September 23, 2014

Buckle up, Scholars!

I am an auto-didact. I love to learn, and I love to seek out new information regarding a very, very broad range of topics. French history? Polish fairy tales? The history of salt and where/why/how it was used and what it meant in cultural references? Connections between electrical wiring and neural networks? I'm your gal. Through analogies, descriptions, and story, I like to make topics interesting to people who weren't interested in them before. History, physiology, language, math, grammar, spiritual truth, literature, art, music, genealogy, and technology can all be fascinating topics if the teacher has a passion for the subject.

Since this is my blog, I want to use those gifts. If you choose to read, I hope some of my topics might help you understand something that wasn't clear before. I can't promise crystal-clear, but maybe the waters will be less muddy. Think CGPGrey, but in words. And perhaps Power Point diagrams. I like diagrams.

This morning my burning passion is for the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. It happens most often when studying the Bible, but it can be used when studying any book or text.

Exegesis is to explain the words as they are written. If the original author sat in your audience and listened to you teach, would they agree with you? Less is more for exegesis (unless you're the author!). Understanding someone else's words often means crossing big gaps in time, cultural understanding, expectations, and language. Gay meant something different to G.K. Chesterton than it does in our time.

Eisegesis is reading a meaning into the text. If you read someone else's words and think to yourself: "Ok, it DEFINITELY means this!" and never, ever reconsider it, be wary. Your mind likely grabbed for the first available meaning (which was probably something that made sense to YOU in YOUR time and in YOUR culture). Eisegesis is using a text to say what you want it to say.

It's wonderful to propose ideas and ask questions. Did Dickens mean to imply such-and-such with this relationship in Dombey & Son? How long would it have taken this character in the Bible to make bread? What alcohol content did wine have in the Middle Ages? Questions are great. They're what help you engage with the story. It's how you answer the questions and what you do with the answers that mark the difference in good learners. Did you assume Dickens' words were meant for someone in your time? (They weren't; he had no idea your world would exist in his lifetime. He wrote the words for HIS world.) Did you assume bread looked the same in Bible times as it does when you make it? (Unless you live in the Middle East and make naan or aish merahrah, it's unlikely.) Did you think wine has existed for thousands of years, so it must be the same? (It hasn't. Wine's composition and how it's made have morphed over time. Not changed completely, but enough so you shouldn't assume.)

Those who bother me most are teachers who move from exegesis and questions straight into eisegesis without giving a heads up when they crossed the line between the two. "We don't know what this name means for sure. This gives us a little freedom in imagining the meaning. Since we don't know what the name means..." NO. No, no, no, no, NO. That went from "we don't know for sure" to "we don't know at all" in less than two sentences. The teacher has now shifted their weight of teaching onto something that was just an idea a moment ago. This is a hard thing to catch if you're not looking for it. Persuasive teachers often fall into this trap. They find a meaning that could mean this... y'know, it works WELL if it means this... it DOES mean this!

No it doesn't. Stick with it COULD mean this.

If a teacher tells you they KNOW what something means and it can only mean this, they better have the credentials you would expect for an expert in a very narrow field with years of experience. People with that kind of knowledge don't have to throw their weight around. Their knowing is usually quieter and assured; they're less likely to argue because they don't need to.

First rule of learning: Always ask yourself if you agree with what you're being taught. Is this information supported or contradicted by what you've learned elsewhere? I can't think of a single person in the world with whom I agree with about everything. That includes my husband, my parents, my children, my counselors, and yes, trusted teachers.

And that includes me! If you have questions for me about what I say, please ask! If you think I said something wrong, please engage with me about it. If you don't understand something and would like to learn more, let me know what the topic is and I'll do my best to go find out and share what I find.

Learning from people is best when it's a conversation, not a monologue.

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