Ethical reading

May 24, 2016

Bubbly and irrepressibly Jewish, Hindy Najman, the Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, urges me to attend her inaugural on 26 June. Because, she says, I will be ‘so interested in her topic of ethical reading’ – the ethical reading of scripture. And I am. How am I to read scripture? With a sense of trust, but also in the light of modern knowledge. My duty towards scripture is to read it critically and open-mindedly and conversely it is immoral to read scripture uncritically, as if it has special protected status by virtue of being somehow ‘divine’.


How do I know when I am reading something great and how do I distinguish between what is classic and what is dross? And is it wrong to read dross, because it’s lazy or unchallenging or superficial? Recently the Daily Telegraph was removed from the list of papers in the SCR, I suspect on ideological grounds. Then, five days later it was restored again in response to popular demand. The ethics of that decision was complicated since some were implying the Telegraph unfit for scholars to read and others thinking, but we are free to read what we like.


How am I to read the Sun, when the paper’s take on Brexit is clearly unethical? I mustn’t take it at face value; that would not only be naïve it would be wrong. I must be ready, for the sake of my own ethics, to take it with a pinch of salt and to read it very critically indeed.


If there’s a question: how should I read, there must also be a question: How should I write? For whose is the greater sin when it comes to trash or titillation or polemical prejudice, the writer or the reader? And could any writer of scripture be guilty of unethical writing? All that stuff about head-crushing or child-killing or a vengeful God? What about freedom of speech and the catharsis of tragedy? Doesn’t ethical judgement in part rely on knowledge of evil and the description of its corruption of the human heart? Were we to be insulated from the realities of evil, how could we get a perspective on our making of ethical judgements and, if you are a Christian, how could you pray?  These are some of the questions that spring to my mind when I think of the phrase ‘ethical reading’.


Well the topics for the conference which will precede Professor Najman’s inaugural are veiled in elusive vocabulary, for example, ‘Interpreting I Enoch: Paradigms Emerging from the Rebellious Angels in the 15th Century and the Andemta Commentary Tradition’ and ‘Boeckh, Symphilology, and the Ethics of Reading’. I might miss the conference, but I’m really looking forward to the lecture in the Andrew Wiles (famous for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem) Lecture Hall. His father was of course Maurice Wiles the liberal theologian who was Regius Professor of Divinity here in Oxford.

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