How to Think about the Body’s Hermeneutic Role

Reading time: 2 minutes

The fact of the body’s influence on reading isn’t an excuse either for inattention toward ourselves or for criticism of others.1 Instead, it’s a basis for further inquiry and improvement. If you want to become a better reader, it makes sense to consider how your body reads best.

There are more and less supportive ways to read. And when you choose a less supportive way to read or when the way you’re reading becomes less supportive, your reading will inevitably become less attentive. And as your reading becomes less attentive, the more likely you are to offer more problematic interpretations from that reading.

Understanding as the Point

So, the question of the reading body is inevitably hermeneutical. And it is no less hermeneutical because its outcomes are less direct and immediate. Diffuse and indirect as the outcomes are, they are still there—not least because they so frequently lie unexamined.

In addition, as the reading body is more or less well adapted to its task, that task becomes less or more onerous. In a less ideal situation, twenty pages of relatively easy prose can feel like comparatively heavy work. By contrast, working through a heavy tome of more difficult text can be quite enjoyable in the proper circumstances.

The Reading Body’s Two-fold Relevance

So, the relevance of the reading body to biblical scholarship is two-fold:

  1. Outwardly, attention to the reading body is more likely to produce more attentive interpretations.
  2. Inwardly, it contributes to simple enjoyment of biblical scholarship as play.

As always, rigorous biblical scholarship remains hard work. It is “hard” in the sense that it challenges each biblical scholar’s abilities. But such challenge is far from requiring that the discipline lack enjoyment. And in fact, the challenge of it all is part of what creates the fun, what animates the discipline with the exuberance of play.2


Given these observations, the reading body is clearly pertinent to the craft of biblical scholarship. Consequently, it’s worth carefully considering some ways you might become a better reader by giving attention to your own reading body.—And that’s a topic I’ll discuss a bit more next week.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. On this theme, see Greg McKeown, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most (New York: Currency, 2021), 3–52. 

You Need to Avoid Dismissiveness with the Body’s Hermeneutic Role

Reading time: 5 minutes

Accounts of hermeneutics in biblical studies frequently don’t consider the reading body’s relevance to the interpretive task.1

Even so, the body has hermeneutic effects. And these effects are very real even if they might not manifest the same way as they can in a law court when a hungry judge might be less likely to grant parole.

At the same time, “Bulverism” isn’t the point. Understanding is.

1. Bulverism dismisses without reasons.

In a delightfully vivid essay worth quoting at some length, C. S. Lewis describes how

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found [a] vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father— who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third —’Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.…

Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long.… But … it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion [or anything else] is true or false.…

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally the Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning—never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.…

[O]ur thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called ‘a reason’. Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless.2

2. The body’s effects on reading aren’t invitations to Bulverize.

Looking from the outside at someone else’s work, it would be entirely unfair and ad hominem to say someone interprets a text a given way or makes a specific argument because that person

  • became uncomfortable while reading,
  • needed to remoisten a pair of dry eyes,
  • heard a loud noise,
  • smelled coffee, or
  • had a cramped hand and so wrote insufficient notes.

All of these kinds of Bulverism are fairly silly and innocuous. But the logical structure of Bulverism lends itself also to more offensive dismissals of viewpoints from individuals who might have a given

  • gender,
  • racial or ethnic background,
  • age,
  • disability, or
  • other medical condition.

None of these bodily qualities should insulate from critique. But also, none of them can inherently render a viewpoint wrong.

As Lewis helpfully illustrates again,

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds.3

And depending on the specific case, further speculation about psychological or other bodily causes for a wrong idea may be unnecessary or inappropriate.


So, how the body shapes interpretation and, therefore, reading as a kind of interpretive act can’t be an excuse to Bulverize. Bulverism is thoroughly problematic, and one of its problems is that it represents shoddy scholarship. Scholarship precisely as such requires reasons and evidence—not mere pronouncements that pretend to authority and dismissals of others’ arguments without demonstration.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma. For helping me frame the posts in this series, I’m indebted to the suggestive comments of Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  2. C. S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 273–75. 

  3. Lewis, “Bulverism,” 272–73; italics added except on the word “after.” 

The Simple Ways Your Body Shapes Your Reading

Reading time: 3 minutes

The body frequently gets left out of accounts of reading in biblical studies.1 But even so, it continues to have hermeneutic effects. These effects aren’t the same as they can be in a law court when a hungry judge might be less likely to grant parole. But they’re real nonetheless.

The Body’s Two-fold Influence on Reading

Particularly if you’ve ever taken an extended amount of time to worked through a text of any length or complexity, you’ve experienced these kinds of effects firsthand. They could be negative or render reading more difficult—as in the case of the “hungry judges.” But your body’s effects on your reading efforts can also be quite positive and productive.

Negative Effects

For instance, in terms of the challenges that reading places on the body, maybe

  • After you’ve bent over a text too long, your body says you need to straighten up, so you do.
  • The day grows late, and your eyes start to feel dry, so you take a pause to rub and remoisten them.
  • You hear an unexpectedly loud noise, so you look around to it and instantly—if only instantaneously—forget about the text you were reading.
  • You smell the coffee a colleague started brewing and realize how your own “Joe” needs to stand a bit taller in your mug to be an adequate companion for the next section of text.
  • Your hand cramps as you try to write yet another complex note in an overly small margin. So, you decide to abbreviate the comment and hope that your future self will still understand the thought you had while reading.

Positive Effects

On the other hand, your body can express a kind of cognition that you’re not consciously aware of but that aids your reading efforts.2

Perhaps the print you’re trying to read is too small. You make no conscious effort to account for this fact. But you suddenly find you’ve leaned forward to the text or brought it closer to you.

Reading in one position grows uncomfortable, so you adjust how you’re sitting or standing without perhaps being aware of particularly choosing a new position.

The daylight by which you’ve been reading starts to grow dim, so you instinctively find yourself adjusting the lighting so you can better see your material.

You’re unable to make a note on the text as you would like, so you reorient yourself in relation to the text so that you can express your thoughts about it.


In short, many or all of the ways your body reads overcome the challenges presented by that task. They are, for all their uniqueness and oddity, ways of reading. They’re ways of continuing to encounter the text before you as a biological organism and not a rigid automaton. And continuation in that demanding task can be no small feat, one that ultimately requires and not just tolerates readerly bodies.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. E.g., see Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 25–26, 56, 72. 

How the Body Actually Influences the Most Impartial Decision Makers

Reading time: 4 minutes

Reading is a basic skill requirement for biblical scholars.1 Despite this fact, the reading body is regularly absent from discussions of this key skill. This absence can have some immediate, practical advantages. But in a larger picture, it ultimately proves problematic. Your body shapes how you read.

Because of the practical advantages of forgetting the reading body, it might be tempting to do just that. Surely, any difference that accounting for the reading body makes actually meaningful? Is the juice worth the squeeze?

A Study of Professional Deciders

To begin answering this question, it may be helpful to cite a now widely noted study about practitioners of that ideally most impartial of professions—the lawcourt judge. In particular, as reported by researchers from Ben Gurion University and Columbia University,

We test the common caricature … that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.2

Options for Interpreting the Findings

These findings basically suggest either one or the other two conclusions. The system for scheduling the parole requests that these judges heard

  1. successfully—if inexplicably—tended to schedule intrinsically more meritorious requests for first thing in the morning or immediately after the judges’ snack breaks. In this interpretation, the judges could have decided all the cases with equal equity. It just so happened that the more meritorious ones tended to be grouped in the scheduling.
  2. distributed cases in the judges’ queues relatively equally with no grouping—intentional or otherwise—of those with greater merit. In this interpretation, despite their best efforts at impartiality, the judges’ bodies did influence their decisions about the parole requests (e.g., via hunger or fatigue).

Why There Really Is a “Hungry Judge Effect”

Unfortunately for the first interpretation, however, several factors make this understanding of the data infeasible. Among these are how

  • The judges determine when their two mid-day food breaks occur. When they decide to take each of these breaks, they have no knowledge of what cases they will hear next.3
  • The researchers observed significant variation in when the judges decide to take their breaks. This randomness would complicate any attempt to orchestrate a judge’s schedule to include certain requests in a certain sequence relative to the judges’ on-the-spot-selected food break times.4
  • The order in which cases appear before the judge is, “with rare exception, determined by the arrival time of the prisoner’s attorney.”5 But on arrival, attorneys are sequestered and have no knowledge of what cases the judge has heard that day or whether the judge has had a food break.6

So, the second interpretation seems genuinely to be supported. And to the extent that it is, it demonstrates how the body shapes decisions that are made even when impartiality is a key element of how one is attempting to make those decisions.


Biblical studies isn’t jurisprudence. But the kind of interpretive effort required by both shares a number of similarities.7 And biblical scholarship constantly calls upon you to decide—one way or another—about the meaning of this or that text. So, just as the judges in this study show how their bodies shape how they “read” the situations of the parole petitioners before them, your body also shapes how you read material pertinent to biblical studies.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma. For helping me to frame the posts in this series, I’m indebted to the suggestive comments of Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  2. Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.17 (2011): 6889. 

  3. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  4. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  5. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  6. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  7. E.g., see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 334–50. 

Why You Need to Think about How Your Body Reads

Reading time: 3 minutes

Reading is a required core competency for biblical scholars.1 When thinking about reading, biblical scholars tend to focus on the question of mental activity.

This focus is understandable and far from unique to biblical scholars. But forgetting the reading body creates a constellation of challenges that keep your reading and, therefore, your scholarship from as good as it can be.

The Problem with Forgetting the Reading Body

One way of stating the problem is that

if we allow ourselves to forget the “absent” body, we cannot fully understand ourselves and our interactions with the world, including the semiotic world of the text and the socially constructed but deeply embodied conventions of reading.2

In short, biblical scholarship isn’t as much about understanding ourselves as it is understanding the text. But it’s also not as though those two things are entirely separable. To the extent that we fail to reckon with the realities of our whole selves—including our bodies, we’re more liable to be pushed or pulled unawares into one interpretation or another.

Interpretation is indeed about understanding what you see. But before you can understand what you see, you must first see. And—to adapt a Pauline metaphor—it is not as though you who sees is entirely an eye (1 Cor 12:17). Nor indeed, is it possible to read if the eye says to the hand “I don’t need you” (1 Cor 12:21). Without manipulation by hands, there isn’t going to be a text in front of the eye to read.

So, the body shouldn’t be forgotten in reading because

it is not that the mind of the reader is embodied, but that the body reads—the whole body, muscle and bone, nerves and brain—and that the operations of mind, socially constructed, historically conditioned, in all their subtle interactions with the complexity of texts, are the works of the body.3

The Solution with Balancing Practice and Play

That said, attending to the reading body needn’t always require conscious attention. It may and should sometimes involve this, much as an athlete may consciously practice a specific technique outside the context of a game.4

Similarly, for the “game” of biblical scholarship where reading is so central, you do need to give conscious attention to your body’s involvement in your reading. But just as not all times are training times for the athlete, so it is for the reader in biblical studies.

You need to think regularly about how to hone your craft. But that thought needs to give way in its right time and place to the “embodied cognition” or “muscle memory” that takes over at “game time.”5 That is to say, you need to have a balance between thinking and working on how you read and actually focusing on the content of what you’re “upping your game” to be able to read.6

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 10. 

  3. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 13. 

  4. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 26–27. 

  5. E.g., see Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 25–26, 56, 72. 

  6. Cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

Why Reading Bodies Are in Danger of Being Forgotten

Reading time: 4 minutes

When thinking about the act of reading, biblical scholars tend to consider what the mind does with texts.1 Such hermeneutic questions are clearly worth raising when you’re reading biblical literature. They’re also critical to ask when you’re reading literature that you think might help you interpret biblical texts. And that’s true whether that potentially helpful literature comes from authors more or less ancient and culturally distant from you.

But as ways of addressing the way you read, these questions are entirely cognitive. They consider how your mind encounters texts primary and secondary. How do you understand what you see on the page?2

All of this begins to raise the fundamental absence of the reading body in how biblical scholars tend to think about how reading happens.3 This absence is hardly unique to biblical studies.4 And the reading body does (dis)appear in biblical scholarship for perhaps the same three reasons as it does so elsewhere.

1. Reading is most prototypically visual, and vision is a distance sense.

The sense of touch requires immediate physical contact to operate. Or it at least requires a chain of immediate physical contact. You can, in a way, “feel” the texture of a boiling pot of soup. But to do so, you’ll need to stir it by grasping a heat-safe utensil. Similarly, you can taste the soup, but only once it cools enough to safely put some of it in your mouth.

By contrast, the senses of hearing, smelling, and seeing can operate at a distance. And because vision is a distance sense, visual encounter with text in reading allows the hermeneutic space for readers to be more forgetful of how they are perceptually crossing the distance between themselves and what they are reading.5

2. Readers think about reading through the lens of mind-body dualism.

Whatever particular historical figures or movements one might wish to cite, mind-body dualism has a longstanding influence in many areas. In this environment, reading has often been considered a “mental” activity. As such, it is not a bodily activity, or it is an activity whose bodily aspects are unimportant.6

3. Forgetfulness of the body can be pragmatically useful to the act of reading.

A basketball player can hardly play full-out while also working to improve his technique.7 Similarly, when reading, it makes some sense that the body would “recede[] from awareness as we focus attention on the goal of the activity [of reading] rather than the physical procedures it entails.”8 So, there’s a certain efficiency to “allowing … perceptions and activities to operate smoothly, without the distraction of self-consciousness and particularly of body-consciousness.”9

Thinking about what your body is doing while you’re reading pulls attention away from the reading. Similarly, if you’re, say, reading someone’s interpretation of Romans, it’s hardly possible to understand that author better by speculating about how that person’s reading body.

You can’t directly connect particular ways bodies read to particular interpretive outcomes. Interpretation as such happens in the mind. So, perhaps it’s pragmatically useful for peripheral questions about reading bodies not to cloud more central issues of the interpretations that come out of their readings.


Of these reasons for forgetting the reading body, the first two are purely preparatory. They help create conditions in which reading bodies get forgotten, but they don’t themselves create the forgetfulness.

The pragmatic usefulness of forgetting the reading body is by far the greatest incentive to forgetting it. But for all its possible utility, this forgetfulness can also negatively impact your reading. So, there is also utility in reckoning with these negative effects and considering carefully how to mitigate or eliminate them.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. Or for seeing, one might substitute hearing, as in the case of spoken texts, or feeling as in the case of texts written in braille. 

  3. For raising this issue, I am grateful to Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  4. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 10, 20, 34. 

  5. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 24. This situation, of course, does not apply at all—or at least only by distant metaphor—to the reading of braille text, where touch is immediately required. 

  6. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 11, 13. 

  7. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 26–27; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  8. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 10. 

  9. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 10.