Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.

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If it walks like a duck…

A friend recently expressed frustration at feeling unprepared in a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. Under discussion was Colossians 1:15 which describes Christ as “the firstborn of all creation.” This is a convenient verse for Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, which denies the full deity of Christ. It is therefore a discomfiting verse for the Christian defending Christ’s full divinity. More to the point, many Christians can be disarmed in discussions like this because they are not as readily equipped, as many Witnesses are, to cite specific references supporting orthodox positions.

In the case of Col. 1:15 the defense is pretty simple; reading verses 16-20 makes clear that someone more than a mere human is being described. But the deeper problem is the very use of Scripture. Sadly, Witnesses use our own proof-texting methods against us, and often more effectively. But there is another approach to this question that is not only truer to Scripture but also easier to remember.

It begins with this question: What does Scripture depict God doing because He is God? So much of our focus on who God is centers on the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and so on. But Scripture is far more taken up with divine action than divine essence. In fact, God frequently refers to himself as “the God who brought you out of Egypt.” This is true of the way that we think of ourselves as well. We don’t usually trot out adjectives to describe ourselves or others; we describe who we are by what we do.

So, what does God do as God? While God does many things in Scripture, there are several key actions that are uniquely ascribed to Him. God creates. God reveals himself. God gives the law. God establishes covenants. God redeems. God forgives sin. God gives life. God judges. God reigns. These things are definitive of who God is as God and set him apart from humanity and the gods of the nations.

Can you see where this is going? That’s right. Scripture depicts Christ engaging in each of the God-defining activities. It is arguably the whole goal of Scripture to make precisely this point. Christ is the Word of the Father at creation (John 1:1-3). He reveals the Father (John 1:18). He gives a “new commandment” (John 13:34). He institutes a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20). He saves (Matt. 1:20-21). He forgives sin (Luke 5:20-24). He raises the dead (John 5:21). He will judge (Acts 17:31). He reigns (Eph. 1:20-22). He is, in short, Emmanuel – “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Christ is God because he does those things that only God can do.

Perhaps the greatest power in this approach is the fact that it focuses less on what texts say about God and Christ and more on who they are by what they have done. And ultimately, we want people to know Christ himself, not just the texts about him.

Idolatrous Word

Early in Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, T. F. Torrance addresses the tight link between the cultic role of the priest and the word of God. The divinely ordained priestly tasks were not efficacious in themselves but rather witness to God’s promise to be faithful to the covenant and gracious in forgiveness.

All priestly action within the place of meeting was by way of acknowledgment and witness to God’s testimony of himself in the Covenant. God is not acted upon by means of a priestly sacrifice. Priestly action rests upon God’s Self-revelation in His Word and answers as cultic sign and action to the thing signified (3).

However, Israel tended not only to pursue gods more in keeping with their desires but also to detach their God-given liturgical actions from the word and action of God. Torrance explains this as a “temptation to escape from direct meeting or encounter with the living God” in and through the liturgical practices. The effect is that the liturgical acts themselves become idols. Rather than signifying the gracious, covenant-keeping actions of God, they become humanity’s idolatrous acts of self-righteousness. Torrance again explains this as an effort to avoid an encounter with the divine: “The more the liturgical forms are turned into idols, the less men are disturbed by a speaking God” (5). That the sacrificial act be a repeated declaration of the Covenant God’s Word that He forgives freely though He has the right to judge is too close to the terrifying thunder and lightning of Sinai. And so the sacrificial system is domesticated by becoming human actions appeasing a distant deity.

One might be tempted to draw parallels to the view of the sacraments in some sectors of the church, and may by justified in doing so. But an equally valid parallel may be drawn to the relationship to Scripture in more Word-centric sectors of Christianity. Scripture can be centralized, analyzed, and doctrinalized and yet in such a way that it ceases to be a conduit for hearing the voice of God.

As Psalm 29 attests, when God speaks, things happen. Cedars break, fire flashes forth, forests are stripped, the wilderness shakes. And yet, in the very churches that claim to have a high view of Scripture, the Word of God rarely speaks, nor is expected to. Like a dumb idol, it says and does exactly what we expect it to. Perhaps we are equally fearful of an encounter with the Speaking God.

But…Swine flew

25990935-_uy200_In The Actuality of Atonement, Colin Gunton thoughtfully considers the role of metaphor in human thought and theology in particular before examining three specific biblical metaphors for atonement: the battlefield and the demons, justification, and sacrifice.

In his discussion of the victory theme he takes on the issue of the ontological status of the demonic. He concludes that talk of demons as personal forces is too mythical a take on the matter. Rather they are vivid ways of talking about social and moral forces at work in the world. He defends that far from being the result of ignorant myth-making, this sort of language is the best and perhaps only way to talk about forces that can only be described indirectly. He concludes: “The texts present us not with superhuman hypostases trotting about the world, but with the metaphorical characterisation of moral and cosmic realities which would otherwise defy expression” (66, emphasis original.)

I appreciate Gunton’s work here and there’s part of me that wants to buy in. After all, belief in the spirit realm is not easy to sustain in the modern context. And, being a bit of a ‘belief minimalist’ I don’t want to believe anything that I don’t have to believe. So if I could be convinced of such a position I might be tempted.

However, I wonder if Gunton’s presentation really does justice to the permeation of the spiritual forces theme throughout Scripture. This aspect of the ancient worldview is not merely retained as a light residue in a few Gospel stories and exhuberant statements in epistles. The thread of a spirit realm with its own narrative that intersects with the earthly story is shot through the biblical story.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me how these apersonal, “moral and cosmic realities” are understood to have the effects that they do. I understand, I suppose, how one might explain sickness as a result of certain “moral and cosmic realities”, but the gospels show a clear awareness of a difference between sickness and demonic activity, though the categories can overlap.

Put another way, “moral and cosmic realities” might be able to explain the existence of swine flu, but I fail to see how they can explain why swine flew.

Piecemeal Peace

egg-nestRecently, prompted by Hebrews 3-4, I have been thinking and preaching about rest. These chapters make clear that God has made us for rest but experiencing that rest is no easy matter.

Concurrently I have been reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as revisiting his poetry. I was struck by this short poem on peace. As usual, Hopkins’ phrasing and word choice are initially daunting, but the piece rewards patient attention.

WHEN will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
        He comes to brood and sit.

The first two and half lines express a desire for Peace to move from being a bird that flits around Hopkins to being something firm on which he can rest. It is not that he never experiences peace, he makes clear, but that the peace he experiences is fleeting and partial. The alliteration and wordplay of the fifth line almost comes out as stuttering: That piecemeal peace is poor peace. Piecemeal peace is his experience while he yearns for a perfect peace yet to come.

In the second stanza he considers both what happens in peace’s absence as well as in its coming. First, he expresses the expectation that if God withdraws (reaves) his peace, he doesn’t do so without leaving some good behind. And indeed, Hopkins explains that in the absence of peace, one may grow in patience. Recalling the avian imagery of the early lines he says that patience itself “plumes to Peace” in time.

By the last two and a half lines the imagery of Peace as a bird is fixed. And here is perhaps the most thought-provoking concept Hopkins offers. What happens when peace comes? We often think of peace as an absence of conflict or stress. But Hopkins imagines bird-Peace actively; it “comes with work to do.” It does not merely sit and sing–“coo“–in a tranquil, passive soul. Rather, it “comes to brood and sit.

What does Hopkins mean? The brooding and sitting bird broods and sits over an egg. Perhaps he is suggesting that Peace births something within us. It is not an end in itself but comes to create and bring some new thing, some new life within us.

Too often our images of peace and the way we pursue it is in terms of an absence and as an end in itself. But the rest into which God calls us is not a passive rest. It is an active and re-creative rest. The peace of absence–absence of conflict, of noise, of stress–is poor piecemeal peace. The peace of presence plumes beauty and lays and hatches new life.

 

Who’s speaking?

Much hay (and, frankly, money) has been made in recent years by authors playing the humanity of Scripture against its divinity. The human element in the production and preservation of Scripture is without a doubt a challenge to many Christians who hold to some concept of the “Inspiration of Scripture.” Most reject simple dictation but articulating the nature of the divine-human synthesis in the inspiration and canonization processes in particular is challenging and therefore open to reductionist critiques of the “the canonization of Scripture was a thoroughly political process oppressive of minority opinions” type and the like.

The source-book of science–nature–has no such convoluted origin, we are told. Rationalist scientists merely read the facts off the face of nature. Human involvement is purely observational. However, upon closer inspection, perhaps it is not that simple.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour reviews the conflict between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes concerning the scientific investigation of vacuums (as narrated in Steven Shapin and Simon Shaeffer’s 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump). Hobbes rejected Boyle’s ‘new’ scientific approach in which  phenomena were experimented on and observed in the laboratory. The fledgling scientists maintained that this was superior to previous science because it allowed the facts to speak for themselves. But is it as simple as that?

Latour picks up this notion of the facts speaking. He writes…

[Boyle] invents the laboratory within which artificial machines create phenomena out of whole cloth. Even though they are artificial, costly and hard to reproduce, and despite the small number of trained and reliable witnesses, these facts indeed represent nature as it is. The facts are produced and represented in the laboratory, in scientific writings; they are recognized and vouched for by the nascent community of witnesses. Scientists are scrupulous representatives of the facts. Who is speaking when they speak? The facts themselves, beyond all question, but also their authorized spokespersons. Who is speaking, then, nature or human beings? This is another insoluble question with which the modern philosophy of science will wrestle over the course of three centuries. In themselves, facts are mute; natural forces are brute mechanisms. Yet the scientists declare that they themselves are not speaking; rather, facts speak for themselves. (28-29)

Latour is calling the scientists’ bluff. In what meaningful sense can it be said that the facts are speaking for themselves without human involvement, when the very machine (in this case the vacuum pump) that created the ‘natural’ state being examined, was designed and manufactured by humans?

And we could go on. The systems of measurement used in science were defined by humans. The devices with which the measurements are taken were designed and built by humans. And, of course, the languages used to articulate nature’s facts are human artifacts. (This list doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem–so helpfully pointed out by our postmodern friends–of the effect of one’s human vantage point on observations–“there are no uninterpreted facts.”)

So perhaps with both Scripture and science there is an unavoidable “speaking together.” Humans speak and God/nature speak and defining precisely where the speech of one ends and the other begins is an impossible task.

This is humbling and ennobling. On the one hand it points up our limitations as humans. On the other, it shows God’s intention to catch us up in his creative, life-giving speech.