David Bentley Hart on contemporary versus premodern allegorization

"Historians or hermeneuticians frequently assert that what most alienates modern readers from the methods of premodern exegetes is the latter’s passion for allegory. But this is false. If anything, we today are much more culturally predisposed than our forebears to an unremitting allegorization of the tales we tell or books we read, no matter how elaborate or tedious the results. True, we may prefer to discover psychological or social or ­political or sexual narratives 'encoded' in the texts before us, rather than spiritual or metaphysical mysteries; we might find it impossible to believe that a particular reading could be 'inspired' in a more than metaphorical sense; but the principle of the metabolism of the fictions we read into the 'meanings' we can produce is perfectly familiar to us. The same critic who might prissily recoil at the extravagances of a patristic figural reading of the Book of Numbers might feel not the slightest dismay at the transformation of Prospero into an ironic indictment of ­colonialism, or of Horatio Hornblower into an inflexibly erect emblem of the 'phallic signifier.' What makes the spiritual allegories of ancient pagan, Jewish, and Christian exegetes so alarming to modern sensibilities is not that they were allegories but that they were so disconcertingly spiritual."

—David Bentley Hart, "Ad Litteram" (now collected in A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays, 274-277). This is absolutely correct, and the entire (brief) essay should be required reading for biblical scholars, whether disposed to historical criticism or any other scholarly hermeneutic.


  1. Do you have examples that might be more common amongst everyday people? I can't say I know anyone who engages in "the transformation of Prospero into an ironic indictment of colonialism, or of Horatio Hornblower into an inflexibly erect emblem of the 'phallic signifier.'" As someone who has been reading the early church fathers recently and found this whole phenomenon interesting to witness firsthand, I would like to know if this criticism applies to me too (and if so, I would like a good illustration so I could communicate the point to laypeople).

    I will try to get to the full essay later; so if there are relevant examples in it and I am not aware of them, I apologize.


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