As I noted a few posts ago, my understanding of the Bible, and texts in general, was much like the positions I have been describing. I assumed there was a “best” meaning to a given text, and that my job was to find it. It was usually the most commonsensical meaning. I did not question that my habitus, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s word for the social structures that form and constrain my thoughts and dispositions, provided me with a common sense that was not common to other cultural contexts. When I read The Scarlet Letter in high school, I was frustrated when we had to explore the symbolic meanings of the “A” that Hester Prynne was condemned to wear. “It’s a friggin’ A!” I thought. “A is for adultery. End of story.” My quirky teacher wanted to explore the shame and isolation of the protagonist, the guilt of her lover, the self-righteousness of the town, etc., all within that little letter. It was my first significant encounter with the fact that the text does not and cannot constrain the range of possible meaning.
I’m now a proponent of reader-response theory, which suggests that the individual interprets and thus creates the meaning of the text. What this means is that there are no universal constraints on any particular interpretation. Why would this not create anarchy? Well, in a historical sense, it is the way that has been interpreted since the invention of script. In other words, it has not created anarchy yet. Second, and more importantly, meaning is constrained in a practical sense by the social environment, the habitus mentioned above.
This came up most clearly in a class on the historical Jesus I participated in. We were examining all the different portraits of the Jesus that scholars have created over the last couple centuries, ranging from Jesus the magician and Jesus the apocalyptic prophet to Jesus the wisdom sage, Jesus the social revolutionary, or Jesus the Jew. (These “portraits” are all painted by scholars using the historical-critical method, which serves as an indication of its limited ability to secure meaning.) I realized a couple things from being presented with so much different information about the same subject. First, there was an element of truth to each portrait. I liked some more than others, but there was at least a marginal basis for all of their claims, which means that truth is not as concentrated as I would like it to be. It’s not a matter of picking the right door. Second, I realized I could come up with nearly any portrait of my own, find some sort of textual evidence for it, and trot it out as the latest theory. There was nothing in the text to prevent me from doing so. The only limitation would be the level of acceptance my theory receives, and that acceptance is variable and dynamic.
Thus the title. I could certainly make the claim that Jesus was actually like a circus clown. He came to attract our attention with tricks and keep us entertained. It would be practically impossible to gain any traction with this theory, but that doesn’t mean it is not permitted by the text. If it is not permitted, it is because of a lack of reception. There are plenty of religious theories (think of any of the various second incarnations of Christ) that seem to us to have no logical basis whatsoever. Yet we come to know of these interpretations because there are people, sometimes a few and sometimes hundreds or thousands, who do believe them. If we contend that these movements are “wrong,” we would do well not to base this judgment on the text itself, but on the variety of other social constraints that make it in our interest not to accept them.
Admitting the lack of constraints on interpretation is valuable because it gives us a base level of understanding to engage those interpretations that seem, to us, to be radically off the mark. Though we criticize, condemn, and marginalize those who take socially unacceptable interpretations, we might admit that some of these folks have taken the harder road. We, on the other hand, have ceded the dictation of our moral worlds largely to others, other people, other institutions, other texts. More productive dialogue on the controversial issues we face can take place if we do not offload the source of our morality to an institution’s standards. We don’t have to reject any institutionalization for its own sake, but we do have to do the work to actively engage and verify its principles.