Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten...
     I was reading Karen Armstrong's insightful and authoritative book The Bible: A Biography1 preparatory to looking at some sources on linguistics and stylistics in Biblical exegesis when I remembered something I learned about the same time my memories of life began and quoted at the close of my first blog entry: “You can't hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when your mouth is flapping.” It was the Friends who taught me that. These particular Friends were (and still are) part of the Gurneyite-Evangelical branch but still maintained a portion of their worship as “quiet” or “unprogrammed,” in which the congregation sits quietly and those who feel so moved may stand and offer a brief testimony (which is not used as a departure point for conversation!). A print of J. Doyle Penrose's 1916 painting Presence in the Midst hung in our living room, and I always felt the same way during “quiet” worship:
     The Friends are guided by a wonderful principle of humility and cooperation in their activities—even as my boyhood church recently split into two congregations over issues of faith and practice they continued to conduct their business with each other in what can only be described as a spirit of charity.
     Armstrong, who attended St. Anne's College, Oxford while a nun, left the convent after graduating in 1969 (the same year I graduated from Seattle Pacific College—an equally sober but much less famed institution) and eventually became a respected writer and student of comparative religion. Her book is as much a compact history of biblical exegesis as it is of textual matters, recognizing that the two—writing and reading—are two sides of the same identity. These two sides of text are at considerable risk of being torn apart from each other in some contemporary religious debates, where one side's loyalists are accused of 'rewriting' the biblical or doctrinal text by the other, who presumably are privy to the 'real' or 'obvious' (self-evident) meaning of the text.
     I offer, for example, the Scofield Reference Bible. Cyrus Scofield developed a reading of the Bible known today as “dispensationalism,” and in 1909 furnished an edition of the Authorized Version of 1611 (aka the King James Bible) complete with copious notes explaining what the Bible meant. To give him his due, he developed some notions that are present in many Bibles today, including marginal chain references and lengthy expository notes incorporated below the body of the text (a common feature of 'study' bibles). Among many fundamentalists, Scofield's notes have authority comparable to the biblical text itself. Scofield's far-reaching effects are beyond the scope of this entry, but one need not look much further than such cultural phenomena as Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, or fundamentalist support for the radical right in Israel.
     Sacred texts, regardless of which religion they 'belong' to, are bound to attract a great deal of commentary and interpretation. There are reasons for this: for one thing, followers always want to know more about their faith than the sacrilic texts supply—particularly in attempting to apply the text's principles to their daily lives and community. For another, discourse dealing with religion tends to lean more to the mystical and the spiritual than to topics that can be easily reduced to the directly referential language of the immediate and present and thus requires a more imaginative and open reading than most people are prepared or able to provide. And finally, while the object of the faith is not thought to change, communities of followers and the circumstances of their world are subjective and do change, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a sudden flash of calamity or fortune. The originary sacred texts must then be examined to find their new application, or meaning, in the revised circumstances.
     Jews, for example, following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the rise of Christianity, returned to the tradition of interpreting through oral debate by writing the Mishnah, a series of commentaries that sought to answer the concerns of the faithful about Hebraic circumstances. It led to Talmuds, themselves commentaries on the Mishnah. The learned rabbis, students of the Talmud and the Mishnah, became the carriers and interpreters of tradition and religious knowledge.
     In Islam, the Quran,2 a collection of Mohammed's writings concerning his visions, were written over a lifetime, and reflected Mohammed's own changing responses to the often severe variances in his and his followers' lives. When compiled after his death, this produced a number of contradictory statements, which made the attempt to apply the Quran to religious life somewhat contentious.3 The solution was to collect narratives from those who knew Mohammed, so as to use his actual life actions as a guide—which became known as the ahadith, or collections of individual hadith. Of course, each sect of Islam had their own peculiar hadith, and their own tafsir, or commentary on the hadith, and then developed the ulema, or bodies of the learned who would, consulting the Quran, the ahadith and tafsir, collectively make decisions on doctrinal and community matters.4
     So far in this blog, I've made, and will continue to make, some suggestions for reading and interpreting the books of the Bible. I'm not a theologian nor am I ordained by any church, and I do not plan to insist on any particular doctrines, What I am very interested in, though, is suggesting ways to approach reading our particular sacred books. It is there, more than in the many—and some very helpful—commentaries and theological glosses—that we ultimately find guidance for the multitude of decisions, large and small, that come our way as we walk the pilgrim's path. I have acquired some tools for discussing interpretation and reading from some of the best practitioners and theorists available, but when I open the Bible or open discussion with others, I usually end up recalling the basis I was given for living and thinking and believing in my childhood home and community—the few hundred faculty, students and neighbors of George Fox College and Newberg Friends Church, in Newberg, Oregon (24 miles south of Portland down highway 99W).5
Newberg Library, my kindergarten site.
What did I learn in kindergarten?
      The first thing I learned was to shut up.  (I also learned that in church).  After all, our heads are busy enough trying to figure out the words on the page without extraneous stuff happening, right?  Wrong! Shutting up while authority figures--teachers, preachers, parents, the Holy Spirit--are trying to communicate, is obviously a great idea.  It promotes a peaceful life and keeps us out of trouble, mostly.  It does not apply to reading, and most especially not the Bible.
     Text operates at least one remove from language per se. It is a technology—an aid to memory for merchants, a visual aid for imperial bureaucrats, a declaration of permanence for pharaohs, a cry of identity for seafaring Vikings, and ultimately a tool for defeating the limitations of time and space. Like all technologies, it is a zero sum game: it must give up something to get something. To span time and distance, text gave up immediacy, context and the ability to converse, to answer questions and be present. Nevertheless, the early users of literacy tried to keep as close to oral speech as possible. Language had to be spoken aloud to become meaningful.6 In Hebrew society, for example, study of of sacred text required constant face-to-face discussion before a meaning could be said to be extracted, and that meaning was always transitory, subject to change following more discussion. The later preservation of Hebrew and Aramaic texts for modern (Greek) speakers in the Septuagint did not alter the process. Even the spread of Western literacy and the 15th-century invention of the printing press did not appreciably change the recognition that oral speech was at the heart of text: it was not until modern times that people in the West began to read silently. Prior to that, reading without speaking the words aloud, even if in a whisper, was considered a sign of quirky genius.
     Modern readers are always found in a space apart, a private room, perhaps, or a bubble of privacy among others marked by the open book and lowered head—something akin to private mourning, or prayer or pain. The book now is become something markedly unsocial, sequestered, clandestine and concealed. For budgetary reasons, I primarily buy used books7, and it is always fun to look at the notes, brackets and underlines and try to dope out just what previous readers were discovering in the text. These markings are also private. Having sat through several graduate student examination prep sessions, I believe that most save their most penetrating readings for their own use (yes, sometimes I did, too—mea culpa).
     Meanwhile, public discussion no longer follows the dialogic pattern of old. The genres du jour are the raucous question-and-answer of the press conference, the town meeting between jaded and agenda-bound leaders and intolerant and hostile constituents, the round table with uninformed yet opinionated ideologues, and the foreordained outcomes of the organizational caucus.
     The postmodern era finds dialogue something often imitated but seldom constituted. We read in order to talk to, not with, others. We question others, but seldom ourselves. Technology—text as well as its imitators, like film, television, radio, the internet, photography—after removing us a step or two from speech, now jams us into a market queue in which we shop for endless images8 while avoiding having to stop and spend time with any particular one. As an Amazon user with an ebook reader, I am constantly urged to try (first month free!) something called “Kindle Unlimited,” which offers an endless supply of 'free' books in exchange for a regular fee.9 The books are listed by genre—for example, Christian Romance, Dystopian Science Fiction, and so forth—and having consulted the list of titles, I find that it is heavy on quantity and seriously light on quality, whatever the genre. The only one that interested me was a French edition of the late Algerian philosopher Malek Bennabi's writings, but of course, it's ten bucks by itself. Did I mention I'm on a budget? In general, we are today awash in textual material with no lifeboat in sight.
     Plato was right: you can't talk to a book.10 Or can you? French philosopher Jacques Derrida, along with many other postmodern philosophers and theologians, thinks that perhaps we can. Or, rather, that we must:

A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game...One must then, in a single gesture, but doubled, read and write. And that person would have understood nothing of the game who, at this{du coup}.would feel himself authorized merely to add on; that is, to add any old thing. He would add nothing...Reciprocally, he who through “methodological prudence,” “norms of objectivity,” or
“safeguards of knowledge” would refrain from committing anything of himself, would not read at all.11

     Derrida, like theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr., likens reading to a game.12 Like a game, there are rules, a goal, a means, and, perhaps most importantly, a lusory attitude, or the desire to participate in the game, which involves following the rules and using the means available to reach the end goal. Derrida does not prescribe a methodology for reading; he describes the actual process of reading in a manner that is fully present, or at least as present as possible, to the text.   Each reading is an activity that reconstitutes the original, spoken discourse, but that activity is also doubled, in that it seeks to locate the immediacy and presence of the original speech while trapped within the limits of technological conveyance.
     As we have seen in earlier entries, signs—the mental constitution of language—are inevitably different for each participant in the text. This difference is both (doubling again) a source and product of social community, and a cause of dispute and dissent in the community of readers. To read, then, in its state as a game, is to risk: to gamble that the means of reading will, in fact, lead to an end, a meaning, and that the meaning reached may not be, and in fact will probably not be, coterminous with other players' meanings.
     For Derrida, this is simply the normal state of things, an endless game which ends only in an ellipse:

But maybe it's just a residue, a dream, a bit of dream left over, an echo of the night...that other theater, those knocks from without...13
     For theologians, and for Christians, it must reach a stopping point, a goal, if only a temporary one—the game will inevitably resume—for the lusory stance of the Christian community must not only include the desire to play the game, but the mutuality of good will. Christians have a sad history of including in the outcome mutual enmity and violence, and to a certain extent continue to risk if not violence, at least scorn. But as McClendon says,

...real-life practices must develop means of reaching their goals that are sufficiently stable and sufficiently flexible to permit the growth of the practice and the human life it invests14

     Given the centrality of the Bible to Christianity, interpretations and meanings that differ and even conflict are inevitable; it remains to Christians to maintain a stance of goodwill so that differences may be recognized as complementary rather than contradictory, as variances rather than iniquities, and as dialogic rather than polemic.

1(NY, Atlantic Monthly P, 2007, www.groveatlantic.com ebook.)
2Also Qur'an, or Koran.
3It should be pointed out that Muslims do not easily accept the idea of separating a 'religious' life from a 'public' or civil life, thus the difficulty some Muslims have adjusting to life in Europe or America..
4Much like Augustine suggested in Book 4 of De doctrina christiana (On Christian Doctrine), c. 426 CE.
5Both institutions are still there. GFC has become a burgeoning University of several thousand with some of the original buildings still in use—but still Quaker, and the church is physically unchanged.
6For an excellent discussion, see Ong, Walter J., S.J., Orality and Literacy (NY, Methuen, 1982).
7For academic books, always check with Alibris.com!
8Text is a series of images—it started as little pictures.
9Interestingly, for 99 cents they'll sell me a book on how to cancel a Kindle Unlimited subscription.
10Plato's Pharmacy, in Dissemination, trans. By Barbara Johnson (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1981), pp. 63-172.
11Ibid, pp. 63-4.
12Drawn from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Ethics (Nashville, Abingdon P, 1986) pp.162ff; fr. Suits, Bernard, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Toronto, U of Toronto P, 1978) p. 34.
13The final words of Plato's Pharmacy, p.171.

14Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p.167.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

First things...
     When I was introduced to the Bible, it was with the understanding that one simply read it (and in the case of Psalms, memorized parts of it), and somehow everything would be fine. There were, in many evangelical congregations, older members who would mildly brag about how many times they'd read it from cover to cover, and others who'd do the same regarding the amount of it they'd committed to memory. Then I became, as everyone does, an adolescent. The conventional discussions from the pulpit (and we had a tremendous and highly intelligent minister) meant little to me; the rules of behavior, identified sternly as Sin (it always had a capital “S” when discussed), given my tenuous state of social and hormonal imbalances, meant considerably more. My attention was thus directed to the relevant Bible verses, conveniently collected for my edification in the denominational Book of Discipline.
Suddenly, it seemed, I found myself thrust into a world in which lusting after a mini-skirted coed or a cool beer seemed rather silly. I had a wife, a son, and I learned what discipline was actually about, courtesy of a group of khaki-clad chief petty officers1 bristling with campaign ribbons from our little dust-up in SE Asia. The Bible that I had been introduced to had, I thought, little relevance to the real world, where my shipmates were zipped into body bags and my youngest son was entrusted to an Air Force hospital (fortunately, some USAF docs know what they're doing) for surgery, and I was floundering in undiagnosed long-term clinical depression.
     Eventually, I rediscovered faith, thanks to a couple of Catholic priests, one a Navy chaplain and the other a VA one. That led me to graduate school and—long, long story short—eventually to the diagnosis of depression, though I darn near died first. After that came the desire to share my process of discovery in reading the originary (I stole that word from Paul Ricoeur) sources of our faith.
     When I began this blog thingy, I was relying on my background in poststructural and postmodern rhetorical and literary theory, which required me to renew my fellowship with De Man, Derrida, Ricoeur, Frye, Barthes, Foucalt, Polanyi, Chomsky and Lyotard2, among others. That was great, but when I began the process of investing my own theological and doctrinal notions in the bank of blogosphere, I realized I needed a bit more than my smattering of Augustine and the classical Greek and Latin writers. That led me to a glittering treasure-house of new (to me) people from a variety of religious backgrounds: Catholic, Reformed, Mennonite, Lutheran, Methodist, Anabaptist, Episcopal and Anglican, with new names like Nancey Murphey and her late husband James Wm. McLendon, Jr., Paul Lakeland, John C. Sivalon, Robert Webber, Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams, Christopher Wright, George Lindbeck, Rodney Clapp and more as I dig down through the stack.
     I was especially interested to note, in McLendon's introduction to Volume 2 of his Systematic Theology, that he was unable, due to the length of the book, to follow his Volume 1 procedure of mixing personal narrative with the 'serious' stuff. I am now waiting with itchy fingers for Volume 13 to be delivered, since that is one procedure that I have chosen to use in this blog. While I wait, I want to head over to Isaiah to spend some time with it to see how the theoretical stuff in previous posts works out when it comes to actual exposure to biblical text:

Reading Isaiah...

     “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah.” (1.1 NRSV)

     McLendon, who I mentioned above, opens his discussion of doctrine thusly:

     But if one makes allowance for occasional excesses and extremes, the main course of Christian Bible reading has held true over the centuries to the plain sense [his emphasis] of Scripture—its stories were read as (in the main) real stories about real people; its history, real history; its declarations about God and God's creatures as meaning what they said and saying what they meant.4

     At this point, he sounds like a good Baptist—plain speaking about a plain book. But I believe he's being somewhat rhetorical, if not a bit facetious. If the Bible is so plain, how comes it takes a very bright guy with a lifetime of study under his belt three substantial volumes to explain his theological readings of it? And make no mistake about it, anyone who looks to the Bible out of concern for their own or others' faith is, after all, reading theologically. And the 'theological' reading is itself a complex task, building as it does on all of our previous experience with the Bible and the many experiences we've had with others who have talked, written or, like Billy Graham in the Paris rally5, waved it aloft triumphantly.
     My initial stopping point in Isaiah is the second word in the book: “vision, a word that appeared in English a century after the Norman invasion, from Latin via Old French, meaning not merely something seen, but in particular something seen in the supernatural or imagination. It didn't take long for would-be leaders to adopt the word to describe their own leadership. It would be the sixteenth century before it came to describe ordinary sight as well. Yet even today, readers would immediately deduce that it is the older meaning that is in use, if only because of the context—its appearance in sacred literature and the fact that the editors (post-KJV) have printed the remaining text in the form of poetic stanzas.
     So, what are we to make of Isaiah's “vision?” First of all, the author places himself squarely within a Middle Eastern tradition of dreams and visions revealing important information (“... concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah”) and thus establishes a particular sign that can be understood in at least two ways. We can call to mind what we as readers generally understand about dreaming, which certainly includes extensive exposure to dreaming in our own experience, from the 'dream sequences' of movies and television, to dream narratives in literature, to our own dreams and nightmares, even perhaps to those (perhaps even us) who perceive personal visions as contemporary signs of the Holy Spirit at work. Or, we could call to mind what we've seen in our biblical readings, the prophetic and apocalyptic writings. So far, a single sentence and a single word have produced a fairly complex response, one that requires some decision making.

     Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
          the Lord has spoken:
     I reared children and brought them up,
          but they have rebelled against me. (1.2 NRSV)

I said that we must make decisions, and here is the first. Who is talking in this book? At first, it seems that Isaiah is simply demanding that everyone—the heavens and earth—listen to his vision. But then he quotes the Lord. Where did he get the words? Did the Lord speak to him personally, as he did to, say, Moses? Or did have a dream-vision? Did he memorize the Lord's own words (a rather large task, especially considering the length of the book), or is he paraphrasing, using his own poetic ability? Once the book goes on for a while, there's another decision. Is this all the work of a single writer, dreaming one dream, or two or three writers? I don't pretend to know—I once heard that the Lord works in mysterious ways6—but no one can, I believe, read very much of the Bible without dealing with this type of concern.
     Authorship is sometimes a part of reading. When I first entered college as an English major, the department's professors were a mix of people trained in somethings called “New Criticism” and “Structuralism.” To a good “new critic,” an approach that had dominated literary criticism in America since the 1940s, authorship was of negligible significance. The text itself was everything, the only evidence that mattered.7 By the 60s, however, critics were realizing that to remove authorship was impossible. Even if a text was delivered anonymously, readers would still try to discover clues to the nature of the writer from the text8—to consider the creator of the text was an inescapable part of receiving the text. Structuralists took that into consideration.
     To the church, authorship was the first thing to be considered in the books of the Bible. The Septuagint, a Greek translation first of the Jewish Torah, and later of the entire Old Testament,9 was the first Christians' Bible. It was followed afterwards by writings from the Apostles and the early Christian leaders, predominantly Paul. In all of these, canonicity, or the decision to declare them scriptural, was primarily (though not entirely) made on the basis of authorship. So important was the identity of the author that a number of assumptions about the authors of the books gradually became accepted as factual. Even Old Testament authorship previously considered a matter of debate or uncertainty by their Hebrew users became a matter of established doctrine in the new, Christian church.
     And what, exactly, does authorship mean to Christians, and to the church, today? There's a bit of confusion in my mind. Growing up evangelical, I learned that the biblical authors were inspired by God. Much later, I learned that there was considered to be a difference between inspiration and inerrancy. Some Christians held that biblical authors were inspired by the agency of the Holy Spirit (one-third of the Trinity), while others held that they were somehow given their words directly by God. The difference, it seems, is that inspiration leaves some room for humans to use their tools—their language, their understanding—to develop their message, while directed writings are the exact words of God.
     Not long ago, as these things go, a convicted con man “discovered” gold tablets telling a story about Jesus that could only be interpreted by him, using at first legendary Old Testament tools—the Urim and Thummim10—and then an ordinary stone similar the one he used in the scam for which was convicted. The history of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, short as it is, has been and continues to be filled with the kind of convenient doctrinal sidesteps and paper-thin apologetics vis-a-vis their scripture that have accompanied some of the more conservative followers of traditional Christianity since the nineteenth century.11 While I don't regard the LDS escapade as in any way matching the conditions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the activities of its human followers offer an object lesson to those of us considering both the history and current circumstances of our own churches.
     Once we've thought a bit about authorship, we focus on the text itself. Postmoderns who deal with language take the notion of the sign a bit further than did Saussure and the semioticians. Saussure posited the sign as a mental concept. Postmoderns, considering the mental concept more closely, identify the sign as having two parts. One is the denotative meaning, the pragmatic pointing to an object, or to another word. This is the sort of meaning that the dictionaries attempt to set out. The second meaning is much less describable. It was once called a connotative meaning, but the postmoderns substituted the concept of the 'double meaning.' which implies not only the extended range of closely allied meanings, but possibilities suggested by the word that resist, or stand apart from, the meanings conventionally assigned by the social consensus associated with the sign. Resistance does not necessarily mean negation or opposition; it is more of a dialogic concept. In other words, meanings locate in the space between the possibilities raised by close examination of a sign.

     I reared children and brought them up,
          but they have rebelled against me.

    A compliant reader within the Christian community would be sympathetic to Isaiah's apparent stance in support of his Lord and and against his errant children. A resistant reader might well wonder, however, what this says about the Lord (or Isaiah). Rebelliousness is a normal state for young men and women; respect for elders often a thinly maintained veneer. As a college teacher, especially standing before a roomful of freshmen, I could feel the delicate equilibrium between encouraging the resistance necessary for real learning to take place and watching students crash and burn. There's a line in the film Full Metal Jacket12 where Joker, narrating the conclusion of boot camp, declares that the fledgling Marines were “growing beyond the control” of their drill instructors. It's the moment all good instructors—military or educational—try for, and the moment when leadership really begins. Does Isaiah imagine God as a strong leader, or a weak, vengeful tyrant?

     The ox knows its owner,
          and the donkey its master's crib;
     but Israel does not know,
          my people do not understand. (1.3 NRSV)

      Now the metaphor switches from the family to the farm. At this point, consider Lyotard: “The referent of an ostensive (object of perception) and the nominative (object of history) are utterly different.”13 The farm scene metaphor is an ostensive, Isaiah (or God's) perception of livestock, which is quite possibly different from a farmer's history with his livestock. True, or real livestock are notoriously uncooperative on occasion, forgoing their stall or crib in favor more moments in the pasture or paddock. It reminds me of the Sunday morning when our pastor used an extended riff on the old gospel lighthouse metaphor—the lighthouse as a welcoming guide home. This is another ostensive, a myth created by the word in the popular mind that is, in fact, contradicted by history. I've been a professional sailor as well as a professional livestock handler, and I can testify that lighthouses are placed as warnings; their message is 'stay away' (from the dangers of the shallow waters, rocks and reefs near land)!
      Moreover, we must suspect from the language and the translators' and editors' presentation, that this is generically poetry. Poetry is a special case of language which not only invites, but expects resistance in order to develop and suggest meanings. It is an ostensive in which historical, or factual readings are laid out in order to invite interpretation precisely as ostensive. It is a lie placed in the service of truth.
     We are apparently being asked to use poetic metaphors to imagine things, but what is it that we are being asked to imagine? What is it that Israel “do[es] not understand”? We may well become the compliant reader, following what our religious guides have told us to read, but the differend14 marks possibilities that cannot be ignored.
     Why not ignore the differend? Why not be comfortable in the conventional? It has to do with the nature of our language, and our human world, and that is another entry in this blog. 
1Eight years later, I proudly donned khaki myself (custom tailored on Gordon Street, Olongapo City, Philippines!).
2I, like Chomsky, find Foucault essentially amoral. If you want to read one of these, try early Lyotard or, for the really brave, Derrida's essay Plato's Pharmacy.
3Yes, I am an Amazon junkie, but I also recommend Alibris.
4Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Volume 2 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), p. 36.
5“Billy Graham at the Vel' D'Hiv'” in Barthes, Roland. Mythologies, tr. Richard Howard and Annette Lavers (NY, Hill and Wang, 1957), pp.109-112.
6Attributed to the poem Light Shining out of Darkness in Olney Hymns (1799) by William Cowper (1731-1800).
7A movement owing its principles to Russian Formalism, famously theorized by Czech refugee René Wellek and Iowa professor Austin Warren in Theory of Literature (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1948).
8Still the key to surviving the GRE subject matter test in English literature (hint, hint).
92nd - 3rd century BCE.
10e.g., Ex 28.30, Lev 8.8m, 1 Sam l.41, Ezra 2.63, Neh 7.65.
11See http://www.mormonthink.com/lying.htm for an interesting discussion of this by a former long-time LDS bishop and educator.
12Herr, Michael and Gustav Hasford. Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. (Los Angeles, Warner Bros. 1987).
13Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. George Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 1988), p.51.

14Différend: a French word used by Lyotard to indicate the dialogic arena, the space where “competing” meanings stage their differences.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Reading Biblically

     As I begin to move more deeply into the idea of a “Postchristian” world—one originally proposed as a world in which there is no longer a close alliance between government, culture and public and private life and the Christian church and religion, either publicly or privately; something also called the secularization of the West—I continue to believe that the best way to approach this is to deal with a variety of relevant issues, rather than attempting a single, massive effort of exploration. (Whew, that was a heck of a sentence.1 I got going and couldn't stop. Sorry.)
     For one thing, this method fits well into the genre of the blog, something new in literature, which is fun to play with. Second, it makes it possible to share ideas as I deal with them, which is a lot more honest than spending a year or two collecting them into one massive production.2 The history of such massive works shows that their authors spent huge amounts of time and energy afterwards explaining why they didn't really mean it the way they said it, and/or that they've since changed their mind, anyway. The blog offers the opportunity to participate in something more like a conversation, which allows its participants to grow diachronically, instead of pretending that a single, synchronic work represents the best that can be done.
     A number of issues and questions already crowd my mind each time I put down my pen and allow my mind to muse—for example, what is the role of worship in the new Christianity? What about the role of denominationality? How does an individual deal with conflict between individual conscience and collective doctrine? What about Christians, either individually or collectively, and public polity? All of which is to say that there's a lot more to come, and I will probably find myself changing my mind as I go along. I ask for your readings with the understanding that no single blog entry begins to be plenary or exhaustive, and that they all welcome your curiosity as an integral part of building meaning.
     So, on to the next topic, one I keep running into in my life...

Mitigating Job...
     To teach a college course called “The Bible as Literature” on a conservative evangelical campus in the 1960s took not a bit of chutzpah. Fortunately, my late father, a soft-spoken Kansas Quaker, was trusted not to upset the alumni, and by virtue of his ordained status, could offer the course as a joint Religion and English course, which seemed to help certify the subject as within doctrinal bounds. As a result, I was able to take a class from my dad (not necessarily a good thing) and get one of my four required religion courses out of the way without sitting through another class from the Religion Department, which at the time was not exactly one of our stronger departments, academically. (One tenured professor was later pushed out on the street for incompetence—one of my buddies left his class steaming over the prof's insistence that the word 'gospel' was Greek. An English major, my buddy was well aware 'gospel' was an Old English translation of the Greek evangelium (OEgōds spel).)
     The subject at hand was, as was often the case in other universities, the book of Job3. Job is often singled out as the most 'literary' of the Bible's books. It is a drama, introduced by a scene-setting prose prologue in which God invites Satan4 to bring calamities upon Job to test his faithfulness. After the death of his family, and the loss of his wealth and health, Job is visited by three friends, who upbraid Job for doing wrong and causing his own problems, followed by another, younger friend who brings his own fluent rhetoric to the discussion, and finally by God himself, who simply illustrates his own unlimited power, followed by a difficult-to-translate passage in which Job responds to God, and a short happy ending in which Job gains a new family and renewed prosperity.
     Job is not only a poetic drama, but a kind of tragicomedy—seriously tragic events visited upon the hero finally offset by a resumption of his prior state of endowment. It is, moreover, a story about a non-Hebrew, someone living elsewhere in the near East. The writer throws in a number of obscure Hebrew and Arabic words, many of which occur nowhere else in scripture. The drama spends little time depicting the tragic (and more dramatic) events, but focuses on the aftermath as Job and his friends discuss what has happened. One thinks of existentialist dramas such as En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), perhaps, or Huis Clos (No Exit).
     The story raises a few questions for the reader: why does God afflict Job, if he is indeed a faithful man? Why is the story set outside the Hebrew community, with a Gentile hero? Is this a historically true story? Why so many odd words? All these questions, along with the vivid poetry of the dialogue, make Job an intriguing case for studying the literary nature of the Bible, and a distinct test case for dealing with the “truth” of the Bible.
     In recent days, Job is often cited as a refutation of the popular 'prosperity' gospel, which links belief in Christ to financial success and general wellness—physical, familial, and social. However much the so-called prosperity gospeleers may need a good kick in the pants, Job is much too rich and complex a work to relegate to mere theological butt-kicking duty.5
     Let me take the most controversial question first: is this a historically true, or factual story? Jewish tradition says no. The most common Jewish attribution is to Moses, who allegedly wrote it to encourage the Hebrews in captivity under Pharaoh. Most Christian writers also treat it as a fictional story, which uses characters and situations drawn from Ugaritic and Canaanite6 stories (and thus the foreign words, to bring verisimilitude to a foreign setting). The fundamentalist notion that all of the Bible's accounts are factual results, in part, from the early modernist efforts to find scientific evidence of biblical stories as a way of defending the Bible's sacred nature against modernist skepticism. For people raised, as I was, in an environment where leaders preached such ideas as the factuality of Jonah's adventure in the whale, it can seem that challenging such things threatens our entire structure of belief.
     But we must understand that the Bible doesn't give a hoot if we believe it or not.7 Its authors wrote using the forms and tools of their time to express their belief and culture. The Bible was created by men relying on their experience with God, or YHWH, or Gemara, to tell their sacred story. It was left to future readers to decide whether to ascribe this to divine inspiration or the hand of God himself, and to decide what texts would be considered sacred, what helpful, and what heretical.
       The forms and narratives available to the biblical authors determined a great deal of what they wrote. It is no accident that Ugaritic or Canaanite plots found themselves in a Hebrew book of inspiration and instruction. Vladimir Propp famously identified the relative handful of basic plots that occur in all narratives in 1928, and that has continued as recently as 2004 in the work of Christopher Booker.8 Authors work with the forms and narratives available to them. The Job author did a wonderful job of crafting a poetic drama that enables readers to experience for themselves, through the well-realized characters he creates, the anguish of wrestling with the question of bad things happening to innocents.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.” [38:1-4, NRSV]

      As we might apply this theologically, God is ultimately unknowable by humans, and His ways are his own. To think that we have ultimate knowledge of Him9 is not only presumptuous, it is bad theology. He has instead given us the ability to function and choose in his universe, the ability to be touched and be given insights by Him. Our best understanding arrives not via verbal or phenomenological means, but through spiritual ones. The Bible uses a variety of forms and authors to deliver truth, but is not particularly interested in whether it happens to meet the particular definitions of 'truth' or 'factuality' of our time and place.

Reading literature...
     There was a time in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century when literature became a word limited to the fictive, and its the 'best' of it in turn had value only in that it contributed to that which was highest and best in culture, and thus in mankind. It certainly was not significant in polity, business, science or other 'important' concerns of society. Society, having by this time lost much of its reliance on religion for matters like morality and social cohesion, needed something else. Of course, to a major figure in this movement like Matthew Arnold10, who gave up writing poetry to write about culture, the highest and best in mankind would include the will of God. Most people, however, having or being in the process of having slipped away from God, simply interpreted culture as being a thing whose possession would somehow raise them to be better people, and society as a whole to a higher state.
     The problem is that up to this point, literature had had a range of social relevancies, from practical instruction to propaganda, from establishing laws to providing entertainment and diversion, from propagating science and technology to starting (and sometimes stopping) wars. By restricting 'valuable' literature to a handful of works and authors, and to a certain typology, the High Victorians pigeon-holed it into a space where only certain specialists—literature professors, public critics, philologists, philosophers—possessed the credentials to speak about it, and only those indoctrinated into the mysteries by those specialists had the apprehension to read it with understanding and good effect.
     The Bible had, of course, provided a great many materials to 'high' literaturestories, allusions, metaphors, characters—but absent certain other characteristics of such literature, it was left to occupy a space reserved for the sacred, rather than the cultural.     This had the ironic effect of making it simultaneously the most holy text, the most owned one, and also the least read and understood one. The Bible was clearly not 'high' literature, because it must occupy an even higher level of understanding, nor was it 'low' literature, mere frivolous entertainment, nor did it have the useful relevancy of, say, journalism, history, law or even a Sears catalog. It became none of those things, and also became read as if it was all of them (except maybe a shopping catalog). It was supposed to be history, and law, and biography, and everything except the one thing that might most be able to divine the spiritual in it—literature.
     Perhaps the best example of this point is the case of the Song of Songs, aka the Song of Solomon. There is a lot of poetry in the Bible, from the psalter to Isaiah; the longest sustained poem is Song of Songs. Much of the Bible's poetry is, for the reason given above, arguably read today as if it were one more bit of prose. Preachers regularly cite the Psalms to develop theological points, prophetic poetry is treated as part of its prose accompaniment, the songs adopted by Luke only appear in musical settings sung by a choir. In the middle ages though, the single most interpreted book of the Bible was Song of Songs.11 Origen, Augustine, the two Gregories, Bernard of Clairveaux, and Jewish commentators such as Ibn Ezra and the Kabbalists all paid a good deal of attention to it.
       Since the High Victorians, however, the book has become the victim of a collective amnesia, called to mind only by a few feminist scholars. One can see why Victorians might become uncomfortable with a book that is frankly erotic, but that was not a problem for earlier readers who from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, included Song in both Jewish and Christian scripture, and developed a series of levels of allegory, allusion, and metaphor to enrich their readings of it.
     These meanings are then, poetic. Poetry, like the speeches of Job, is not intended to be taken as demotic or descriptive or prescriptive. It is metonymic and metaphoric, both allusive and elusive, meant above all to reach for and suggest meanings more related to the sign of semiotics than to the precision and structure of historical or legal or political literature. It is designed to reach emotive, imaginative and spiritual levels of connotation, to suggest as much or more than to denote:

      A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,
     comes up like a f
lower and withers,
     flees like a shadow and does not last.
o you fix your eyes on such a one?

    Do you bring me into judgment with you?
    Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?
o one can. Since their days are determined,
    and the number of their months is known to you,
    and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass,
    look away from them, and desist,
    that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.
(14:1-4 NRSV)

     Here is Job delivering not a message of obedience, or revolution, or salvation, or apocalypse, or any other theme favored of theologians or gospeleers, but of something very near pure human despair, a man who would rather that God simply left the picture, rather than visit his loyal servant with pain and loss. God's would be better without God, he says. The point is first, that he says this with such power and emotion what we can easily begin to feel his bitterness. “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,” is one of the most famous lines in the Bible.12 Second, that he feels perfectly comfortable expressing his deepest feelings to his God, and the author does not fail to allow his character the freedom and the language.
     Why did Song of Songs become so studied in early Christianity? Why does Job lure so many literature scholars to teach it? It is because, I believe, that these two books in particular remind us that human life is precisely human. My cousin, a wonderful, modest and well-schooled soprano soloist, often sang through unashamed tears when performing some the finest composers' sacred works in our church. They were tears of joy, I knew. She understood why Song of Songs made it into the canon.
     In my days as a combat photographer, I had occasion to locate music to accompany film of the battleship USS New Jersey firing broadsides from her huge 16-inch rifles into the Vietnamese countryside at night. For a brief moment, the absolute darkness would be lit by fire, the giant ship would be pushed a few feet sideways by the laws of Newtonian physics, and the dark would again fall. These rifles could only be fired when the ship's decks were clear of crewmen, lest the concussion from the gun turrets' simultaneous blasts kill them. Ashore, 20-plus miles away, packages of high explosive the size of a compact car would explode and each would utterly destroy an area bigger than a football field. Watching, I could feel the remembered blast of a much smaller artillery shell lifting me in the air as I tried to make myself a very small and very insignificant part of the earth. I thought of the men (and women) receiving the barrage. I synced up a recording of the opening of the Dies Irae (wrath of God) movement from Verdi's Requiem.13

From its mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap out.
Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth.
When it raises itself up the gods are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves
. (41:18-21.25)

  I get it.

1informative books on the topic: Clapp, Rodney, A Peculiar People: the church as culture in a post-christian society (Downers Grove, IL, IVP Academic, 1996). Hauerwas, Stanley, and Willliam H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colon,y 25th Anniversary Edition. (Nashville, Abingdon, 2014). Webber, Robert E. Common Roots, The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1978 and 2009.

2One (thin) volume I especially value is: Murphey, Nancy. Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda. (Harrisburg, PA,Trinity P, 1996).
3Our textbook: Hone, Ralph E. The Voice Out of the Whirlwind (San Francisco, Chandler, 1960),
4“Satan” is an example of the King James Bible's translators' own theology, which has generally been followed in later versions. The actual Hebrew is ha-satan, which translates directly as “The Accuser” or“The Adversary,” in Hebrew tradition an angel whose duty it is to reveal human wrongdoing.
5Some material on the complexity of Job, from different traditions. All except #5--which is dense but the best--can be accessed on the internet: 1. http://www.usccb.org/bible/job/0 2. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-job/ 3. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/16/misery-3 4. http://www.ewtn.com/library/SCRIPTUR/JOBMOST.TXT 5. “Job,” by Moshe Greenberg, in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, MA, Belknap/Harvard UP, 1987), pp. 283-304.
6Northwest Semitic languages, which also include Aramaic, Phoenician, Amorite, and Hebrew. The exact relationships are among them are disputed, but Ugaritic discoveries are of major importance to biblical translators.
7I am indebted to the late Northrop Frye for this valuable bit of anthropomorphism from The Great Code: The Bible In Literature (NY, Harvest/NBJ, 1982).
8Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale, trans Laurence Scott. (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore and Linguistics, Vol. 10 Rev. Ed., 1968). Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. (NY, Continuum, 2004).
9It may be presumptuous to use a male pronoun here, but it is equally presumptuous to use the female. Perhaps the Jews have it right, by using a nom de guerre in writing about Him.
10Most notably in Culture and Anarchy (1869). For a quick, clear discussion, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture and Anarchy
11Matter, Ann. The Voice of My Beloved: Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia, U of Penn Press, 1990).
12Interestingly, the Authorized Edition does not place poems—even the Psalms--in separate, offset sections, probably because Jacobean readers had no difficulty understanding how to switch schemas of understanding when encountering poetic language.
13See: https://youtu.be/cHw4GER-MiE {Getcha sumuv that!}