Monday, March 8, 2010

On Joel B. Green's Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture

“A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.” – Isaac Babel, My First Fee

For me, the power of Green’s presentation, to the degree that it has power, is precisely in its descriptive rather than prescriptive form. In my past life as a student writer, I was fascinated whenever other students read my work: many quickly went the sort of direction I’d meant, some bounded along on the surprising edge of what my texts might signify, and there were not a few who made me wonder if they’d actually read my things at all. In other words: not one meaning, but a sort of family of both intended and accidental, bastard children who most certainly did not have just-any-old friends.

Is this such a radical idea? Has the criticism of texts become so divorced from their production that such pragmatic, artisanal knowledge sounds new upon that other ancient stage? Even Biblical scholars cannot have failed to ask someone what it means to make a text, rather than read it, could they? When I read Green’s table of questions to apply to interpreting a Biblical passage, I was reminded of the checklists I’d learned about how to write a sermon: you ask everything you can, and answer as thoroughly and imaginatively and carefully and comprehensively as you can, because, you know, this is presumably important. And of course that’s what you discover, that it’s so important that you yourself have ultimately been questioned.

This is just what happens when you p(l)ay attention. Which, of course, is what both reading and writing texts is all about. You wouldn’t do either if they weren’t surprising. And that’s what having a God in any real sense means, doesn’t it? The ability to be surprised? Why on earth would we show up for anything less? Certainly, we could all think of something better to do on a Sunday. But to be a church, we must certainly anticipate some moment of transformation, and then behave as though it had already happened. The Reader-Respondents must certainly be right that whatever we do is in fact response.

That being said, the language of play in Gadamer and Green seems to me overly spurious, as if the texts we approach are not matters of life and death. It sounds not so different from the sort of endless, ultimately ethereal language games the deconstructions have been, rightly I think, accused of playing. I don’t fault Gadamer for this, but Green should know better. Perhaps this is the problem of borrowing secular constructions, yet again: even Hegelian logic can’t communicate a Bible that asks us to read it, a la Augustine, or to put our hands in its bloody side, a la John’s Gospel. Is what we do (or is done to us) Germanic bildung or is
this Hebraic undoing? Geist or Holy Ghost?

In the New York Times article I pulled the epigraph from, Iraq war veteran Roman Skaskiw writes about how narratives of war, particularly films and the expectations of both the media and the public, have shaped actual behavior in American wars:

soldiers who haven’t gotten enough action begin volunteering for dangerous missions. They don’t want to talk about playing volleyball and dredging irrigation canals when they return home. They want to say they’ve seen things gentler people could not possibly understand...Similarly, if our wars ever draw to a close, there will be a headlong rush within the ranks to get over there and earn combat patches and action badges because such decorations are good for careers. They are good for telling stories to grandchildren too.

In other words, we have always and already an array of texts within our culture that conspire to unnecessarily kill people, right now. What I suggest we need, and what I believe Green is implying, is that Christians can offer the world an anthology of texts that would solicit them rather gratuitously to life. Our primary resource would naturally be the Bible, that text that brings us to life. But one would also hope that our secondary texts could be the ones that read the Bible, that our hermeneutics would itself give life to the lifeless, the lost, and the desolate through the way we appropriate our texts. Do we not believe that our own readings could be just as powerful as Skaskiw's, could offer life into death in astonishing ways that neither we nor the world could possibly anticipate? And if not, why would we even bother?

That, I think, would be the best answer to your question concerning the moment when something might be said to be good or evil. It is not a final answer. It is not a permanent answer, or a universal one. But it is the only sort of answer we can ever hope to provide, and thus the only kind that matters. The lack of objective truth in the Bible doesn’t mean that the game is up and our interpretations don’t matter; it means that our interpretations matter more than ever. As Skaskiwi also writes:

the problem with war narratives isn’t lying. The problem is there’s too much truth. Everything you’ve ever heard or suspected about armed conflict is likely true. The enterprise is so vast that writers, myself included, can choose whichever truths support a particular thesis. So yes. We struggle. We struggle famously

I don’t know that anything less can be said of our thousands- year old scriptures or the world-shattering events that gave them to us. And I hope that nothing less might be said of us. This both broadens and deepens the field of Biblical hermeneutics: part of what Green was getting at was that doing justice is a form of scriptural interpretation, (perhaps the only form) and that the reverse is also true: our interpretations, however academic, must also walk humbly with our God. To let the Bible fashion our hermeneutic is, in essence, to let God’s Word shape our selves.

So you’re right to question, I think, the moment of ‘arriving’ because this is for Christians that which famously has already happened, is perpetually deferred, and is eternally impending. Right? Meaning is messianic. These things are not yet complete.

But what the text means now can be framed as the statement of dominion rather than the question of supplication – if one also fails to ask what the text meant yesterday and neglects to inquire about what the text might mean tomorrow, which hardly anyone ever asks. And the danger I felt in Green is precisely this lack of hard wagers, an apprehension I sense you share.

There is indeed no stop-loss measure in Green’s book to prevent the re-appropriation of texts for self-justifying reasons, and that much is, I think, appropriate. Life is difficult, as they say, and anyone else is selling something. But there is also nothing in Green that precludes church proceeding as usual and claiming all that Green says they must do, without changing anything at all. He rightly notes that our Sunday meetings are not, for the large part, communities or congregations, but offers no exemplum of what either of these might actually look like. Are we left to make what we will of this?

Surely there must be some examples of “faithful communities of discipleship, people in whom the Spirit is actualizing the word of God.” That such a people would be local and temporal and not permanent or universal is no reason to exclude them from a hermeneutical project circling around particularity and embodiment. Indeed, that is precisely why they ought to have been included, no?