Lauren Winner is one of those people who is not only a great scholar but also a fantastic writer. I love everything she writes. She also has fantastic glasses. Her latest book, Wearing God, was probably my favorite book in 2015 (the year it came out). I swear the fact that I read it on a beach in the Bahamas had nothing to do with it.
Dislocated exegesis, the phrase that I am writing about in this post, came from her book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Stay with me, it’s better than it sounds. Let’s start with the word exegesis. The new Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “Critical interpretation or explanation of a text, traditionally associated with religious scriptures, but now used with reference to close readings and analyses of any text.” I fear I’m making this worse, not better. Thankfully, Eugene Peterson has a much better definition. He writes, “Exegesis is simply noticing and responding adequately (which is not simple!) to the demand that words make on us, that language makes on us.”1 Surely the scriptures make demands of us – heavy demands, in fact – but isn’t it true that sometimes we become so familiar with certain texts that we barely hear them anymore? Kafka once wrote, “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?…A book must be like an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.”2 Often times the Bible should do this but, if I’m honest, it doesn’t always. Sometimes, despite my best intentions, I might as well be reading a dictionary. Perhaps you’ve experienced this too and wondered if you’re reading it wrong. This could be true. It’s amazing what a little historical context, for example, can do to bring a text to life. But perhaps the problem isn’t always how we read, but where. This is where dislocated exegesis comes in.
Where do you read the Bible? I usually read it in my office or the prayer room at church. If I’m home, in the black chair in the corner of our living room or in bed. I occasionally read it other places too, but I spend the majority of my Bible reading time in those places. Does where I read effect how I read? I think so.
Winner writes about how she was a part of a demonstration outside an immigration detention center one Holy Thursday. A part of the liturgy that was being performed3 was the reading of 1 Corinthians 13. First Corinthians 13 is the “love is patient, love is kind…” chapter. You’ve probably heard it read more at weddings than any other place. Winner says that “typically, when the passage is read, my ears glaze over; it could be a Hallmark card. But at the ICE center in Cary, St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians confound.”4 She heard the words differently because of her physical location. She continues, “I begin to hear that what Paul meant was nothing to do with Valentine’s Day; that when Paul said Love, he was not speaking about a feeling or even a way of treating the people close to you; that when Paul said Love, he was speaking about the identity of another man who was once arrested on Holy Thursday.”5 The difference between the passage being read at a wedding and outside of an immigration detention center is very stark. Winner was experiencing dislocated exegesis. She defines it for us:
“‘dislocated exegesis’…the practice of reading scripture in unexpected places, in places that might unsettle the assumptions you were likely to bring to the text.”6
Since then, Winner now brings her Bible with her and makes it a habit of reading in various locations once a week. She gives a few examples of how reading in different settings reveals the text differently:
“On one occasion, I am outside an insurance building in Hartford…reading Jesus’ injunctions in Matthew: ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they…So do not worry…”
“On a second occasion I am on an airplane reading God’s description of lifting up the children of Israel on eagles’ wings…”
“Or I am outside the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, the tallest building in the state, reading about the tower of Babel.”7
As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve decided that I need to try and intentionally engage in this practice. Just before Christmas I received my long awaited Bibliotheca in the mail (check out this amazing project here). I’m going to keep the New Testament book that I’ve been working through in my backpack and try and purposely begin reading in various locations. I’m not doing away with the other locations, but I want to shake up my practice a bit. I’m curious to see how where I read effects how I read.
If you’ve ever been startled by reading a passage in a different location I’d love to hear about it.
Until next time.
1 Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2006) p.51
2 Quoted in Peterson’s Eat This Book p. 8
3 I use the word “performed” here intentionally – as in being a part of the drama of the gospel that is being enacted though worship.
4 Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. (New York: HarperCollins. 2012) Kindle location 1407
5 ibid. loc. 1407-1434
6 ibid. loc. 1434