Jesus was a Circus Clown. Any Takers?

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.


Shoring Up Our Sources

I’ve had some interesting conversations when I tell people that I study religion. I’ve learned to avoid the conversation by saying I study violence, or martyrdom, or something else, because if I say I study religion, there are typically one of two responses. The first and more common response is to ask if I am training to be a minister. This is understandable, except that ministerial training is not to be found at a state institution. So, when I respond negatively, they ask, “Hmmm…so what are you going to do with that?” Overall, that is the easier conversation. I mumble something about teaching and researching, and that’s usually the end of it. The other response people have is more dangerous, and more time-consuming. You can tell it’s coming when someone’s eyes light up when you use the word “religion.” Before you know it, they’ve launched into their own perspective on the state of religious affairs in the world or a special bit of religious insight they have. Interest in religion means being a sounding board for people’s thoughts.

This happens in the most surprising of places. A few years ago, I had to go to the Doc in the Box for something…bronchitis, I think. In response to his question about what I do, I stated that I study religion. The doctor’s eyes lit up. Uh oh. He pulled a pen out his pocket and said, “Check this out.” He began to write the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, in a triangle formation on the exam table paper. He proceeded to explain to me in significant detail how Yeshua, the Hebrew word for Jesus, is found within each book by taking out letters at a fixed interval. He was genuinely excited about how this proved the coming of the Messiah through Biblical numerology. (He followed his numerological explanation up by suggesting that evolution is disproven by a jar of peanut butter. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth watching.)

I managed to get him back to diagnosing my illness and prescribing my medication and I left relatively unscathed. I note this experience because numerology was this doctor’s method of supporting his existing worldview. While perhaps not many of us would actively cite numerological claims as religious proofs or put much stock in them, we might accept other methods that provide the same deceptive sense of objectivity. If we recognize, as most do in a practical sense, that interpretation varies from person to person, the next natural step would be to try to limit the variables of interpretation as much as possible, to establish criteria by which we can attempt to ensure the accuracy of our interpretation.

Two common methods Martin (who I introduced yesterday) notes by which we shore up our interpretations are authorial intention and historical criticism. These methods are often used by pastors and scholars as well. Authorial intention makes two assumptions, neither one correct. First, it assumes that we can determine the author’s intent if we just read the text correctly. (How do we know we read the text correctly? By finding the author’s intent, of course! Wait a minute…) Second, it assumes that the author’s intended meaning is the only one, or the most important one. While the author’s intention is an important consideration, it is not the only consideration.

When my son first heard about the f*** word, he decided to try it out and see what I thought. I heard him behind me coming down the stairs: “Buckin’…muckin’…luckin’…” I knew what was coming. “F***in…” There was a little pause as he let it sink in. We had a conversation about how if he said that word at school, he might get in a bit of trouble. I didn’t just say, “Go for it, son. If you mean it in a nice way, it’s okay!” Neither did I punish him for saying an evil word, because I doubted his intentions were malicious (and because words aren’t evil). All of us are more judicious in our dealings with people than applying a simple formula to determine meaning. It is the same with text.

The second method Martin notes, historical criticism, argues that the true meaning of the text is found when we examine its original context, the environment in which it was written. This may include the author, but in the case of Biblical texts it also works against the author’s intent, since historical criticism is a modern method. The fact that despite the preference of this method neither scholars nor churches can seem to agree on its results should provide some indication of its limitations. So although it sounds really heady when one talks about the socio-economic situation of the group responsible for the gospel of Matthew, for example, it provides no hermeneutic key for reading the text. I’ve often heard generalizations about how the people of such-and-such place were in this particular environment so they would have meant exactly this when they said this. However, I would never feel comfortable with one of those generalizations applied to myself. “Well, he lives in Idaho, so that must mean he’s a conservative.” “He’s from the Northwest, so he probably drinks coffee, drives a Subaru covered with liberal bumper stickers with a dog in the back and wears flannel year-round.” If I am usually uncomfortable with these stereotypes, am I at liberty to say that the author of the past was more a mirror of his environment than I am?

It is not that these methods cannot contribute to a workable meaning. Rather, it is that none of them allows us to escape the hard work of interpretation. Anxiety over the possibility of an anarchy of interpretation drives many to continue providing normative readings of texts, and thus traditions, but these readings are often contradictory and push certain groups of people to the margins of society. What if instead we admitted that there are no constraints on the understanding of text other than social ones? Would numerologists suddenly rule the world? I doubt it.


Talking Texts, or “The Bible Tells Me So…”

In regular communication, we use a sort-of shorthand to express how we interact with media such as texts, audio, movies, etc. Essentially, we personify it. “The movie talks about…,” “The book says…” This makes a certain amount of sense. Rather than having a meta-discourse about the author or director or actor every time we want to communicate something about their work, we refer to the work itself. This is helpful because it is simpler, but it also points to the implicit distinction we are making between the work and the creator, author, or messenger of the work. We realize they are not the same thing, yet we grasp that the message cannot be fully separated from the messenger, either.

We don’t cede complete control of the message to its creator, but we tend to align the truth of a discourse about a text or other media with its degree of coherence to the creator’s understanding or intention. Take for example the founding documents of the United States of America. Whatever party could successfully convince us of the founding fathers intentions would be thought to have the upper hand in the debate, because we assign a high truth value to the degree of coherence with “original” intent.

The step that we tend to overlook in the process of reading, watching, or listening, is our own significant role in interpretation. Our act of receiving a text must necessarily involve interpretation, and this interpretation is not passive or neutral. It is irreversibly colored by our own experience, biases, and prejudices that are aimed toward simplification and self-protection; in other words, we are designed to work in our own favor. We prefer to see ourselves as passive funnels through which messages can pass unscathed when we are in fact active workers in the process of translation and interpretation.

Why is this complicated chain of interpretation significant? Because it destabilizes the notion that we can achieve an objective understanding of a text, that we can identify, analyze, and dismiss the myriad factors that contribute to our interpretation, and the interpretations of all others, to achieve a primordial meaning. Not only that, but it also puts the lie to the idea that the text does any talking on its own. In his work Sex and the Single Savior, New Testament scholar Dale Martin describes this problem with Biblical interpretation. People tend to think that reading the Bible is a simple two-party transaction where it “talks” and we “listen.” To amplify this transaction a little more, a Christian might think that the Bible and God are essentially synonymous as far as the text is concerned, so when reading the Bible, I’m hearing from God. Then, it’s just a matter of hearing the words, right? Martin calls this the “myth of textual agency.”

The underlying concern is that this understanding of interpretation can lead to serious ethical problems. If we cede responsibility to the text, especially if we divinize the text and don’t recognize our active role in interpretation, this can legitimize bigoted, sexist, or racist interpretations that we otherwise might not tolerate. When I have presented this to my introductory classes to Christianity in the past, their heads are usually nodding at this point. They can see and accept easily how silly it was that people in 19th century America actively used Biblical texts to support the perpetuation of slavery.

When applying it to unchallenged ideas, though, students become more resistant. The idea, for example, that the Genesis account is two or more separate accounts have been sewn together with the seams hanging out and we have chosen the reading that reinforces traditional patriarchal gender roles seems unlikely. We all think, of course, that we choose our understanding of the text because it is the best understanding, rather than that it was the best understanding within a particular and dynamic context that may no longer be operative. The former entails a puzzle to solve once and move on; the latter entails an ongoing challenge to be perpetually readdressed.


The “Truth” of Interpretation

One of the things that has most influenced my approach to religion (and consequently, life) in recent years is the question of interpretation. We want the greatest possible support for our criteria for understanding the world. Yet in most areas of our day-to-day lives, we operate with principles that look reliable when they are radically contingent.

For example, our usage of cars as a primary mode of transportation is contingent on a number of conditions, including a well-functioning vehicle, good infrastructure, reliable road and traffic signs for interpretation, and the consistency of other drivers. Most of us don’t actively think that every passing car is going to veer into our lane. However, it could happen at any time, and when it does, we are surprised. Do we have any reason to be surprised, though? Certainly this kind of thing doesn’t happen to us all the time, but it does happen to others daily. Our surprise comes from the fact that our false sense of objectivity that helps us navigate our daily living has been temporarily shattered.

With issues of morality or the supernatural, it is comparatively easier to formulate universals because they are not subject to our usual methods of falsification. I cannot prove that there is a God, or gods, or none whatsoever. Even granting the existence of a divinity, however,  there must be an intersection, a point where it connects with our being. This becomes a productive point for the interrogation of questions of universality. We can, and should, also discuss the individual’s experience and understanding, but the most common intersection point for Christianity is the Bible. This privileging of the text is a part of modern Western culture, and not all religious traditions emphasize the text in the same way, but Christianity has.

The problem is that the common methods for grounding interpretations of the Bible are largely circular. For example:

“Why do you believe in the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God!”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says so in Second Timothy 3:16.”

“And what is Second Timothy?”

“A book in the Bible.”

It can, of course, be much more complicated than that. It might go something like this:

“How do you know the Bible is the Word of God?”

“Because that is what the Church believes.”

“What justification does the Church have for believing that?”

“ It has been believed for thousands of years. There are millions of people who have called themselves Christians throughout the centuries. How could they all be wrong?”

“But didn’t there have to be some evidence for those beliefs at some point?”

“Sure. The evidence has been there from the beginning, in the prophets and apostles, and in Jesus himself.”

“So those are all figures that we know about because of the texts in the Bible. How do we know that what they said is true?”

“Because they heard from God.”

“How can we be sure they heard from God? Do you hear from God?”

“Well, uh, not usually, but I could. There’s no reason why God couldn’t speak to me. But He has spoken to many other believers.”

“But why would you think God would speak to them and not you? Why wouldn’t we conclude that those people just thought they were hearing communication from a divine being.”

“Because the things God said to them actually came true. They actually happened.”

“How do you know they happened?”

“The stories are right there in the Bible.”

There are other methods for attempting to provide a universal ground for Christian truth, but they are not exclusive of the Bible. The other common conversation-stopper is faith. “That’s just what I believe.” Not much you can do with that. Lest I be unfair, much the same could be said of any other field of discrete knowledge, including science, which elaborates the same proofs with a sufficient quantity of data to obscure its lack of ultimate ground and takes advantage of an environment predisposed to belief in its principles, a predisposition once given to religion. A field establishes truths that are coterminous with the boundary of the field, and much public controversy consists of individuals throwing rocks at each other from within their respective boundaries.

Coming up, I plan to look at texts and ideas that critically altered my understanding of interpretation. Key questions: If there are multiple different interpretations, how do you know you’re right? If everyone claims the same ground for legitimacy (God, the Bible), then what?