Listening to the Bible

Christopher-Bryan-BioQ&A With Christopher Bryan

By Walter Fenton –

“The biblical documents were written to be heard, rather than to be read,” Christopher Bryan observes. “People in the ancient world simply did not have the luxury of reading these texts. Listening, as opposed to merely hearing, implies paying attention. Like all great art, the Bible repays attention.”

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Bryan is an Anglican priest, New Testament scholar, fantasy-mystery novelist, and professor emeritus at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He was born in London, England, and during his childhood and early adolescence he lived through the whole of World War II. Bryan studied literature and theology at Oxford in the late 1950s. During this time C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were major influences on him.

Now in “semi-retirement,” Bryan continues to write, to teach, and to serve the church as a priest in local southern Tennessee parishes. He is the author of numerous publications – fiction and non-fiction – including A Preface to Mark (Oxford), A Preface to Romans (Oxford), And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (Rowman & Littlefield), Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford); and the Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford).

Bryan discussed his latest book, Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Bible Interpretation, with the Rev. Walter Fenton, a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.

Most people in today’s world read the Bible instead of listening to it. Why did you decide to title the book Listening to the Bible?

The biblical documents were written to be heard, rather than to be read. That is a simple matter of history! People in the ancient world simply did not have the luxury of reading these texts. Listening, as opposed to merely hearing, implies paying attention. Like all great art, the Bible repays attention. Indeed, I agree with C. S. Lewis — the greatest art is that which repays most the greatest amount of attention from the largest number of people over the longest period of time (see Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism). And clearly, by that definition, the Biblical documents are very great art indeed.

What are the greatest challenges that keep laypeople from listening to the Bible? 

They can’t understand it and the people responsible for explaining it frequently don’t bother to do that. When it is read aloud, it is generally badly read. I believe these wonderful texts are worthy of our sustained attention and work. Just as we expect people in the church choir to practice so we need to expect readers to take care with the text, to practice reading it aloud before reading it before the congregation. The reading of the Gospel done well can leave people stunned!

You spend a chapter writing about “The Hermeneutic of Suspicion.” What are some aspects of this biblical interpretation that are healthy and necessary, and those aspects that are, as you write, “swollen to idolatry”? 

I think that our caution over the Bible’s attitudes to women, slavery, non-Israelites in the Old Testament and the Jews in the New Testament all provide examples of a need for healthy suspicion. Facile reductionism, and the assumption that we moderns at last understand the ancient texts – as opposed to our predecessors and even those who wrote them! – are examples of the “idolatry.”

American seminaries and graduate schools in the 20th century taught future pastors to read the Bible in an objectively critical fashion, looking for clues about authorship, dating and the way ancient cultures would have shaped the stories in Scripture. You write that these methods “did not turn out to be the panacea that its first proponents expected.” Why not? What were some of its problems?

I think the most obvious problem is that people initially thought that “objective” study would lead to clear answers to our questions. Evidently historical criticism has failed to do that — and it fails to do so for the obvious reason that the methods of historical criticism can no more guard us from the effects of our own predilections, prejudices, and biases than could those of the allegorical approach or any other approach that we might imagine. The fact is, human beings are not capable of being totally “objective” — as has been pointed out on numerous occasions by various people. Even the kinds of questions that we choose to ask betray our own concerns.  The history of the “quest” for the historical Jesus provides an obvious examples of all this.

You write that, “The faith [stated concisely in the great creeds] and the [biblical] texts evolved together.” Why do you believe it is important for Christians to recognize this in general and in particular, in relation to listening to the Bible?

It’s important because fundamentally it is what the New Testament as a whole is about. It is not true, as some critics say, that Paul and others came along and complicated the Christian faith. Paul was preaching what the Church confesses.

The church selected the New Testament texts of course for criteria such as apostolicity: but above all because they were perceived as witnessing to the faith that the church already held. And correctly so—for it was that faith that created those texts! This is circular, but it is a benign circle. I think it’s no accident, incidentally, that as the distinguished Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson has pointed out, the canon of Holy Scripture and the Rule of Faith as ultimately and definitively expressed in the Creeds, together with the Sacraments, emerged definitively at roughly the same time in the Church’s history, and the Church decided that each of them was an essential and foundational constituent of its common life. I agree with Jenson that these four elements constitute – and should be seen as constituting – an organic and mutually reinforcing unity.

Aside from the Bible, who are some authors who have influenced your thinking?

Early on I was greatly influenced by poets and novelists.  My initial thinking about the faith was certainly molded by Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and, C. S. Lewis. All of these are still important to me — Williams and Lewis have perhaps most obviously influenced my fiction.

In the field of biblical and New Testament studies I would particularly acknowledge my debt, initially, to C. H. Dodd, Sir Edmund Hoskyns and Noel Davies (The Riddle of the New Testament), G. B. Caird (Language and Imagery of the Bible), and W. D. Davies (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism); later on to Raymond Brown and N. T. Wright and some aspects of E. P. Sanders’ work.

Obviously there have been many others to whom I am indebted, far too numerous to mention. One thing I would concede (for better or worse) is the fact that my initial academic study was not in Scripture at all, but in the field of English literature. This has clearly been an enormous influence on me and on my approach to the biblical text, and to some extent has set me apart from others in my field.

In the long history of biblical interpretation, who are the authors you regard as most influential? Why?

Until the Enlightenment, virtually all who wrote theology thought they needed to be on terms with and exegetes of Scripture: so virtually every significant name is also an influential interpreter of Scripture. Following the Enlightenment, the people whom I mention in Listening (e.g. Schleiermacher, Jowett) were clearly influential — not always, in my view, for good! Movements such as the Quest for the Historical Jesus have their place here. And various names fit into that: Schweitzer, Wrede, and Bultmann most obviously; and the Anglo push back by people (great people, in my view!) such as Dodd and Vincent Taylor.

Editor’s note, please check out www.christopherbryanonline.com to learn more. Diamond Press will release Bryan’s latest work of fiction, A Habit of Death, this November. 

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