Beware congealing!

I’ve been reading the PG Wodehouse novel ‘A Pelican at Blandings’. I’ve read it before but I do so enjoy savouring a Blandings saga before bed. The other night I came across this lovely description concerning Lord Emsworth who has been accidentally locked out of his own house:

“The thought of what Connie would have to say if roused from her slumbers by shouts in the night paralysed Lord Emsworth. He stood there congealed. The impression prevailing among the gnats, moths and beetles which had accompanied him on the home stretch was that he had been turned into a pillar of salt, and it came as a great surprise to them when at the end of perhaps five minutes he moved and stirred and seemed to feel the rush of life along his keel.”

Delightful! And all the more when he weaves in an allusion to Scripture (Genesis 19:26).

But it was the sentence ‘He stood there congealed’ that triggered a particular memory for me. It was from a quote in the Introduction to Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel. He quotes these words of the author Gail Godwin:

“There are two kinds of people. One kind, you can just tell by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas, the other kind keep moving, changing… They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard against congealing.” 
― Gail Godwin, The Finishing School. (I have abbreviated some of the quote.)

Brueggemann picks up on this warning about congealing and applies it to the approach we are to have when we hear the word of God. He writes:

“Focus on ‘the whole story’ is an urgent need in our interpretive situation. We have learned to read the Bible either in bits and pieces or according to a dogmatic presupposition that domesticates the text. Artistic attention to the shape and flow on the whole does not promise a ‘true’ reading of a ‘final’ reading but only this reading now. The text, like our life, is so open that it will hardly stand still for our interpretation. The interpretive act itself is a recurring decision not to ‘congeal’.”

It is then that he quotes Godwin’s words. Brueggemann closes his Introduction with this sage insight:

“The live word resists our congealing, in life and in interpretation. That does not mean interpretation is unstable. It means, rather, that we may continue to expect surprises and can never say, ‘Now I know all about the text.’” (Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel, pp 6-7).

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