“What Should I Read to Learn about Scriptural Reasoning?”: An Appreciative Review of Higton’s and Muers’s The Text in Play
Jacob L. Goodson
A friend recently asked me, “What should I read as three good introductions to Scriptural Reasoning?” I led their curiosities toward (1) David Ford’s and C. C. Pecknold’s edition entitled The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning,1 (2) Peter Ochs’s “An Introduction to Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation,”2 and (3) Mike Higton’s and Rachel Muers’s The Text in Play: Experiments in Reading Scripture.3 Higton’s and Muers’s book fills a significant void within scholarship on Scriptural Reasoning, and Higton and Muers orient their readers toward a joyful hopefulness in relation to biblical hermeneutics and inter-faith relationships.4
Mike Higton and Rachel Muers’s book encapsulates how the practice of Scriptural Reasoning works. This statement should not be taken lightly. The practice of Scriptural Reasoning (SR) resists textual representation in so many ways. SR prioritizes conversation around texts, where improvisation and novelty become a continuous stream. SR, as a practice, is better described with the analogy of a film rather than a photograph: there is no “still shot” that captures the communicative activity of SR. A book or a text, on the other hand, is more like a photograph than a film – or, better, a book or a text is like a complex painting. Because of this, encapsulating SR within the confines of two covers becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Furthermore, SR requires representatives from multiple religious traditions – usually Christian, Jewish, and Muslim participants. Higton and Muers, both Christian practitioners and scholars of Christian theology, serve as co-authors who under-represent what is typically needed for encapsulating the practice of SR. Because of their use of the philosophical dialogue,5 however, Higton and Muers give voice to those who are not represented with names on the cover of the book.
In my estimation, Chapter 9 is the climatic chapter of the book. In this chapter, entitled “What Is Scriptural Reasoning? How Christians, Jews, and Muslims Read Together,” the authors construct a “fictional group” comprised of “Aaliyah and Habib (Muslim), Morgan and Nathan (Jewish), and Brian, John, and Karen (Christian)” (95). They present this as a philosophical dialogue around the Qur’anic passage found in Surah 40:78, which in Arberry’s translation reads:
We sent Messengers before thee; of some We have related to thee, and some We have not related to thee. It was not for any Messenger to bring a sign, save by God’s leave. When God’s command comes, justly the issue shall be decided; then the vain-doers shall be lost. (Surah 40:78; found on pg. 95 in The Text in Play)
In addition to the philosophical dialogue style of Higton’s and Muers’s representation of a Scriptural Reasoning session, they also provide descriptions of external and internal moments of the session: “Silence falls again for a few seconds” (96; description of an external moment), “consulting his Penguin Classics Koran” (96; description of an external action by an agent), and “who has been wanting to say something for a little while, and now finds an opportunity” (99; description of an internal intention that leads to an external action by an agent). The examples could go on and on.
Within Chapter 9 of their book, Higton and Muers give us the results of what must have been exhaustive work on their parts: 14 pages of pure dialogue (95-109), offering a robust representation of what reads like a real SR session.6 They designate an equal amount of time to the speech of all of the participants, and they capture moments of disagreement and illumination with great skill and tact. Their reflections, at the end of the chapter are pithy and short: “Stuttering and Motoring” (109), “Hosting” (109), “Exegesis without Exegesis” (110), “With and Beyond the Plain Sense” (110), “Exploring the Penumbra” (110), “Playfulness and Discipline” (111), “Ambiguity of Voice” (111), “Comparative Hypotheses” (111-112), “Pick-and-Mix Vocabularies” (112), “Conversational Momentum” (112), and “Running Jokes” (112). This signifies an awareness of the performative – perhaps even theatrical – elements of the practice of SR, and it also keeps our attention focused upon the particulars of the conversation found within the practice, rather than generalizations that could have been offered by Higton and Muers. They refuse the temptation toward generalization.
In my role as the General Editor of The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, I deeply appreciate the labor exhibited within Higton’s and Muers’s book: to publish these results is to gift to the world an introduction to the practice of Scriptural Reasoning that relies on neither conceptualization nor long-winded descriptions. Conceptualizations and lengthy descriptions of SR are helpful and needed, too,7 but this third option that Higton and Muers develop will be extremely useful for the Society of Scriptural Reasoning.
The other accomplishment worth noting concerns how Higton and Muers guide their readers in re-thinking what we mean by the word “play” – especially how “play” relates to the text of Scripture. I have often heard critics of SR say in conversation that they refuse to practice Scriptural Reasoning because scriptural reasoners “play” with the texts in too many ways. Religious traditionalists claim this against SR, by which they mean that SR does not take traditional ways of interpretation seriously enough and that it seemingly puts passages from their sacred texts up for grabs for anyone to interpret in any way that they please. Scholars of biblical criticism also claim this against SR, because they perceive the practice of SR as lacking the serious tools necessary for interpreting the different genres found within Scripture. Higton and Muers want to say to these critics, “Hold up…let’s think for a minute about what we actually mean by playing with the text.”
The concept of play remains an important philosophical discussion, nurtured mostly by scholars within aesthetics and the philosophy of sport. This concept also applies to questions within hermeneutics. Higton and Muers ask, “What…do we mean by ‘play’?” (19). They answer this question in two ways: “On the one hand, it involves the Christian reader proposing readings of biblical texts that weave them into the broader context of the Christian good news – willing, in the process, to step beyond the plain sense of those texts for the sake of the good news” (19). In this answer, Higton and Muers emphasize how “playing” with the biblical texts – from a Christian perspective – involves going beyond “the plain sense” of different biblical passages in order to stretch the meaning of the Gospel (“the good news”) for others to hear and receive. This is a sense of play, learned in kindergarten, that is also importantly missional: Christians ought to be willing to play with others, sharing “their” scriptures, in order to see what others do with their own beloved possessions.
Higton and Muers continue, “On the other hand, it involves that reader taking seriously the challenges that such readings face: acknowledging the grit of the texts, their particularity, awkwardness, and difficulty – the call of the literal” (19). This version of “play” focuses on how “playing with texts” loosens up difficult passages a bit: playing does not make difficult texts less difficult, but the method of reading that involves “play” gives readers a chance to engage those texts. In other words, our tendency toward texts that are complex and difficult is to run away from them; if we approach these texts in a playful way, however, then we will feel more comfortable engaging them and interpreting them. Allowing playfulness to make us more comfortable does not render those texts any less complex or difficult, but it gets “our foot in the door” in relation to those texts. In this way, “play” does not de-mean the text but aids readers in seeing how our tendencies prevent us from the hard task of interpretation.
There is a phrase found within current conversations in philosophical ethics and the philosophy of literature, “the difficulties of reality,”8 that applies to the second sense of Higton’s and Muers’s understanding of “play.” The phrase “difficulties of realities” depicts how there are aspects of life that moral and philosophical theories might describe without taking away the complexities and “difficulties” of those realities.9 Proper reflection on these aspects of life requires a sobering amount of recognition that our descriptions and words will not change these realities, but that they should encourage us to be “hopeful” rather than “despair” about them. The point here is that Higton’s and Muers’s notion of “play” does not attempt to make awkward biblical passages about women (see 27-32), religious judgment (see 33-41), or animals (see 193-231) any less complex or difficult; however, Higton and Muers teach us how to confront these texts – in all of their awkwardness! – in ways that lead to hopefulness rather than despair. While readers will not find the word “hope” listed in the index of their book, Higton and Muers continually invite readers into a hopeful orientation toward (a) how to interpret the “hard texts” found within Scripture and (b) what engagements between Christians, Jews, and Muslims look like through practices of studying Scripture together – namely Scriptural Reasoning. In addition to reading this book because of its thorough representation of what the practice of Scriptural Reasoning entails, the connection between play and hope renders Higton’s and Muers’s The Text in Play a necessary read for anyone interested in – that is, hopeful about – or troubled by – that is, despairing over – biblical hermeneutics and inter-faith dialogues.10
1. See David Ford & C. C. Pecknold, eds., The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, (New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2006).↩
2. See Peter Ochs, “An Introduction to Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation,” in The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers), 3-53.↩
3. Mike Higton and Rachel Muers, The Text in Play: Experiments in Reading Scripture, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012). Page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.↩
4. I defend this claim concerning joyful hopefulness in the final paragraph of this appreciative review.↩
5. I use this phrase in order to signify the style of how they represent SR sessions: think Plato representing the voice of Socrates or Bishop George Berkeley representing the voice of Hylas.↩
6. The authors claim that it is a “fictional” account.↩
7. Indeed, the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning relies on both conceptualizations and lengthy descriptions of SR!↩
8. See the work of Cora Diamond, Stanley Hauerwas, Stephen Mulhall, Jonathan Tran; more specific references will be offered below.↩
9. Cora Diamond uses this phrase to help her readers think about the treatment of animals; see Diamond’s “The Difficulties of Reality and the Difficulties of Philosophy,” in Philosophy and Animal Life, (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 43-90. Stephen Mulhall further expands on Diamond’s use of the phrase in relation to the ethical treatment of animals; see Mulhall, The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 69-94. Jonathan Tran also reflects on Diamond’s use of this phrase in addressing the issue of “self-care”; see Tran, Foucault and Theology, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011), 145-149. Stanley Hauerwas borrows the phrase from Diamond and applies it to questions concerning warfare; see Hauerwas, Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 139-156. Lastly, I employ the phrase in order to enter an investigation about whether the “war on drugs” is properly called a “war”; see Goodson, “The Ethics of Counter-Insurgency in The Wire,” in Corners in the City of God: Theology, Philosophy, and The Wire, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Press, 2013), chapter 9.↩
10. I am grateful for Ashley Tate’s editorial help on this review; the mistakes remain my responsibility.↩