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. 2. 3. 4. 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 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: {Getcha sumuv that!}

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