For various reasons, some texts are more challenging to read than others. This reality is sometimes the result of the readers’s distance from the author in time, space, or culture. At other times, this reality is the result of an author’s writing style. In any case, Lerner, in his book Naïve Readings, begins with this simple fact and attempts “experiments in reading complex texts” (p. 1).
Lerner is the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, and this book represents a collection of many essays that he has previously published. The book itself is comprised of 10 chapters (chapters 1, 5, 9, and 10 being the original essays). Chapter 1 opens the book very effectively and provides this collection of essays with a coherent theme. In the remainder of the book, Lerner conducts close readings of texts from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Francis Bacon, Edward Gibbons, Alexis de Tocqueville, Judah Halevi, and Moses Maimonides.
Most notably, Lerner opens chapter 1 by identifying a common error in reading challenging texts, namely hastiness. Lerner rightly recognizes that readers often “yield to impulse,” “rush to dig deep, dissect, and deconstruct what we take to be the core of the text” (p. 1). However, as Lerner points out, this is a mistaken technique because it fails to take serious the challenges of reading as well as the way that our presuppositions about how an author chooses to communicate his ideas might cloud our judgment and understanding. To this problem in reading Lerner offers two solutions.
The first of Lerner’s solutions to this reading problem is to slow down and read with caution and patience. Of course, the reader may say that this is too simplistic. However, as Lerner points out and demonstrates in the remainder of his book, many mistakes in comprehension can be avoided if the reader would only be more careful.
The second of Lerner’s solutions to this reading problem is, in biblical studies terms, to read with a hermeneutic of faith rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion. In the case of challenging texts, Lerner encourages his readers to assume the linguistic proficiency of an author. In other words, Lerner believes that the best approach to reading a challenging text is to assume that the author has not made a mistake in his communication, but that the reader simply has not fully comprehended the author.
Lerner’s book is an interesting exercise in reading comprehension, because he demonstrates with non-religious texts what I believe is the proper approach for biblical interpretation. This approach is one that is governed by the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Lerner demonstrates love for the author by his attentiveness to the text that the author has written. He demonstrates faith that the author has the necessary skills in communication in order to convey his message. And he demonstrates hope in his conviction that through hard work, comprehension can ultimately be obtained.
Lerner’s is a fascinating book and I believe that it can be used as a tool to assist the Christian reader to become a better reader both of secular books and of the Bible. This, however, is not to say that the Bible should be read like any other book or that every other book should be read like the Bible. The Christian conviction is that the Bible is unlike every other book in that in it God reveals himself, and through it God speaks. However, the Bible was written by men who used human modes of communication. These modes of communication, moreover, require careful reading. Lerner’s book will particularly appeal to those readers who are interested in classic texts and will certainly help these readers become better readers of all human communication, including the bible.
Ralph Lerner. Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 240 pp. Hb. $45.