When I moved to England to start a Masters degree in theology, I knew I wanted to study St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Like many of my counterparts in the Reformed theological orbit, I was enthralled with questions of law and grace, election and final judgment. During my first year of undergraduate study, I’d sat out on the front lawn of the college green, sweating in the spring sunshine, reading N. T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said. I was certain that the most important questions I could write about in my postgraduate study would have something to do with Jews and Gentiles in Christ in those dense later chapters of Paul’s Romans.
I remember stepping into my advisor’s office with confidence, brandishing a sheet of paper with my notes and proposed outline, like a beaming kid shoving his latest Play-Doh creation into Dad’s line of sight for approval. And my outline was met with approval, at least in part. But what I didn’t yet realize about theological research is that it can almost always benefit from paying attention to the irrelevant. Which is what my advisor wanted to show me.
“Why don’t you go have a look at Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans,” he said, sliding my notes back to me across his desk. I blinked. Having been steeped for the past few years in Greek and Hebrew exegesis and historical study of the first century, I didn’t see much point in reading Barth. Hadn’t the great biblical scholar Brevard Childs paid Barth the backhanded compliment of calling his exegesis a “virtuoso performance,” effectively condemning it as too creative for its own good? Hadn’t James Barr, another accomplished biblical historian, dubbed Barth’s exegesis—you can hear him sighing as he wrote these words—“wearisome, inept, and futile”? I couldn’t see what benefit I would gain from reading Barth, mired as his commentary was in early twentieth-century debates about Protestant liberalism and existentialism. What I wanted was to understand Paul, not wriggle down some rabbit trail of philosophically inflected theology.
But I went home and read. Opening the commentary to chapter 9, in which Paul describes his anguish on behalf of his Jewish kinsmen who have not accepted his gospel about Jesus, I read Barth’s interpretation. “In the Church,” Barth wrote, “the lightning from heaven becomes a slow-burning, earth-made oven, loss and discovery harden into a solid enjoyment of possession; divine rest is changed into human discomfort, and divine disquiet into human repose.” Where, I wondered, had Israel gone? Where was Paul’s concern with the synagogue and the Mosaic legislation? Where was the particularity of Paul’s anguish? It all seemed subsumed, in Barth’s commentary, into some other agenda, one that felt as alien to Paul as a bombastic Beethoven chord to a Tallis chant. But I kept reading.
To this day, I don’t believe that Barth’s eclipse of Israel in Paul’s text was justifiable, either historically or theologically. What I did come to believe, though, is that this problematic, apparently irrelevant commentary would help me write well about Paul’s letter. And that was because Barth was grappling with how to convey Paul’s core message—the key subject matter of his text—in a new, changed culture. As the Catholic theologian Nicholas Lash has said, figuring out what a given text may mean today is probably a necessary prerequisite for any serious articulation of what a text meant in its original context, and Barth’s commentary was nothing if not a strenuous effort to figure out what Romans might mean in war-torn Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The more I read, the more Barth pushed me into a deeper engagement with Paul’s logic, his passion, and his preoccupation with God. Barth’s relentless theo-centricity—his overriding obsession with God’s otherness, sovereignty, and singular agency—was what unlocked the meaning of Romans for me and gave me the insights I needed to write the thesis I completed during my course of postgraduate study.
I’ve come to think of this experience of reading Barth as part of a larger type or species of reading. I now call it, facetiously, irrelevant reading.
Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”
This sort of reading experience happened to a friend of mine not long ago. Like me, my friend is a biblical theologian, and he was wrestling with how St. Paul seems to say both that the Scriptures of Israel prefigure the events of Christ’s life and also that, somehow, Christ makes the Scriptures intelligible. I watched my friend bang his head against his desk, sometimes literally, for weeks. Then one day he picked up the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s book Illuminations. That classic work of cultural and literary criticism has nothing to do with Paul, of course. But for my friend, reading Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history became key to his finally coming to grips with what he believed Paul was up to. “Jesus constitutes scripture’s ‘now of legibility,’” my friend wrote, borrowing a phrase verbatim from Benjamin, “the time at which the ‘law and prophets’ are recognizable as witnesses to God’s act in Christ.” Had he not read Benjamin, he wouldn’t have been able to put it that way.
Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.
I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign. They’ll be working away on an essay for me on the theme of faith in the Gospel of Mark, and something in an Auden poem will be just the thing that connects the dots for them. Or they’ll be writing about the motif of light in the Fourth Gospel, and something about the way Wallace Stegner described the character Charity by the lake in Crossing to Safety opens a wider vista for their reflections. This is what broad, indiscriminate reading of interesting texts does—it furnishes the raw materials for unexpected correlations and associations to spark. It’s often the irrelevant reading that does this, the reading you’re not supposed to be doing, the reading that’s not related at all to that project you’re meant to be completing.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.