Wednesday, July 07, 2004

I love that new canon you're wearing...

This is somewhat long, but AKMA's response to a question I had about lectionary committees -- the people who decide what Biblical passages will be heard and discussed in church services -- made me do it. AKMA says:
In the course of selecting the readings, the lectionary framers often tailored the passages to suit the exigencies of modern worship (fewer chapter-long readings, for instance) to fit “themes” for given days (the only time the church reads Zechariah, if I recall correctly, is on Palm Sunday, when we read about the King entering Jerusalem on a colt), and to put the best face on some awkward readings — as, for instance, the last verses of Revelation.

As a quondam Roman Catholic, I used to wonder how texts got to be featured at various times of the year. There always seemed to be some effort at thematic correspondence, but no one had ever taken the time to explain how this was done, by whom, under what or whose authority, etc. AKMA helpfully points to Google for that aspect of the topic, and more helpfully offers some of the motivations for so organizing that part of the liturgy.

I'm grateful he would take the time to address a question coming over the transom, as it were, from someone outside his flock. A dimly forming stereotype in the rear end of my mind about the parochiality of US Protestant believers versus the openness of Roman Catholicism has happily just been complicated.

I see why someone needs to decide what text to address throughout the calendar (if there is one cultural item that has achingly gone missing in the exile from faith, it is that giant storied wheel of hours and days and nones and tierces and vespers and Annunciations and Presentations and feasts that narrated the sacred diary of our larger expectations (which, as per Norma Desmond, are still big -- it's the pictures that got small)).

In the excellent article AKMA cites, the choice and length of passages chosen by the Catholic lectionary committees is said to have been influenced by audience considerations, but it seems to have more to do with attention span than with propriety:
The overwhelming response of pastors was that the readings were too long, that congregants would be unaccustomed to hearing so much of the word of God and be impatient at the hearing. In consequence, many lections were edited down.

I would still tend to make a distinction between reducing the length of passages that are kept intact, and editing passages to eliminate elements that might be difficult to understand, as detailed in AKMA's initial post.

My question was whether in modifying Biblical passages, the people doing so are exerting theological authority -- sort of pre-deciding what part of what God said we will bother to understand -- or whether this is an instance of a kind of local fillip of sensibility, perhaps influenced by a contemporary sense of propriety, sneaking into the sacred precincts to tacitly tidy things up.

In certain cases, AKMA notes, the Lectionary folks have tailored the Word by eliding it. This made me wonder, since it is the primary text, the thing upon which the institution, the practice, the faith, is based. Take it away, and what remains?

Here's a poor analogy: Suppose there was a single piece of evidence for an extremely important hypothesis -- a single set of bones indicating the existence of another intelligent species, or a meteorite containing particles pointing to an explanation of the origin of the universe.

Now suppose that these primary sources were given to committees whose latitude extended to omitting bits of the data -- the stuff, say, that didn't comport with current theories of evolution or cosmogony -- before handing it off to various groups of scientists for study. Suppose in addition that these committees were sort of kept in the background, their work not much talked about -- an "industry," as AKMA puts it, that is open to participation by invitation only, that ships its tailored products without obligatory disclosure statements.

Obviously the analogy is imperfect. After all, churchgoers do have direct access to the Word of scripture, more or less, if they own decent translations. But still, given that there is an emphasis on communal sharing, on collective coming to grips with the sacred, in church services, it seems (to this outsider) puzzling that such liberties would be taken. Sort of like, God: Edited for Television.

As the article by Gerald S. Sloyan notes, "The inclusions and omissions arrived at by the scholars who designed it created a new canon..."

That is somewhat different, as an outcome, from what was apparently the original motivation:
that "the treasures of the bible be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's word. In this way a more representative proportion of the sacred scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years"

And it is precisely that sort of drift between origin and end that seems to inform much of the way we conduct the business of informing ourselves about what is. In corporate America anyway.

AKMA notes that he restores elided parts of the readings when he preaches. Without his commenting on the practice, I'd not have known of its existence. Thanks to him for taking the time to address my question. It's not like he doesn't have anything else to do. And when he's writing stuff like this, any impatience with him for not addressing my concerns would be absurd.


Blogger Tim said...

Lectionaries are also Western in outlook, notice for example that the Genealogies in Genesis are censored! Most non-Western peoples recognise quickly that genealogy is what Genesis is all about, yet they have been left out of all the major contemporary Western lectionaries! This is exerting theological authority in favour of a culturally determined blindspot. And unless other local churches compose their own African, Asian etc. lectionaries it is also cultural imperialism!

7/13/2004 2:26 PM  
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