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:
“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.
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.