[Rough Draft]

A weblog about god, doubt, insomnia, culture, baseball

4.13.2004

is there a meaning in the text?

i'm still tired (we're in trial this week), but i wanted to weigh back in on the discussion caleb and seth are having about whether it is appropriate, possibly even necessary, to ask seth's question: is not one of our greatest challenges, in reading and interpreting scripture, "traversing the slippery slope rather than rather than looking for a paved trail?" i must concede @ the outset that we would be fools if we established as dogma an 11th commandment: thou shalt not question the accuracy of the bible. it would be intellectual suicide to blindly assert, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the bible is absolutely inerrant just b/c that's the tradition we have inherited. if the bible did turn out to be shot through w/ errors, yet we refused to accept that fact b/c it would simply be too painful to xtians if that were so, then we would essentially be a "flat earth society" on a sphere or, to put it differently, a gaggle of confused scientists denying the copernican revolution.

but i don't think "inerrant" means what many people believe "inerrant" means. seth and matt are right in noting perceived inconsistencies in scripture. nevertheless, the church has historically understood the bible to be inerrant in that it embodies all that humankind needs to apprehend in order to understand who god is, who we are, what sin is, how we are separated from god and how we get back home. it's inerrant as a guide for life and doctrine, but that doesn't mean that st. john didn't write a theological document instead of a "literal" biography when he penned his gospel. neither was genesis a literal description of how the universe was created in six "days" as we now understand the term in a heliocentric solar system. but it would take enough discussion to fill 100 blogs to explain all that in full.

maybe we should pause @ the outset to plumb the boundaries of our discussion, stop and think for a bit on how we place ourselves before -- and, more importantly, under -- the biblical text. i've been thinking a lot about a book caleb suggested that i read, virtual faith: the irreverent spiritual quest of generation x, by tom beaudoin, who i think has sort of set up camp on our friendly neighborhood slippery slope. for instance, beaudoin recounts his first experience of reading the bible online. He writes: When scripture becomes hypertext, it shifts from simple inerrancy (being literally, self-evidently true) to moving errantly. When clickable Scripture leads to other Scripture, to commentaries, back to other Scriptures, to similar stories from the surrounding Middle East culture, and back to Scripture, it moves errantly . . . . Reading Scripture in cyberspace highlighted for me the extent to which Scripture has always been errant. Scripture has always needed to be interpreted by each "user" (or reader) in order to be understood -- that is, it must be "clicked" mentally again and again . . . . But when we begin to think about Scripture as a cyberBible, its narrative structure implodes [and t]he texts inside of me influence the way I interpret the text in front of me. so i thought, "uh oh . . . he's wandering too close to the edge here," and then, to my chagrin, he plunged right slap over the side: When Scripture is hypertext, readers take control of the text, in effect rewriting it and becoming biblical coauthors" and that's when he passed out of sight over the precipice, his cries becoming ever more distant in the cold, postmodern night.

caleb notes marginally that this is "typical pomo horse-pucky," and i tend to agree w/ him. mr. beaudoin doesn't recognize that he is denying that the authors of scripture, theologians though they may have been, did indeed have a point. they weren't just throwing words on a parchment so that the enlightened "us" -- 2000 years later w/ all of our intellect and reason and wisdom of experience -- could "co-author" it w/ them. to put it simply: derrida was wrong. dead wrong. the bible simply cannot mean what it did not mean. and the book gives the house away when beaudoin takes music videos by soundgarden, tori amos, rem, nirvana (and other pop cultural phenomena) and treats them "playfully" and "irreverently," unearthing implicit statements about god and faith when the artists (imho) didn't mean to imply anything of the kind, @ least not in the way that he interprets them! in words that echo matt's proposal to treat the bible as love poems or even fiction, beaudoin writes elsewhere that our cultural symbols, such as music videos, suggest more than [they] can clearly describe or define. Symbols suggest a rich overabundance of meaning, whether they come from a religion or appear on a screen or in fashion. This richness means that the viewer must have imagination. Only with imagination can the religious meaning (perhaps God's own inspiration) come alive and make a claim on the person . . . . the capper comes in the book's appendix: I do not think an adequate or meaningful interpretation of pop culture requires an excavation of the author's intention, "knowing the authors better than they know themselves." now, just go back and replace every occurrence of "pop culture" or "video" with "biblical authors" and "scripture" and it becomes clear that mr. beaudoin, god love him, is so immersed in the postmodern mindset that he may not even know it anymore. it's romans 1, and the darkness is gathering.

i want to make clear that i am not suggesting that tom beaudoin isn't a devoted christian, and he clearly is an astute observer of pop culture and an original writer, but to espouse his ideas undermines the very nature of truth. and although i don't claim that the bible is "inerrant" in the sense that a science textbook or a history book might be "w/o factual error," it does have an inherent meaning, and it is incumbent upon xtians to place ourselves under the truth of the text instead of arrogantly standing over it as, heaven forbid, co-authors. so while i don't necessarily agree that we cannot admit the possibility that the bible is just plain wrong (which, caleb quite rightly points out, violates the law of non-contradiction when you really think about it), i most definitely do not believe that we can read it any old way we please and remain faithful to the text. the thread of a single sin runs throughout the corpus of scripture, and it is the desire to become as gods. adam and eve wanted to be god-like @ the least; the foolish builders @ babel undertook a deluded attempt to reach heaven on their own; paul points out his contemporaries who, like little gods, said "right" was "wrong" and vice versa. i submit that that's where the real danger is, and we've become so enculturated that we are guilty of this offense w/o even thinking about it. it's second (fallen) nature to us now. how else do you think my beloved ecusa can make the doctrinal jumps of the last year? what else is bishop spong writing to put food on his table? and, poignantly i suspect, why else are we so empty in a world that is so rich? the answer is our wrongheaded and arrogant belief that we are co-authors of scripture and everything else around us. and nothing short of the spirit of god can blow this tendency out of us.

(quotes are from tom beaudoin, virtual faith: the irreverent spiritual quest of generation x (san francisco: jossey-bass, 1998)).

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