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jacques derrida on contemplative reading?

October 24th, 2005 by isaac · 8 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to read Scripture carefully. And I remembered this passage from J. Derrida’s essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy.” I think it beautifully captures what it means to read any text, and especially the way we should approach our holy text:

“A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible…. There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it had mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once, deluding itself, too, in wanting to look at the text without touching it, without laying a hand on the ‘object,’ without risking—which is the only chance of entering the game, by getting a few fingers caught—the addition of some new thread” (Dissemination p.63).

A text hides and reveals. It reveals through hiding, by playing with our perception, inviting us into a game—a way of reading that risks getting caught up in the text, feeling the way the text opens up the more we play, the more we jump in, the more we risk. The text is alive, it breathes, it hides, it invites, it surprises. Or, as the writer of Hebews say, our holy text “is living and active” (Heb. 4:12f). It isn’t static. Can’t be mastered. Doesn’t stay still long enough for a reader to claim exhaustive meaning. The Word doesn’t exhaust—it offers perpetual satisfaction, always more to find, more words, more silences, more edges, more divine hiddenness to get our fingers caught in. As Derrida says, the text (and can I include our holy text?) is not an object that we can look at without touching, without getting stuck in it, and maybe getting stuck with a knife, a “double-edged sword” as Hebrews puts it.

Tags: kingdom naturalists · theology

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scott // Oct 24, 2005 at 2:55 pm

    Who knew Barth and Derrida might be friends?
    But it seems a Barthian would have to take this “uncontrol-ability” one step further when thinking of the holy text this way: Perhaps we can “look” at it as much as we want, but we can never control when or where the sword might pierce (?).

  • 2 isaac // Oct 24, 2005 at 6:58 pm

    Scott, I would love for you to spell out a bit more how you see Barth and Derrida fitting together here. I see plenty of convergences between the two (and so does Graham Ward), but I can’t say that the connection here makes self-evident sense to me. I must not know Barth well enough. Maybe the connection is something like the way Barth gets wrapped up in Scripture for pages upon pages of small print. And his readings are always so interesting, wandering into unexpected places. Whenever I preach I look up the lectionary passages in an Scripture index to the Dogmatics and see what sort of stuff Barth comes up with. But I would love to hear how you think the two can tango.

  • 3 Scott // Oct 25, 2005 at 11:31 am


    I’m not as familiar with Derrida—but I just thought when reading your post that both the “dynamic” nature of the text and its meaning, as well as the notion that one cannot really read the text well without getting “caught up” into it, could be amenable to Barth’s conception of the freedom of the Word and the dynamic practice of biblical interpretation.

    The difference between the two may be that Barth doesn’t have a worked out conception of texts being that dynamic qua texts; he just thinks of Scripture that way, it seems to me, because of the emphasis on God’s freedom and the revelatory status of “Scripture” (which cannot, we remember, be reduced to “text”).

    Is that sensible?

  • 4 Eric Lee // Oct 25, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    Now add to all this one of my favourite verses, Proverbs 25:2:

    “It is the glory of God to conceal things,

    but the glory of kings is to search things out.”

    Add to that the fact that my name is Eric. Eric means “kingly.” And then things get off the hook!

    Okay, now forget what I just said after and including the “Add to that…” part and just let that sit and churn for a while 😛



  • 5 isaac // Oct 29, 2005 at 3:48 pm

    Scott, yeah. First of all, I had no idea you are ‘Scott’—I mean, my friend Scott!! That’s great. How did you find me. I thought I was under the radar screen over here. My cover is blown! Anyhow, I get it now the connection you are making. I like that. I remember we read that Church Dogmatics volume (was it II/2 or III/3?) with Hauerwas and being struck by this dynamism you are talking about. I think Barth says something like we can never know how the Word confronts someone else. The Word encounters everyone in newness, “new every morning.” Yeah, that sounds like something Derrida would be happen about. But I wonder if Barth would be interested in Derrida? Who knows.

  • 6 blip » luke 7:36-50: looking with simon the pharisee at the unnamed woman // Dec 6, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    [...] In an earlier post I talked about, to steal a line from Derrida, the great loss when we think we have “mastered the game,” when we think we know all there is to know from a passage from Scripture. I said, “the text opens up the more we play, the more we jump in… it offers perpetual satisfaction, always more to find, more words, more silences, more edges, more divine hiddenness to get our fingers caught in.” Well, I thought I’d see what happened when I tried this sort of playful reading strategy on a passage from Luke’s Gospel. [...]

  • 7 isaac // May 21, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    Well, I just finished reading Karl Barth’s lectures on preaching: Homiletics. I figured I should read up on the theology of preaching since I’ve just taken a position as a pastor, and the preaching course I took in seminary lacked any coherent articulation of the theology of preaching. So, as I was reading through Barth’s book, I came to a passage toward the end that resonated with this post on Derrida. And it looks like Scott’s Barthian instinct is right on. Here’s the passage from Barth’s book: “We should not try to master the text. The Bible will become more and more mysterious to real exegetes. They will see all the depths and distances. They will constantly run up against the mystery before which theology is like trying to drain the ocean with a spoon. The true exegete will face the text like an astonished child in a wonderful garden, not like an advocate of God who has seen all his files” (p. 128). The resonance with the above quote from Derrida is quite striking.

  • 8 alerclula // Dec 18, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Hi people

    As newly registered user i only want to say hi to everyone else who uses this bbs <: -)