Monday, October 22, 2007

Some call it Scripture, but do they mean "the bunk"?

From a comment in a thread about this post via AKMA:
A proper and edifying reading of Scripture as Scripture requires that the reader be fully immersed in the faith and practice of the Church. Apart from this faith and practice, the Scripture is fundamentally unintelligible. Scripture must be read with the Church, in the Church. Only with and in the Church can the profoundly unity of the Bible be discerned. Why? Because it is only with and in the Church that the Bible is in fact and reality one book whose author is the creator of the universe. Divorced from the faith of the Church, Scripture necessarily breaks down into an anthology of texts--interesting and intelligible in themselves, generating infinite speculation and diversity of interpretation, but not the transforming Word of God unto salvation.

Last thing I wish to do is barrel into this circle of very bright folks speaking about matters of high import and deep relevance. Just wish to observe that the broad gesture that separates readers of the Bible into two groups -- believers to whom it is intelligible, and non-believers to whom it is "fundamentally unintelligible" -- is kind of striking, if nothing else, in its lack of nuance. Could I be the only reader of the Bible in existence who can simultaneously be a few kegs shy of faith and rather distinctly outside the Church, yet find the Bible to have a far more interesting and complex structure than a mere "anthology of texts"? Does that make me insane?

Why would this commenter (FrKimel) apply the proverbial barroom "two kinds of people" schtick to something as involved as to include (1) the full text of the Bible, (2) the complex relation of the interpretation of that text to faith, (3) the relation of both of these to religious practice, only to sweepingly, apocalyptically even, separate certain wheaties for whom it's a godshonest book from the chaffies for whom it's a godforsaken collection of texts?

In short, wtf?

Would someone say it is impossible to play Palestrina unless the musician happens to be a practicing Roman Catholic? Can't portray Moses unless one is a Hebrew hero? No Madonna unless the painter is Churchgoing devotee of the Virgin?

Or is there something else here - something that says that the proper reading of the text involves a construction of its legibility that could not exist (but why?) without first bringing to it a faith that Scripture is supposed to be the basis of, and without first having membership in a community built on that faith?

If this is so, doesn't this short-circuit the act of reading itself? You there, you do not believe, you are not a card carrying member of _________ . . . therefore the text (name any text) is unintelligible to you.

This would seem to abandon the very question of reading and interpretation that gave rise to the original discussion. And if so, then what possible common ground for conversation and community could there be between innies and outies?

What am I missing here?


Blogger Juke said...

Possibly I don't know but maybe it's put-up or shut-up time for the believers. No more nice guys out at the edge of things, time for pure crazy or divine command.
World's on fire etc etc etc etc, so get the light and shadow thing lined up - would be the gist.
Dennett and Dawkins make more sense, though no one in my reading has anything even close to high majority of convincing truth laid out and ready.
Bad angels everywhere looking for a workable scam, and all those panty-waists feeling the broad commons of ecumenecism wither away from lack of rain. But that means the world's on fire. So we're okay. Everything's go.
Here comes what's his face.
Which is what it says in the book.
Spells abound, and real men disappear like mountain antelope.
It's the time of fat people witchcraft, the worst and most dangerous kind.
But the world's on fire so we're okay. Good to go.
Believing in an afterlife and not being afraid to die intersect in a couple of radically different groups, the deluded and hypnotized and the knowing.
Personally I hate them all and am glad the world's on fire, but only because I'm so angry the world's on fire I want the people that did it to burn all up.

10/22/2007 12:53 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Well, I'm not AKMA, but I'll take a shot at this.

The idea that the scriptures are only properly interpreted within the church is a Christian doctrine. Admittedly, it is a doctrine under fire from a number of quarters, but it is still a historically Christian position, not something we just came up with recently. The second chapter of I Corinthians spells out the notion that God's wisdom is only discernable to those who possess the Spirit of God, so this idea goes back at least that far.

One problem within your post is the allegation of circularity. I'm sure there are various problems of circularity when it comes to Christian faith, but the one you raise is not quite correct. Scripture is not the source of the faith of the Christian community. The Christian community produced the scriptures of the New Testament and obviously ante-dated them. The source is of course the life of Jesus, and the church of today stands self-consciously in solidarity with those earliest followers of Jesus.

None of that is probably of much use to you (I assume) so let us approach this a different way. Is it difficult for you to imagine a text which functions quite differently for people in one community versus those who are outside that community? If you imagine yourself as a student in a class with a textbook and the instructor has made it known that every word of the text is fair game for the big final exam, then the students in that class will treat that text a little differently than those who are using the same book just as a reference work, or reading it for pleasure.

In that case, though, perhaps it seems merely a matter of DEGREE of interest rather than a difference of interpretive strategy. Perhaps we could imagine that we are members of a secret network receiving coded messages through otherwise innocuous looking documents. If we have the key (say, use all the last letters of each sentence to spell out the secret message), then you can see how a particular community could read a text in a totally different fashion than those outside that community.

There's much more that could be said about how the church functions in the process of people reading scripture, but perhaps that's enough for an intro?

10/23/2007 10:47 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...


I do realize this discussion raises, borders on, some pretty large and turbulent waters. Your effort to suggest some ways in which a practicing community might "function in the process of people reading scripture" offers examples that possibly do not do entire justice to your point. If we're just talking a special decoding process, this entirely depends on properties of the signifier that are shared - anyone with some programming knowledge can (and has) run the text (Hebrew? Latin? Septuagint? KJV?) thru any number of code breaking exploits and declare some new vein of hidden meaning.

The problem there might be that everyone prior to that discovery would then be in the unfortunate position of never having been privileged to understand the "true gospel." The other problem is that decoding techniques do not depend upon a community, but upon aspects of parsing language which are, after all, open to anyone with a penchant for code-cracking.

The matter of what a text might be used for, I agree, is a matter of degree. One might "be responsible" for knowing what Ezekiel's creatures look like in I.4 ff - but presumably anyone reading the text with any openness and curiosity would ponder these four-faced feathered beings with some attention, puzzlement, interpretive interest. If the religious community determines what they "mean," what does it do when another group of practitioners decides they mean something else? Unless one installs some human/official office where the interpretive buck stops, and unless that person/office is acknowledged as such by the entire practice community, it's hard to see how a diversity of meanings will not proliferate. But what/who authorizes that buckstopper? Infinite regress.

If the authority of a particular community derives from the "you had to be there" assertion, then how does that ineffable apprehension of those present at the origin get passed on?

I don't mean to belabor the hermenutic circle, which applies to all texts. What chafed was the auto-imperialism of FrKimel's statement. He was speaking to a closed circle (one must be a member of that blog to comment). He was telling members of the club that they are privileged, and that that privilege consists in being members of the club, because when one is a member of the club, one has access to intelligibility that's unavailable to those not fortunate to be members.

The clamping together of Meaning and Membership renders the entire thing a form of solipsism. Group solipsism. There is no place for mutual exchange of intelligence, because the group owns the intelligence, and the rest of the world cannot access it unless becoming a member of the group.

This would appear to maximize the importance of belonging to the community at the expense of all possibility of rational discourse with anyone outside it. Which seems a rather large price to extort. It also aligns the understanding of one of the world's great texts and traditions with the sort of thing more commonly associated with cyberneticists, masons, and lesser cults.

I find it difficult to think that people of the intelligence of FrKimel and others writing over there actually believe that. I still think I'm missing something.

10/24/2007 8:14 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Ok, I think we can take this a little further.

The analogies I used were very limited attempts to demonstrate the possibility of separable reading communities, that is, the idea that there could be some sort of special or different meaning in a text for one group than for some other group.

I can add to this a couple of things to bring it a little closer to how Christian theologians have often framed this issue. One is the notion of enlightenment. I'm aware that there are lots of problems associated with this idea, but there is a theme running through the scriptures that God opens people's eyes from time to time to see what they had not seen before. This is illustrated (that is, symbolically demonstrated) in the story of Elisha and his servant with the visible/invisible angels in II Kings 6, and in the story of Paul's temporary blindness associated with his conversion.

In The Art of Reading Scripture (ed Davis and Hays and highly recommended), David Steinmetz, speaking of Old Testament interpretation, likens it to detective fiction. When you read through a classic mystery novel there are all sorts of bits of information floating about which coalesce finally at the end when everything is revealed. One of the things that happens at that point is that you are now changed as a reader in regard to that book. If you go back and read it again, you now see how all of those parts fit together whereas you didn't the first time through. Watching The Sixth Sense twice through captures that nicely.

Another important aspect of the way Christians read scripture is a little harder for me to analogize, but it has to do with character, that is, what sort of person you are at some time. What Al Kimel says, following Stan Hauerwas and others, is that to read the scriptures rightly, you need to be a person whose character is continuing to be formed by the practices of the church.

I had an experience several years ago of reading the novels of Robertson Davies (I was in my early and mid 30's). I found myself remarking many times that I was glad I didn't try to read those books at an earlier time in my life, because much of the content had to do with things I learned at different times in my life and would not have made much sense to me if I had read them, say, during college. Davies himself was a proponent of the idea of reading things when one is of an age close to the age of the author of the work.

Thus with the scriptures. The scriptures were written FOR a particular community, unlike, say typical American media which is written to try to reach the widest possible audience. The OT scriptures were written for the worshippers of Yahweh and assumed a common set of experiences. The NT scriptures were written, not as general texts on Jesus, but for those who were already followers of Jesus. They assume that the hearers and readers are already part of a community of people who, among other things, pray together, share fellowship meals together, have been baptized, have learned or have been learning the OT scriptures, and so on.

If you have read it, Alasdair MacIntyre's comments in After Virtue (about how older ethical systems no longer make sense) are relevant. If not, it will probably be beyond my ability to explain.

I could add in more about scriptures as authoritative for the Christian community, but I'm a bit long already.

10/24/2007 10:46 AM  
Blogger Phil Cubeta said...

Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." As a child I was taken to church from say 6 to 16 by my mother, an Irish Catholic. Each year the priest would work through the cycle of the Gospels. So I would have heard them as an oral tradition. Never read them. Yet, it is clear to people like AKMA who know the Bible and know me, that I have a Catholic sensibility. My thoughts go more and more to the parables. I realized that my moral sensibility, and even my literary tastes were largely formed by that early oral experience.

What surprises me, then, is not how hard the Bible is to understand, but how potent it is, how deep the parables, for example, sink, to the one's very core, just by hearing them over and over with some hit or miss explanation by a cleric.

Those of us who have taught for a living know how rare "uptake" is in any form. The official interpretation belongs to an interpretive community, with its equivalent of intellectual property rights, or a monopoly on the real meaning. But once there was this guy, and he said things about a bushel basket, or a mustard seed. All the rest got added later. Let the priests own the official meaning, I will set at the man's feet with the children and listen to the stories he tells. When he rises maybe I could follow him a few steps before he makes unconscionable demands, like give all you have to the poor and follow me." Not clear how many do that. I suspect those who do are close enough when it comes to validity of interpretation.

10/24/2007 9:01 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...


The intended community for whom texts are written - if indeed that is how it goes - never has the final word.

Texts always seem to escape the bonds of those who would seek to control their meanings. Like unruly students, texts refuse to stay contained within "content approved for general consumption." They slip out, generate entirely unanticipated communities of meaning, who in turn are betrayed by the wanderings their own authorized take takes in its turn.

I love much in the Bible. Not the last book. The violence of closure is pretty nasty there.

The people of the OT thought scripture was for them, made them who they were. Then the story goes they're killing the one they do not see is the one. A new T sprung from the old, escaping old gravity it at warp speed.

Interpretive circles may close and may wish to extend or deny membership based upon whatever Official Reading(s) receive their imprimatur. But texts cut loose, stories go. Even now, around the world, the text is generating new communities of readers whose interpretations might seem childlike, or childish, or simply wrong. Perhaps scripture wasn't written "for" them, but see how that matters to them. Phil's on to something: the text exceeds the hunt to pin the wriggling parable to the cross.

10/24/2007 10:08 PM  
Blogger Strider said...

I just stumbled today, quite by accident, upon your blog article and critique of my comment on TitusOneNine. You ask, "What am I missing here?"

I would suggest that what you are missing is the unique status of the biblical writings precisely as Scripture. This simple point is easily missed. We can go into any bookstore and purchase a book titled The Holy Bible. It comes ready-packaged as one book and so we assume that it is one book. But in fact, the Bible is simply a collection of occasional writings written over a period of a thousand years, pulled together as a collection by a religious community called the Christian Church. And this community insists that this collection of writings be regarded as one book authored by the Creator of the universe, i.e, as Scripture.

But how does one go about reading this collection of writings as one book authored by God? The individual books, or units within the books, can of course be read and understood on their own terms, just as any ancient text can be so read and understood; but how does one read them as an intelligible whole? As Richard Swinburne notes, "The Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books" (Revelation, p 177). The answer is patent: the community that collected and canonized these writings must provide the rules for the book's proper interpretation. Hence my claim, which is an uncontroversial claim for catholic Christians, that the Bible can only be properly understood within the Church, by the Church. The Bible can be read in any number of different ways; but if one wants to read the book as Scripture, then one needs to learn from the Church how to do so. I refer you to Swinburne's book for philosophical elaboration of this claim.

In your above comment, Tom, you write: "What chafed was the auto-imperialism of FrKimel's statement. He was speaking to a closed circle (one must be a member of that blog to comment). He was telling members of the club that they are privileged, and that that privilege consists in being members of the club, because when one is a member of the club, one has access to intelligibility that's unavailable to those not fortunate to be members."

To be blunt, this is a stupid remark. Anyone is free to comment on TitusOneNine. Yes, one has to register in order to comment, but this requirement only exists in order to protect the blog from spammers. In fact, T19 is an Anglican blog. I am Catholic. If you had bothered to read the thread, you would have realized that most of the Anglican readers vigorously disagreed with my comment.

But I suppose that the claim that the Bible can only be properly read within the Church will always sound imperialistic, for of course it is. Who else but Christians believe that the Bible is one book and must be read as one book? Who else but Christians believe that every sentence in the Bible directs us to Jesus Christ? Who else but Christians want to read the Bible as Scripture? And why should anyone who does not share this conviction be offended?

10/29/2007 7:32 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll look forward to replying. I'll try to become less stupid first.


10/29/2007 9:21 PM  
Blogger sandy said...

A functional impropriety is the use of a word as the wrong part of speech. The wrong meaning for a word can also be impropriety.

9/01/2008 5:46 AM  
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10/19/2011 5:43 AM  

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