The Ryken Library/The Role of the Reader

The Role of the Reader

Thursday, August 03, 2023


  • ​​The Reading Situation
  • ​​​In Search of Balance
  • ​​​How Writers Begin the Process of Communication
  • ​​​How Readers Complete What Authors Begin
  • ​​​Recognizing Familiar Experience in the Bible
  • ​​​The Uses of Imagination in Reading and Interpreting the Bible
  • ​​​The Story of Jacob and Esau as an Illustration
  • ​​​The Need to Infer and Attribute Meaning
  • ​​​A Broader Context
  • ​​​Another Illustration
  • ​​​ Two Undergirding Principles

The Reading Situation

Every time we sit down to interact with a passage from the Bible, four ingredients converge. One is the written text. This, in turn, is the product of an author, so if we are picturing the situation as a diagram, we can draw a line between text and author. Authors, in turn, depend on something beyond themselves for most of their material. At the broadest level, we can call this third element of the reading situation the world, to which it is customary to add the word milieu, meaning the social, historical, and cultural context (including world view) of the author’s era. So we can visualize separate lines connecting the text with the author and his or her world and milieu.

But there is a fourth ingredient as well, namely, the reader. The text doesn’t even exist until a reader gives the words on the page a meaning. Of course the reader does a great deal more than give the words a lexical meaning. The role of the reader is the subject of this essay.

As we visualize our diagram with the text in the center and three lines radiating from it to author, world/milieu, and reader, it is important to keep all of these in focus and in balance. All four ingredients are automatically present in every reading situation. The only question is whether we will acknowledge all four and give each its due.

In Search of Balance

Before we delve into our announced subject of the role of the reader in the assimilation and interpretation of the Bible, we need to take time to sound a warning about two extremes that we need to avoid. One of these is the underactive or inactive reader. Sometimes this is the result of ignorance and lack of education about how to be an active reader. Such a reader is to be pitied and needs to be taken by the hand. But sometimes the inactive reader results from a settled philosophy that Bible readers should not presume to contribute anything to the reading process. The purpose of this article is to denounce such lethargy as wrong and needing to be corrected. Lack of participation by a reader is not only a missed opportunity. It is a thwarting of the Holy Spirit, who wants us to experience the fullness of the text that He prompted authors to compose.

The other extreme is the overactive reader. This syndrome made its appearance with reader-centered or reader response interpretation in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Until that point, the other three ingredients on the paradigm (text, author, world/milieu) had received most of the attention in scholarly treatments of literary and biblical texts. The paradigm shift that enthroned the reader was partly a reaction against longstanding practices that privileged the other three ingredients over the reader.

While reader response interpretation left several good imprints on the interpretation of literature and the Bible, we need to delineate the abuses so readers of the Bible will not be misled by them. In its extreme form, advocates of reader-centered interpretation claim that readers determine meaning. In fact, that became a motto of the movement. But readers do not determine meaning. Instead, they discover the meaning that authors have built into their texts. Authors have a right to say what they intend, and readers need to respect what an author says instead of treating a text as their own composition.

In addition to the inflammatory claim that readers make or determine meaning, there is a mantra that seems innocent but that has led to distortions of literary and biblical texts. It is the claim that readers need to fill in the gaps that exist in a written text. While there is an element of truth in the mindset that makes this claim, biblical scholars and literary critics who advocate filling in the gaps have used that practice to take liberties with the text. The result has been that elements are added to a text as the alleged gaps are filled with the imaginings and preoccupations of the interpreter. There have been no adequate controls on interpretation in this school of interpretation. As with the need to soften the claim that readers determine meaning to say instead that readers discover the meaning that is in the text, the terminology of filling in the gaps can be rephrased in such a way as to salvage what is good in the impulse while avoiding the license that has accompanied the practice of “filling the gaps” in the text.

The abuses that have been sounded above are actually a modern manifestation of a practice that has long been denounced in hermeneutics (the science of interpretation). It goes by the Greek word eisegesis, which the dictionary defines as imposing one’s own views upon a text, or reading into a text viewpoints that belong to a reader rather than the author. The alternative, advocated in the rest of this essay, is exegesis, defined as drawing meaning out of a text by a process of analysis and discovery.

As we turn to a constructive case for the active role of the reader, two preliminary generalizations are (1) that readers discover the meaning in a text but do not create it, and (2) that readers should not put meaning into the text by adding material to fill alleged gaps but should instead bring to light the meaning that remains latent and hidden from view until it is actively brought into view.

How Writers Begin the Process of Communication

Reading the Bible does not begin with the reader but with the author. The author is the one who constructed the text. He is the one who knows what he intended to communicate. The book of Amos is the book of Amos, not the book of the reader. Furthermore, we need to assume that the author was in control of his language and composition. One of the most lamentable results of dynamic equivalent Bible translation theory and practice is the syndrome that we can call “now what Paul was trying to say was. . . .” Biblical authors did not simply try to say something; they said it. They are the authority of what they wrote, and they wrote as they were directed by the Holy Spirit.

How we view the writers of the Bible affects how we view the role of the reader. If we regard them as unable to say what they meant, we have no incentive to rise to a high level as readers. If we take a minimalist view of biblical writers, we will look on what they wrote as communicating only a surface level of meaning. By contrast, for half a century I have been inspired by the following verdict of a literary critic on the story of Ruth: “I hold up a picture of the author of Ruth as an artist in full command of a complex and subtle art, which art is exhibited in almost every word of the story” (D. F. Rauber, “Literary Values in the Book of Ruth”). With such a view of biblical authors and their works, we have an incentive to rise to the challenge of seeing more rather than less in a biblical text.

But authors do not simply compose their works and then pass them on. They remain present and active in their text. We can view authors as travel guides through their works. They point things out and direct our attention by means of devices of disclosure. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a masterful essay on the subject that we are considering in this article, and he claimed regarding the interaction of author and reader that “the creator has preceded [the reader] along the way. . . . A gentle force accompanies us and supports us from the first page to the last.” The reader’s responsibility is to pay attention to this gentle force. The author guides and supports readers but cannot perform the actual task of reading, which takes us to the main subject of this essay—the need for a reader to be active rather than passive.

How Readers Complete What Authors Begin

As I explore the role of the reader in Bible reading, I will repeatedly quote from an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, so let me give credit where credit is due. It is something of a mystery how this French philosopher came to write on the subject of reading, in effect anticipating the insights of reader-response interpretation several decades before it became dominant in the academy. The title of the essay, “Why Write?” is also something of a mystery, since the focus of the essay is on reading. The essay appeared in a book entitled What Is Literature? (New York: Harper and Row, 1949).

We can begin by observing that reading is a collaborative process between author and reader. Sartre speaks of “the conjoint effort of author and reader.” Writers do not write for themselves; they write for their readers. Thus (to quote from Sartre) “the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of the work.” Is that claiming too much? No: all an author can do is put words before a reader. Nothing whatever happens until a reader does something with those words, thereby collaborating with the author to produce the work. Of course words are only the starting point, but they are essential. Sartre claims that “the words are there like traps to arouse our feelings,” and further that “each word is a path of transcendence; it shapes our feelings [and] names them.”

The primary principle is that reading is a collaboration between author and reader. The writer “must entrust to another the job of carrying out what he has begun [italics added].” “The author’s whole art,” writes Sartre, “is bent on obliging me to create what he discloses” [italics in the original]. In this context, the word create means “to call into being, to bring to mind, to activate in our imagination.” The word discloses alerts us that the text is the control for what we see in a text. The text that the author has placed before us is the final court of appeal as to what it embodies and communicates.

For this collaborative process to work well, a reader needs to be active. Sartre correctly notes that “the writer’s universe will only reveal itself in all its depth to the examination . . . of the reader” [italics added for emphasis]. Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor famously wrote that “a writer should never be ashamed of staring.” The counterpart for reading is that a reader should never be ashamed of staring. This means spending time with a Bible passage instead of simply reading it quickly and superficially, in contrast to pondering it.

Recognizing Familiar Experience in the Bible

This section of the essay rests on a literary principle. That does not make it peripheral because at least eighty percent of the Bible is literary in nature, and the point that we are ready to consider—human experience as the subject of the Bible—pervades the nonliterary parts as well. There is no more bedrock foundation of literature than that it takes human experience as its subject. Expository writing presents information, facts, and ideas. It does not lead us to share an experience but to grasp facts and ideas.

By contrast, literature leads us vicariously to undergo an experience. It embodies and enacts human experience. In a story, this consists of events unfolding in time. In a poem, the experience consists of the thought process and feeling process of the poet (usually referred to by literary critics as the speaker in the poem). The experience presented in literature, moreover, is universal—what is true for all people in all ages. History and the news tell us what happened; literature tells us what happens.

The phrase “recognizable human experience” is a constant the literature courses that I teach. The people who never see the point of literature are the ones who do not grasp that literature is a window to human experience in the world.

The tie-in to the subject of the role of the reader is that we need to train ourselves to look for recognizable human experience in a story or poem. Then when we come to a specific work we need consciously to ask what human experiences are being held before us for our contemplation as we read and ponder. It is an acquired skill. But is an easily acquired skill. All it takes is a mindset that looks for human experience. Additionally, it requires that readers exercise their imagination as they read and interpret the Bible, which is our next point.

The Uses of Imagination in Reading and Interpreting the Bible

It is obvious that the writers of the Bible were geniuses in the exercise of literary imagination. That is not the subject of this essay, which is concerned with the reader’s exercise of imagination. But surely the reader’s exercise of imagination is made possible because the authors of the Bible were masters of imagination in what they wrote.

The concept of imagination has meant four primary things in literary and artistic theory for the past two centuries. One of them does not apply to the subject of the role of the reader. Imagination has meant the writer’s and artist’s ability to create something that did not exist before. In the literary realm, this has often meant the practice of fictionalizing—imagining characters and events that do not exist in that form in the world of waking reality. This is not the subject of this section of the essay.

The second meaning of the concept of imagination is a counterpart to the writer’s creation of fictional elements in a literary work. Readers don’t create in that way, but as they read they call into being what the text places before them. This is a close parallel to what the author has done. It requires a very active reader to rise to the task, but it is within everyone’s grasp—even a child’s. We will see what this looks like in a minute.

The concept of imagination has also carried the meaning of imaging forth the subject matter of the text. This idea has been around since classical antiquity, but the terminology dates from the romantic movement of the earl nineteenth century. Romantic poet William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the image of man and nature” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads). His contemporary Percy Shelley similarly called literature “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth” (Defence of Poetry). A century later, Dorothy Sayers wrote that “what the artist is doing is imaging forth something” (“Toward a Christian Aesthetic”). It is obvious that readers need to follow the path laid down by writers and activate their imagination to call forth not only the words of the text but the images and pictures and feelings that are embodied in it. Readers, too, need to image forth the content of a text.

Finally, in aesthetics (the philosophy of art) for the past two centuries, the imagination has been regarded as the human faculty that sees connections between things. The analytic intellect is adept at finding differences, and the imagination is adept at synthesizing. To cite an obvious example, metaphor and simile are based on seeing a similarity between two different things—a rock and God, or the beloved’s eyes and doves. Or, equally foundational, in order to see recognizable human experience in a text, we need to draw a connection between something in the text and our own experiences in the world.

The Story of Jacob and Esau as an Illustration

Before we explore more variations on the theme of the active reader, we should pause to see how the foregoing considerations play out in an actual text. The story of the exchanged birthright between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:27-34) will serve admirably:

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom [“Red”].) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

The opening piece of background information (verses 27-28) immediately awakens a wealth of recognizable human experience, but only if readers activate themselves to make the connections. It is a spectacle of sibling conflict between two brothers with opposite temperaments, reinforced by parental favoritism in a divided manner. It is also helpful to add the concept of sibling rivalry to the mix. In all of this, we as readers are the ones who need to connect the dots; the story itself does not advertise the meanings just stated.

Even such a simple statement as “once when Jacob was cooking stew” explodes with meaning if we are sufficiently active as readers. First we need to picture a son cooking in the kitchen. It is a thoroughly recognizable scene. What is implied by this cooking in the context of this particular story? Jacob is on his home turf in the ensuing conflict, and a kettle of stew becomes a weapon in his arsenal.

The following detail is equally familiar to us, if are willing to call it forth in our imagination: “Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.” The great gift of narrative is that it transports us in our imagination to a definite time and place. We can hear and see the kitchen door opening and an exhausted young man entering and plopping himself down on a chair.

As we listen to the ensuing dialogue, we can infer the essential character of both brothers. Esau is an obnoxious type who is governed by his physical appetite and exaggerates his passing hunger into imminent death. He has no capacity for spiritual things, as represented in this story by the birthright. Jacob steps forward as scheming, manipulative, self-seeking, and unbrotherly. The storyteller could have spelled all of this out but did not. This is the norm in the Bible, where authors trust their literary works to communicate truth by literary means. It is a truism that literature shows rather than tells. It is therefore up to the reader to extract meaning from the embodied presentation.

The foregoing represents some of what an active reader is able to see in the story of the exchanged birthright.

The Need to Infer and Attribute Meaning

Earlier I cautioned against the formula that readers need to fill in the gaps in a biblical text. A gap implies an empty space, and filling it implies adding something that is not in the text. But there is nonetheless something true in the impulse that lies behind the formula of filling in the gaps that we do not want to miss.

We need to start with the premise that whatever we see in a text is genuinely there. We are not adding something to an empty space. So what are we doing instead? One answer is that we inferring something that we think the text implies. There is a subjective element here, and not every reader would agree with all of our inferences. This is a risk that God and the writers of the Bible were willing to take. To use one of Sartre’s words, the biblical authors entrusted their writings to us on the premise that we will interpret them properly. In the interpretation of the story of the exchanged birthright above, the interpretation of action was inferred. We can think of this as bringing to awareness what is latent in the text.

Another formula that names what we are talking about is that readers need to attribute meaning or significance to the details in the text. In the text, we are told that Jacob made Esau swear to the sale of his birthright. With the help of a study Bible or commentary or sermon or Sunday school class, we attribute the following significance to this detail: the “swearing” made the exchange legally binding, comparable to our having a deal signed by a notary public.

We can also profitably add our common saying about “reading between the lines.” A dictionary definition of this saying is “to find meanings that are intended but that are not directly expressed in something said or written.” Here is an example of reading between the lines: Amos denounces the idle rich of his society by pronouncing “woe to those who lie on beds of ivory / and stretch themselves out on their couches” (6:4). We are expected to do the following with this brief description: (1) the body posture of lying and stretching out is a picture of laziness, lack of effort, and living in affluent ease; (2) in keeping with an incipient symbolism, this physical posture implies a self-absorbed spiritual and moral state of indifference and smugness; (3) “beds of ivory” and “couches” denote expensive furniture; (4) this, in turn, is a picture of ostentation and wealthy self-indulgence.

All of the participatory actions discussed above—inferring meaning, bringing latent meanings to light, attributing significance, and reading between the lines—are characterized by two things. First, they require mental and imaginative activity on our part as readers. Second, they are absolutely necessary. Not to engage in this type of activity is to settle for the Bible meaning nearly nothing.

A Broader Context

As this point we can profitably remind ourselves of the three types of interaction that the Bible requires of us. The process of Bible reading and an inductive Bible study begins with observation. To observe is not a passive activity. It remains at the level of what is objectively verifiable, but no observation will occur unless we activate our mind and imagination. It requires action to assemble the cast of characters in a story, for example, or to note the setting where something happens, or to identify and then picture an image in a poem.

The second activity that Bible reading and teaching requires is interpretation. This happens at many levels, but what all of them share is that we attribute meaning or significance to a detail that we have uncovered at an observational level. This requires analysis. Literary authors entrust their readers to come up with the correct interpretation of their works. In the terms that Sartre gives us, the authors of the Bible appeal to their readers to complete the process of communication that the author has begun. The storyteller of the story of Jacob and Esau tells us what happens but leaves it to the reader to conclude that both brothers behave badly in this event. The story is an example story of how not to behave.

The third task of Bible reading and teaching is application. At this level, the author hands over the entire operation to the reader. Application depends on the ability of a reader to draw connections between the text and contemporary life. To remain inactive as a reader is to settle for a total lack of application of the Bible to our lives, because the writer cannot perform the task of application. Surely no Bible reader will settle for that.

Another Illustration

The ideal Bible reader is someone who accepts an author’s invitation to complete what he has begun and entrusted to a reader. What does that look like in practice? I will answer by taking a brief look at Psalm 1. The important point in my remarks is the need for a reader to accept the responsibility to participate with the author in bringing a text to life.

The subject of Psalm 1 is the blessedness of the godly person, and the poem itself is a brief portrait of such a person. The poet does not tell us that the godly person is blessed. In keeping with the indirectness of literary discourse, the poet shows us how the godly person is blessed. In other words, it is up to us to engage our analytic mind to move from the details of the poem to the unifying theme of the blessedness of the godly person. What does Psalm 1 communicate to a reader who doesn’t take time to identify the unifying theme? Very little.

We likewise cannot master a poem without identifying its structure as it unfolds from beginning to end. One option for Psalm 1 is a three-part format: introduction to the theme of the poem by means of a sketch of what a godly person avoids and does (verses 1-2); the productiveness of the godly person, developed partly through contrast to the wicked (verses 3-4); the final destination of the godly person, again as contrasted to the fate of the wicked (verses 5-6). It takes a very active reader to determine the structure of Psalm 1, even though we ordinarily think of determining structure as falling into the category of being relatively objective.

When we come to the “fine print” of poetry known as the poetic texture (the individual images and comparisons that are the staple of poetry), we need to become even more active participants in the process. It is in the nature of poetry that the poet hands over a whole series of details into our possession and in effect says, “Here—you do something with these.” For example, verse 1 conveys its meanings through three metaphors—walking down a path, standing with a group of people, and “sitting in the seat.” It is up to us to do the right thing with these metaphors. The poet entrusts us with the materials for a banquet; we need to respond with what literary scholars call an answering imagination.

I will take as my specimen the opening metaphor of walking down a path. First we need to get the picture clearly in view (level A of the comparison). What are the literal, physical qualities of walking down a path? The poet entrusts the answer to us. Walking is a continuous, step-by-step process in which each step becomes part of a larger movement in a certain direction. We walk down a path by conscious choice. Walking down a path leads to a destination. The only way we can extract these meanings is to exercise our analytic minds and imaginations in a process of discovery. In effect we are asking what is elicited by the data the poet puts on our mental and imaginative agenda. Then we need to carry over the meanings we have brought to our awareness at level A to the actual subject of the poem, which in this case is the godly person. What do we understand about the godly person by way of the comparison to walking down a path?

Two Undergirding Principles

The preceding discussion of the need to be an active and participatory reader can be summarized with two principles that bind together the individual planks of the platform. The first task of any reading or exposition of the Bible is to relive the text as fully as possible. This stands in contrast to the usual practice of Bible teaching and preaching in evangelical circles to escape as quickly as possible from the text to a world of theological and moral abstractions. To relive the text means to enter into it and pay attention to every detail. As part of this process, we need to accept the premise that everything in a Bible passage is important. We ourselves do not put material into our writings that we regard as unimportant and unworthy of a reader’s attention. If something is present or implicit in a Bible passage, it is deserving of our participatory attention.

Secondly, literature calls for interpretation. It consistently puts data before us that requires mental and imaginative action from us. The Bible does not carry all of its meaning on the surface. It does not ordinarily Spell It Out but works by indirection.

In the sense of requiring us to be active, Bible reading is like taking a hike of discovery in a forest preserve, not like lying on a chaise lounge beside a swimming pool at a resort and nonchalantly extending our hand to receive lunch from a waiter. Bible reading is not a spectator event. It is a participant event.

Further Reading

The principles discussed in this article receive fuller treatment in a chapter titled “How Readers Complete What Authors Begin” in Leland Ryken’s book Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Zondervan, 1985). See also two articles in the Leland Ryken Library on bridging the gap between the biblical text and the modern reader’s world.

Black and white profile picture of Dr Leland Ryken

Dr. Leland Ryken

Author and Professor

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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