a lifelong process of transformation by the power of holy Scripture. The language of a “way of being in the world” emphasizes the point that a scriptural imagination is not simply a matter of “thinking”; nor is it only a “doing.” Such dichotomies between thought and practice, in fact, hinder our ability to be scripturally shaped precisely because they teach us to conceive of our lives as divisible things. But human lives are not divisible; insofar as they are human lives, they are unified by the thing that is the human being through time. All of our thought takes place within the lives that we live, and our practices are inseparably intertwined with the thinking that makes the practices intelligible. Scripture aims at the formation of the total pattern that is the way we are in the world—thought and practice together in one life.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but such a view presupposes the necessity of learning about Scripture—not only what is in it, of course, but also how to read it. As it turns out, however, reading the Bible well is not something that we naturally do with some ease, like learning to swim or to cut our food correctly with a knife and fork. We need, instead, to learn how to read it well.

Learning how to read Scripture well implies, of course, some sort of corresponding instruction. A remarkable passage from the Acts of the Apostles illustrates the need for guidance in the way of reading. In Acts 8, the deacon/evangelist Philip is traveling along a road that ran west from Jerusalem over to Gaza when he overhears an Ethiopian eunuch (a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia) reading aloud from the book of Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32–33, citing Isaiah 53:7–8). Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Philip runs to join the chariot and asks the eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch’s surprising reply goes to the heart of scriptural interpretation: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He then invites Philip into the chariot with him and asks, “About whom . . . does the prophet [Isaiah] say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip of course is eager to teach. “Then,” Acts continues, “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to [the eunuch] the good news about Jesus” (8:26–40). Philip the evangelist becomes Philip the exegete.

In its immediate literary context, the emphasis of the passage is largely on the necessary conditions for understanding Jesus of Nazareth as the one of whom the Old Testament speaks (as well as the result of such understanding—baptism and the welcome into Christian fellowship). The eunuch, that is, does not know about Jesus and must be shown by Philip how Isaiah speaks of him. Two millennia after the Christian interpretation of Isaiah, the fact that the figure spoken of in Isaiah 53 can be read as a prefiguration of Jesus’ suffering and death is unsurprising. But in the first century, no such interpretation was available. Isaiah 53 spoke of one who was to suffer, to be sure, but that this one was Jesus of Nazareth was entirely unknown until the Christians developed their exegesis of the passage. That Isaiah spoke of Jesus in particular, in other words, was something that needed to be discovered and learned.

The larger interpretive point of the scene with the eunuch and Philip in Acts cannot be missed: we can read all day long—even the right passages—and, without instruction in how to understand what we’re reading, miss what we most need to see. Or, to put it more positively, training in how to read Scripture well is a sine qua non of good reading itself.