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.

Notes:
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.

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