Transitions, 6: Books and Meaning

The re-framing process covered more than just my theology. Though my conception of the Divine certainly shifted, the shock waves reverberated across every facet of life. From wide lens issues such as social awareness, to ethics and morality, to the ways I speak to my wife and children, I found everything affected, my entire consciousness moving. Everything was changing, and it had as much to do with my personal story – my failings and victories – as with intellectual encounters or contemplative revelations.

But then again, “theology” is, as Buechner would say, largely autobiography: the synthesizing of all our beliefs and experiences into a comprehensive understanding of God.

We cannot – must not – escape the fact that our perception of God is almost entirely determined by ourselves (including the voices we choose to listen to). We do not arrive at theological conclusions in a vacuum, but as communal, encultured people interacting with each other’s personal narratives. This knowledge must especially impact our readings of the Bible. There never has been nor ever will be an unbiased reading; never once has someone “just read the Bible for what it says” or been able to divorce themselves from it. It simply has not happened. Like looking into a highly reflective window, we have to work hard to see beyond ourselves, but we’ll never totally shut out the reflection.

They caught me.

Not only must we take into account ourselves when we read, well, anything, but we must accept the fact that the author of any work wrote in a context to an audience in another context. They meant something specific by their words, and the original audiences received it as something else – then everyone else reading the work since has received it as something else again.

In the end I’ve had to come to the conclusion that, contrary to much of my schooling, not only does the “author’s intended meaning” seem of little importance, but is almost impossible ascertain without asking him or her directly.1 So context is deeply important, but only when its limitations are understood, and then only as foundation for interpretation rather than the entire structure. Rather, “meaning” is to be determined by the people who receive the message. As Corey Olsen (aka. The Tolkien Professor) likes to say, “Meaning is in the public domain.”2

This includes the “Good Book” written, compiled, and interpreted by God’s people over thousands of years.

So that long rabbit trail was mostly to display a surely obvious fact: one of the primary things to change over this period was how I read. I don’t just mean I began reading different books, but that the very process of interpreting the written word was altered. Everything – novels, news articles, theological works, or of course, the Bible, was seen and filtered differently. It was exhilarating and somewhat terrifying, since this new lens opened new vistas of understanding for myself and my students, but it almost immediately put me on a collision course with the worldviews of the old white men who cut my checks.

Oh, they’ll totally be cool with this.

But more on that later.

To conclude, I wanted to list some of the books and authors that played a role in this transition. I’ve grouped them roughly by genre, and left a note with one or two.

A couple disclaimers: First, this is where I was then. You’ll notice gaping holes in this list (for instance, not a single woman author), and you’ll no doubt find your own issues. Second, while these books moved me deeply, this partial list isn’t a suggestion. Though Christians tend to push books like drugs, I am not prescribing anything. These impacted me because of personal taste and circumstance; you may like them, or they may fall flat.

For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann
This book changed my life (thanks, Brad!), shifting it miles deeper into the reality of a Grace permeating all things – and our calling to offer ourselves in celebration of that Grace.

The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann

Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis
These two books on the Psalms came when I was preparing a study on the same topic. Both authors’ ability to deal with the Divine exaltations and very human imprecations shifted how I understood the Bible. Also the first place I encountered the “order – disorder – reorder” frame.

Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, Hans Urs Von Balthasar

David Bentley Hart (everything I’ve read, basically)

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir . . . of sorts, Ian Morgan Cron

The Alphabet of Grace, Frederick Buechner
Both of these authors have the distinct ability to “say clearly what I feel vaguely.”

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevski

Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis
This one acquires new depths meaning every time I read it. Lewis’ last published piece of fiction and his best.

Chasing Francis, Ian Morgan Cron

And as always, The Lord of the Rings, to which I owe so much of my imagination and langauge.


1. And, even if we were to ask them, their answers would shift depending on who was asking and when, and whether their breakfast was agreeing with them that day. I care deeply what Paul or whomever meant, but I care more about how the Church has understood these words since they left his pen.

2. Listen to his podcasts. All of them. Also, I am in no way asserting that meaning, as such, does not exist. Quite the opposite, I believe it exists in a much larger way than before. Meaning is multifaceted and flexible, and the greatest works (including the Bible) have been able to remain so due to their elasticity.

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