By Scott Keith –
“The necessary condition of all good reading is to ‘get ourselves out of the way.’”
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Reading is no longer the preferred medium for conveying information. Movies, television programs, the Internet, blogs, and social media all hold paramount status as conduits of data infused content. So when people do read actual literary works, either for pleasure or study, many of us sit up and take notice. But even then, the resulting conversation or narrative is often bleak and disappointing.
Why is this? I would say that it is because we live in an age of haphazard reading. Not only do we produce for ourselves haphazard reading lists, if we produce a list at all, we rarely allow the authors to speak for themselves. We are overtaken by the onslaught of literary criticism. We have all but lost the ability to get ourselves out of the way of the text. Virtually unknowingly, we struggle to allow authors to speak for themselves; to communicate their literary intent and substance. Rather, it seems that we prefer to infer upon the author their intent for writing and then judge their work through the lens of our machinations of their motivations.
This reality is evident even through a cursory scan of the comment section of good and bad blogs alike. Rarely is the content of the article the subject of comments. Rather, the writer’s intent is speculated and the reader’s judgment of the text before them becomes the substance rather than an ancillary and probably unwelcome addition.
Worse yet, this is more easily seen in the way we deal with the Scriptures. Rarely is the text allowed to stand or fall on its merit. This truth is, even more, likely to be the case when the text is telling us something we don’t want to hear. Then, the author is no longer seen as speaking his own words––or God’s Word for that matter––but rather, it will be assumed he is spouting some piece of outdated pseudo-wisdom from an antiquated age of old.
Paul’s wisdom regarding marriage, sex, homosexuality, or even how God has saved sinners on account of Christ, are set aside in favor of a more culturally sensitive interpretation of Paul’s obviously culturally bound motives. Instead, of the text being laid bare before our eyes, we get in the way. We fail to see that our age influences our reading of any text as much as, or possibly more than, the author’s age limited his wisdom, oratory, truthfulness, or imagination.
Getting out of the way is difficult. It takes time and practice. The ancients would have said it is a cultivated habit or habitus (a habit, manner, or developed behavior). We develop habits only over long periods of time. In order to learn to remove ourselves from the equation, we must complete many equations. That is, learning to allow a particular text to stand on its own two feet, we must first encounter many texts that have feet. Even at this, that task is difficult.
Lewis acknowledges this in his work, An Experiment in Criticism. There, he deals with the reception of great literature and struggles with the critical methodology of his own time. This was a real battle for Lewis. When he wrote, An Experiment in Criticism, he was a Professor of Literature at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge, at that time, was ground zero for the budding literary critical school. In his work, Lewis communicates that he understands texts will always be received, and in this little work, he sets out his proposed method of reception. It is there that he says the trouble with any interpretive task is getting out of our own skin.
Says Lewis: “Admittedly, we can never quite get out of our own skins. Whatever we do, something of our own and our age’s making will remain in our experience of literature. Equally, I can never see anything exactly from the point of view of those whom I know and love best. But I can make at least some progress toward it. I can eliminate at least the grosser illusions of perspective. Literature helps me to do it with live people, and live people help me do it with literature. If I can’t get out of the dungeon, I shall at least look through the bars. It is better than sinking back into the straw in the corner” (Pg. 101)
We are imprisoned in a dungeon of our own making. Our sin, our sanctimony, our narcissism, our contempt for others, and our fear of being found out for who we really are, all get in the way. This reality is true of every aspect of our lives. It is true of our reading and our relationships. It is especially true when we encounter the truth of God’s Word; when we read the text of Holy Scripture. Getting out of the way requires that we, even for a brief moment, come out of the corner of our natural state of being turned in ourselves (Incurvatus in se) and peak through the bars of our prison.
When reading the Scriptures, we have the promise that the Holy Spirit will break through our sin, revealing to us both God’s Law and His Gospel; convicting and setting free. We have no power but the power to refuse and stay in the corner lying in the straw. Yet, this is what we often do.
Lewis says: “Reading between the lines is inevitable, but we must practice it with great caution.” (119) This statement from Lewis is true of all reading and especially true of our reception of God’s Holy Writ. Praise be to God when He breaks through the lines and drags us to the bars so that we can peak through and see His mercy and grace for us given through His Son.
This week, as we contemplate the birth of our Savior, try to eliminate at least the grosser aspects of your perspective. Get out of the hay and run to the bars. Peak through and watch the Creator of all heaven and earth naked and lying in a manger. Watch that God-Man incarnate, born under the Law, fulfill that Law, die for you, and rise as the first fruits of your resurrection. Watch Him as He comes to set we captives free from the dungeons of our own making.