Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Language and Christianity, Part 2

Reading Christianity...
     The scriptural authority of the bible has a fascinating history, which I only wish to touch on here. It was not until the 16th century of Christendom that the doctrine sola scriptura (scripture only) became recognized and protestant theologians began to dismiss apostolic and ecclesiastic authority over matters of doctrine and belief in favor of close readings of the books of the Bible, and in particular the books of the New Testament. Today, not all protestants, and not even all evangelicals, follow the strictest version of sola scriptura, preferring instead the doctrine of prima scriptura (scripture first), which allows a role for non-textual influences on doctrine1.
    Readings of the bible then began to assume two primary characteristics: first, scripture was to be read as a vehicle for absolute, literal, objective truth, and second, as either directly inspired by God (weak version) or written directly by God through the hands of human scribes (strong version). This began to cause all sorts of difficulties as modern scholars and scientists began their work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Scientific discoveries made it increasingly difficult to reconcile the literal story of a seven-day creation with such monkey wrenches as geology and fossils thrown in. Textual scholars, especially in Germany, began to throw serious doubt on some of the assumptions about authorship, from the single-author assumptions about the Pentateuch (Moses) to questions about the assigned authorship of New Testament books (i.e., Ephesians and 1,2, and 3 Peter, among others). Then came Charles Darwin. Darwin's early work had gone virtually unnoticed among Christians, but publication of The Descent of Man in 1871 set pulpits ablaze. The Genesis man, created fully human ab initio, could not be reconciled with simian forebears. The Scopes “Monkey Trial,”2 an unfortunate comedy of judicial favoritism, lawyerly grandstanding, and considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering by special interest groups, ended in conviction, followed by reversal due to judicial error in setting the amount of the fine.
     Thus the stage was set for the ongoing effort to keep 'creationism' in school classrooms. By the time I was a youngster in once-a-week school, creationism had been replaced in evangelical circles by a confused mix of “creation science,” in which scientific evidence was cited to support a sort of mongrelized creation idea, and a resigned effort to match belief with evolution.
     My first Bible, given to me by “My Mother” as written in her unmistakable school-trained penmanship, is an Authorized Version (KJV), printed in Scotland in 1939. Although its covers are much bent by my nervous habit of trying to press the edges over the pages while sitting through several dozens of church services, it has survived in good shape, needing only a touch of glue a few years ago to repair the binding. It is now accompanied on my bookshelves with one or more copies of: The New English Bible, the Jerusalem Bible (I bought it in the college bookstore when it first came out in 1966; it was the first non-KJV I owned), the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, the Harper Collins Study Bible (NSRV), the New International Version (2011), the Zondervan Study Bible (NIV-2011), the New American Standard Bible. the Holman Christian Standard Bible (now simply referred to as the CSB), the English Standard Version, the Common English Bible,3 the Literary Study Bible (ESV), and perhaps one or two I've forgotten about (I don't feel like digging through the stack right now). That is not to say I have all the current English language versions available—I can think of at least twenty more I don't have.4 And, of course, there are the Greek New Testaments (two), the interlinear NIV (Koiné Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic), and the concordances and guides, starting with the venerable Strong's and going on. Some are much-thumbed and underlined (my poor little Zondervan Study NIV's pseudo-leather covers are shedding like a mangy old dog), while others seem relatively untouched by the passage of time—perhaps a metaphor for the survival of the Word over the past two millenia.
     Why so many?
     Money. The Bible sells, and at as little as $4-5 for a humble 'pew' Bible to $80-700 for a genuine leather, thumb-indexed heirloom Bible, there's dollars in the Bible business. Consider, for example, the Southern Baptists, the nation's largest denomination. When the New York Bible Society (now Biblica) wouldn't give them a price break on its New International Edition (the largest-selling Bible in the U.S.), they promptly found translation issues and determined to develop their own.5 6
     Translation. For the most part, translations don't differ a lot. Advances in scholarship since 1970 or so have produced experts who are surprisingly unanimous in their opinions. Nevertheless, a decision about a single word can betray a theological stance by the editors, and when support for doctrinal stands can turn on one or two words here and there, that decision can become an issue that reverberates across denominational books of discipline, or statements of faith and practice, everywhere.7
     More Money. The Bible is, every year, the biggest selling book in the country. Publishers study the market, devise new ways to package Bibles, enlist religious celebrities to front their sales pitches, and pursue new markets assiduously—ebooks, audio books, colleges—stay tuned! Thomas Nelson, whose business is basically Bibles, recently sold for $473M.8 Biblica, the nonprofit which owns the NIV, took in just over $14M in FY2016.9 Zondervan, which is owned by industry giant Harper Collins and actually publishes the NIV, has more than 450M copies in print.10
      The money issue alone brings Michel Foucault's postmodern identification of discourse (text) with appropriation and ownership to the fore.11 Texts, or discourses, are acts, performed by an individual or individuals, and as such subject to social sanctions, positive or negative. We've already seen how language only gains meaning through its social use, so Foucault's analysis seems fitting. Buying a book, or in the case of the SBC not buying a book, is an act with consequences, and those consequences cannot ultimately be separated entirely from the scene of the discourse.
     Foucault's “archaeological” method continues to look at the history of authorship. In the Middle Ages, the age of the 'auctorité'12 (authority), texts carried significance because of the author associated with them—to cite Pliny or Hippocrates was to carry the day. As modernity began, however, readers began to look for the truth or meaning of the text without reference to the author. Authors could still win renown if readers accepted their arguments, but the validity of the text came first.
        What this meant for the Bible was that the early church sought to choose its sacred texts, especially in the crucial New Testament, on the basis of authorship. The nod went to those closest to Christ or his immediate followers in time or place. Actual disciples of Christ and prominent apostolic leaders thus took precedence over the many later writings, including the ever-popular 'gospel' genre. Those who wrote later—the church fathers--were not included in the sacred text, but listened to on the basis of their social authority, Not a bishop? Don't bother.
     With the modern, and that certainly is the case with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, et al., readers sought for truth found in close, individual readings, without reference to what other authorities might have to say about the text. Such attention seemed to produce fresh, new interpretations, which shook the established church to its core. And therein lay a problem: inevitably, the new interpretations became not a single 'revelation,' but a conversation, a series of discourse acts set into a long series of such acts beginning, in a sense, with the Levite prescriptions of doctrine and continuing into Martin Marty and James McLendon, Jr. St. Augustine predicted the logical outcome: doctrine decided by a committee of expert interpreters guided by the Holy Spirit.13 Having joined many academic experts in committees, I cannot in good conscience recommend the insights developed in such activities—the result is usually a compromise that speaks more to the politics of the committee members and the institution they serve than any purportive 'truth.' So, meaning continues to be at once a matter of individual concepts (signs) and social environment.
     Another way to describe this activity is 'rhetorical.' If my own reading produces certain concepts about a text's meaning, and especially if those concepts affect my own behavior, intellectually or physically, then any effect that has socially is a matter of persuasion. Typically, I vocalize my concept and attempt to win its valorization by others. Of course, to the extent that my own reading is affected by others' input, my meaning is rhetorical as well. Rhetorical discourse, by its very nature, is agonistic. Those conversations about doctrines and revelations are not simply text tossed out willy-nilly for the edification of the reading public. They are near-sacrilic arguments designed to win believers and affect actions. They exist in a milieu filled with constant battles of religious belief.
     Postmodern theorists recognize the agonistic nature of discourse. Sociolinguistic work from the 70s on has focused extensively on such issues as power, control, dominance and strategy. As good, objective researchers, sociolinguists describe the various interpersonal negotiations over power and dominance rather persuasively. I don't wish to recapitulate them here, though you might want to consider, for example, the means you use to capture a place for your own contributions to an ongoing conversation, or the strategy you might use to persuade your boss to grant some time off, or your spouse to take out the garbage (or not). But is agonistic discourse necessarily a bad thing?
     One might say that agonistic discourse simply is what it is. Whatcha gonna do? That still leaves us with the problem of deciding where we decide to fit when the argument starts. Do we pick a side? Do we step aside and meditate while the world turns around us? Modern theologians have generally recognized discourse concerning religious matters as agonistic. At first, they defined the main conflict as that between the new (post-Reformation) and the old (pre-Reformation) readings of the Bible. As the protestants gained numbers and power and at the same time science seemed to dispose of several key readings of the word, the scene became one of conflict between belief and non-belief. Theologians became defenders of relevance, their work more intellectual than practical. With the Great Awakening, they faded into the background and the key religious discourse became the sales pitch.
     When I was a younker, I was allowed to go unescorted into the Northgate Theater (the Northgate Mall was the first covered shopping mall—Seattle, rain, a no-brain-er) to watch Disney's new movie Pollyanna. Little did I know that Pollyanna, a nice, enjoyable movie about a young girl whose positive outlook changes a small town, would leap into mind when I began to read up on the first and second Great Awakenings and the birth of my late boyhood church denomination. On screen played out, in color on the big screen (no small-box mall screen for Northgate Mall, thank goodness), the story of Great Awakening-style evangelism: repent or burn!
     More recently, I encountered Roland Barthes' review of a 1955 Billy Graham rally in Paris.14 It is part of 53 reviews Barthes wrote for Parisian publications in the mid-50s, as well as a lengthy essay on the idea of contemporary myth. Barthes, a literary theorist and critic, was a prototypical post-war French rationalist, who had little use for religion, hence his review in a book titled for its identification of everyday myths. Given the history of the French Reformation (a century of non-stop, vicious civil wars), the deliberate founding of the French Republic on atheistic grounds, and France's humiliation in WW2, one can appreciate Barthes' state of cynicism, but he nevertheless accurately, if uncomfortably for American evangelicals, described the rally:
     Dr. Graham brings us a method of magical transformation: he substitutes suggestion for persuasion: the pressure of the delivery, the systematic eviction of any rational content from the proposition, the grandiloquent designation of the Bible held at arm's length like the universal can opener of a quack peddler, and above all the absence of warmth, the manifest contempt for others, all those operations belong to the classic material of the music hall hypnotist.15
     My college was associated with an evangelistic denomination, and we experienced daily chapel services. At one of these, a professor from the Dept. of Religion introduced a student who, he declared, was a marvelously talented young preacher, and would now deliver himself of a 15-minute sermon. For the first few minutes, I thought that this was a comic skit designed to relieve us of our pre-midterms nerves. But, sadly, the bombastic nonsense was not. There is a thin, thin line, I discovered that morning, between the satirical and serious. I returned to my literary studies with a new appreciation for early modern satirists like Swift, Pope and Byron.16
     Billy Graham (I've been to a rally and watched several on TV) wisely recognized that while theological arguments for God abound, in the face of modern skepticism neither the Great Awakening nor the theological approaches would suffice. Instead, he faced the central issue: that belief is a spiritual matter, not a rational one. What a concept: religion is spiritual! Who'd've thunk it?
     I would suggest that reading the Bible is more a spiritual act than a rational one. Let me repeat that. Reading the Bible is a spiritual act. It is an action, because it requires both a physical commitment and an assent to wrestle with the concepts of the signs involved. It is spiritual, because committing to a rational imagining of its content leaves us with the shortcomings of meaning that led modernist readers to question its validity, and fundamentalists to cling desperately and angrily to uninformed myths about its linguistic aspects.
     Allowing the Bible to pass through our rational 'screen' and come to rest in our spiritual understanding is a transformative experience, and thus better understood in a postmodern, postchristian way. And that is something this blog will, if the creek don't rise, continue to stumble towards...

1This is particularly true for most Wesleyan, Anglican and Episcopal churches. Some conservative Wesleyan offshoots, however, embrace sola scriptura.
2In July 1925, substitute teacher John Scopes was charged by the state of Tennessee with teaching evolution in the town of Dayton in violation of a state law prohibiting such action. Two famous lawyers, William Jennings Bryant (prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (defense) eventually faced off in a trial followed around the country.
3Not “Contemporary,” as would have it.
4The others: Douay-Rheims, Amplified, Phillips, Darby, Disciples Literal, Geneva, Jubilee 2000, Young's, Wycliffe, New Living, World English, Orthodox Jewish, New Century, Tree of Life, Mounce, The Message, New American, Names of God, Lexham, Good News...I've probably left out yours, but you get the idea.
6In the interest of full disclosure, I must point out that the SBC does not actually order Baptists to use a particular translation; Baptists are traditionally and theologically independent. Still, to say that Lifeways and Holman are not Baptist organizations is kind of like saying that the Pope isn't Catholic.
7See for a good example of such stuff.
8Radosh, Daniel, “The Good Book Business.” The New Yorker (December 18, 2006).
9FY2016 Annual Report,
11“What Is An Author?”. Tr.. Josué V. Harari, in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structural Criticism, ed. Josuê Harari. (Ithaca, NY, Cornell UP, 1979), incl. in The Fouault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, pp 101-120 (NY, Pantheon, 1984).
12Because of the Latin root and similar pronunciation of both words, Middle English often confused “author” with “actor,” thus innocently recognizing the 'act' of discourse.```
13On Christian Doctrine, Book 4. Ed. Phillip Schaff, tr. Marcus Dodds and J.F Shaw (Amazon, Kindle Books).
14“Billy Graham at the Vel' D'Hiv'” in Mythologies, tr. Richard Howard and Annette Lavers (NY, Hill and Wang, 1957), pp.109-112.
15Ibid, p.111.

16Not to mention the biblical books of Jonah and Amos, and some marvelous passages in Isaiah (i.e. 5:16).

No comments:

Post a Comment