The Language of Scripture Alone

I can think of at least three different ways in which one can read the scriptures. One might comb through them searching for proof texts. Here the unit of analysis is the verse, regardless of context or even grammar and punctuation. One simply is looking for a bit of citable language to support your point. The antithesis of this would be careful exegesis. The goal here is to painstakingly milk the text for all of the meaning that one can find in it. One looks at context, structure, external sources, and anything else that will let you give a holistic and coherent construction of the text.

And then there is reading where you simply let the language of the scriptures wash over you. A while ago I did an intensive personal study of the Epistle to the Hebrews, particularly the chapters dealing with priesthood and temple. It was a wonderful experience. More recently, I was reading the psalms and I found myself trying to do exegesis. I didn’t like it. There was something deadening about the labor of analysis. So I stopped, and began again at the beginning and simply enjoyed the language. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of the sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night…�

To proof text is make the scriptures into a reflection of ourselves. Exegesis is a matter of letting the scriptures speak for themselves, in so far as we are able. To read the psalms simply for the language, however, is to learn how to feel in a certain relationship to God.

11 comments for “The Language of Scripture Alone

  1. July 23, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    I’m constantly amazed at how many ways exist to analyze, interpret, and apply the scriptures. Their duality of being simple yet mysterious and complex is a testimony to their prophetic source and divine nature.

  2. smb
    July 23, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    I remember giving a talk some years back about scriptures as the \”habitat of the righteous.\” I still have a sense that it\’s true, this idea that being in the right place emotionally or aesthetically, as a result of time spent habitually in scripture, leaves one open to novel revelations independent of any given text. In that way this practice of \”sortie\” so popular in medieval catholicism and in segments of contemporary Mormonism and Evangelical Protestantism (flip open to any page to hear God\’s word for you today, something like a scriptural horoscope) may actually have some grounding (however inscrutable) in a reasonable relationship with scripture.

  3. Michael McBride
    July 24, 2006 at 1:34 am

    I’ve had a similar experience with the Psalms. I remember reading them and thinking, “These are some of the most inspired words in the Bible.”

  4. Mark Butler
    July 24, 2006 at 2:10 am

    I echo what Michael said in (#3).

  5. Johnna
    July 24, 2006 at 2:51 am

    Of course Psalms are the most inspired. That’s why the writers of the New Testament letters quote them more than any other Old Testament book to proof-text Christianity.

  6. DKL
    July 24, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Johnna and Michael and Mark, the way I see it is that Psalms is a hymnal that got canonized. That’s why it’s aesthetically pleasing in isolated portions, but fairly tiresome to read the entire book in sequence the whole way through–like reading the entire LDS Hymnal or listening to every Billy Joel song in sequence. Many of the songs in the LDS Hymnal read better than some passages of canonized text, but that hardly makes them scripture.

    Language, as language, can be elevating. But I think that we should try to shy away from associating properties of language that are aesthetically rewarding with those that have religious significance.

  7. Kristine Haglund Harris
    July 24, 2006 at 10:15 pm

    “I think that we should try to shy away from associating properties of language that are aesthetically rewarding with those that have religious significance”


  8. DKL
    July 25, 2006 at 12:18 am

    Kristine, as tempting is it is to say that all beauty comes from God, or that everything that God offers has great aesthetic value, I just don’t think that it’s so. There are a great many truths that just aren’t pretty. Moreover, there are a great many evils that can be made to appear to be things of great beauty. Plato’s critique of art is correct insofar as it recognizes that what we call aesthetic beauty and truth are logically independent of each other.

    I don’t want to sound like a philistine, but it seems to me that our mortal conception of beauty is always already only skin-deep, and I just can’t see the purpose of trying to tie God into our messy notion of beauty. Why is the linguistic impact of the scriptures any more a sign of divinity than (say) the impact of a good, four-star movie?

  9. Susan
    July 25, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    And then there’s narrative. How could you miss that, Nate.

  10. July 25, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    DKL, what are you thinking of. Wasn’t Plato’s point that what beauty, truth and goodness really is is the One?

  11. DKL
    July 26, 2006 at 12:11 am

    Clark, I’m referring to “we call aesthetic beauty,” which is, for Plato, art. For Plato, this is just a presentation layer. There’s a sense in which the beauty portrayed in such art is not true beauty as Plato would define it, but to pedestrians such as ourselves (seriously, anyone here seen a form?), it’s all the same. I mean, who wouldn’t prefer watching Raiders of the Lost Ark to reading a math textbook? For Plato, this is the very reason that art is subversive: it can exemplify falseness in beautiful ways. Elvis addressed this very issue in his hit song, “You’re the Devil in Disguise.”

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