Thursday, March 8, 2018

Final part of Review of Leithart, Deep Exegesis

Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009

Chapters 5&6: Texts are Music/ Texts are about Christ

Eek I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t had time to finish the review. Sorry for the delay.

In chapter 5 Leithart argues that Biblical texts are multi-layered and that “the same words tell several stories at the same time” (142). It may be safer to stay on the surface of a text and not risk putting “words into God’s mouth”, “[b]ut caution is not the only hermeneutical virtue” (142). Leithart goes on to discuss how musical many films and literary works are, relying as they do, on the repetition of themes, motifs, structures, rhythms and patterns. These musical features link not only to repetition within a work but also to other works. Again, discussion of Bach, Homer, Shakespeare, Groundhog Day, Raymond Roussel, etc, demonstrate Leithart’s wide net for examples and parallels. And again he seems to spend a long time hammering home a point which I would have accepted much sooner. Moving on he further develops the idea of multiple structures, a feature of large scale musical works, and of the works of James Joyce. Finally we return to John 9 with an extensive discussion of the multiple structures running through that passage (161-71). John 9 is a chiasm, it follows a priest’s progression through the sanctuary, it tells the story of a blind man, it tells the story of Jesus, and it tells the story of the Pharisees, all at the same time. “John 9 is . . . a polyphonic composition, a cantata to rival Bach’s” (171).

Leithart enters his final chapter through Augustines concept of the totus Christus, that is understanding the church not as a separate entity to Christ but as the body of which Christ is the head (173). Thus the reader of the Bible is permitted to see both Christological and Ecclesiological meanings in, e.g. the story of Cain and Abel, where Abel in his death is a type of Jesus and of the church. Now we get to what Leithart considers the heart of the matters, “The breakdown of this Augustinian hermeneutical principle has been one of the main sources of interpretive confusion among Protestants” (174). After showing how this is true for John 9 he then moves on to an extension of the chapter’s thesis,  “Jesus sums up not only the history of Israel and the aspirations of the people of God, but the history of man and the aspirations of the human race” (180). To prove this Leithart undertakes a Christological reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus. What follows is a tour de force of literary criticism as Leithart brings Oedipus into conversation with John 9, where “both texts play on the ironies of blindness and sight” (181), without failing to engage briefly with Nietzsche, Descartes, Kant, and many more. It really is a great climax for the book and is entertaining and insightful.

Yet, and this is going to sound harsher than I want it to, at the end of it I don’t feel empowered to read scripture or other texts the way Leithart just has. I’m also confused about how, if all texts speak of Jesus, what makes the Bible special? And, if every Biblical text is about everything (206) are they really about anything at all? In a book that is designed to expand a person’s interpretive horizons, and which by and large does so persuasively, I could have used more discussion of the boundaries around interpretation. Leithart is so busy in this book making everything possible, you are left wondering if there are any limits to our readings of the Bible or anything.

All in all, this was an entertaining and insightful read. I could have done with less and shorter high-brow illustrations and more discussion of different Biblical texts. It was clever to illustrate every chapter from John 9, but did it really make the case any more persuasive? Not for me. On the other hand, it has inspired me to read more Leithart, I think few people are doing what he does at the level he does. I found myself in agreement with the broad lines of each chapter. I’m not sure I could recommend it for the average church goer, but for a seminary student having their head filled with a rigidly literal approach to the scriptures, this could be a good balancing influence. There’s certainly some good big ideas in this book that are worthy of further cogitation.

Let me know what you think! :-)


  1. Surely any (educated, and not necessarily in biblical studies even) reader of the Bible who is aware of postmodernity and/or postmodernism does not need to be told that texts are slippery, or even that multiple readings are possible? Isn't the question of how/why we may say that some readings are better than others crucial (pun fully intended)?

    My take from watching you read Leithart (which is not at all necessarily the same as if I had read him) is that I am unsure who he is writing for, there seems little to impact a Bible scholar, yet it sounds too complex and without enough practically needed ideas (like limits of good reading) to be really useful for Jo(e) in the soft seat on Sunday morning.

    1. Sounds fair, I think the book is aimed at pastors and others trained to read texts in the modern USA evangelical type seminary. doesn't mean there aren't sme good nuggets in there for others though. you still sound like you want to read it yourself! :-)

  2. As a pitifully slow reader, with always too large a backlog of 'must read that' books and articles, I suspect not, though it has been interesting overhearing you read, and the topic is an important one.

    As a pitifully slow reader most books written for American audiences infuriate me as they are usually full of pages of fluff and puff to be ploughed through before you can find the odd nugget of value. I wish the book we have just been reading for church (from Fuller) had been cut to half the words!


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