life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

the poor...

Something has been bugging me for awhile. In my opinion, it’s an illustration of how our culture can influence or tweak our understanding of things that Jesus said, turning them into something he never intended them to mean.

We live in a society that values bootstrap efforts to improve yourself. Find yourself growing up in a family with not enough food? Wearing hand-me-downs all your life? Dead-end job? No job? Then get with it. Take advantage of the opportunities that are out there to pull yourself out of that situation.

It’s the American dream.

Mind you, I’m not against personal responsibility nor do I question the necessity of self-motivation. But I do believe we have a responsibility as a society to create opportunities for things like that to happen. And to create policies when dealing with poverty that offer healing rather than perpetuation of the cycle.

First, the phrase from Jesus... “The poor you will have with you always....” Where our bootstrap ideology has led us in interpreting that phrase... “Poor people are not our priority since they’re always going to be here. There’s nothing we can really do to effectively address poverty, so throw a little money at it, relieve a little suffering, and that’s it. Poverty is a result of personal attitudes. They have a way out if they have enough gumption.” Now, I don’t believe any of what I just said. But I’m afraid that churches in general have looked at poverty in that way based on a misunderstanding of what Jesus was trying to say to Judas.

The way I read the text, Jesus is providing for an exception rather than creating a rule. The story revolves around a woman, perhaps of questionable reputation, who breaks open a very expensive jar of perfume and anoints Jesus with it. It is an extravagant expression of love and thanks. It acknowledged God’s work in this woman’s life through Jesus. And it, according to Jesus, anticipated his own life sacrifice only a few days off. In addition, he is responding to a less-than-forthright motivation – theft – that possesses the soul of the complainer (Judas), according to one of the gospel writers.

Somehow, this phrase has been subtly used to disengage much of evangelical and free church practice toward poverty, other than just throwing money at the problem, a tactic that, used as a sole component in addressing the issues, tends to perpetuate poverty rather than heal it. I would credit Mennonites, socially-conscious Catholics, some old-time Protestant liberals, Jews and some Muslims with attempting by their actions to refocus on the plight of the world’s poor in more constructive ways. There are others, too. A growing number of emerging churches have taken this up, and even some evangelicals are beginning to hear the call.

Jesus valued the poor, those who are "insignificant" in the world's eyes. His mission was to "seek and save that which is lost," a perfect description of those caught in poverty. And are they ever caught! I have had friends who are recovering addicts, who have a "record", and I'll tell you that the hole they have to dig themselves out of is incredibly deep. The hole is filled with poverty, temptation, rejection, mistrust and all kinds of other sludge that they must swim up through. One could almost say there is a societal plot to keep them down, unemployed, and incarcerated, even the ones who have taken ownership of their lives, followed 12-step principles (which I heartily endorse, by the way), and have wholeheartedly committed themselves to pursuing sanity.

I’m not trying to solve the complex cycle of poverty in one blog entry. I certainly think the church at large needs to cooperatively weigh in to a greater extent in seeking just and compassionate solutions to this crisis. But, I do think it is also a warning that the interpretations we have on the modern side of the suture zone are perhaps more products of our modern culture/society/worldview, than we might have thought. Assumptions are dangerous things, especially when it comes to the inbreaking kingdom of God.

Am I misreading this about us? What do you think?

Grace and peace,


P.S. Check out the link to the left to Larry James' blog. He is much more on top of this stuff than I am.


Anonymous Marshall said...

Owen said:

Our culture can influence or tweak our understanding of things that Jesus said, turning them into something he never intended them to mean.

Your comment brings to mind many things, Owen, in regard to reading and interpreting the Bible.

For one, the words of an old lit prof of mine surface: "The Bible is the most complex book you will ever read." At the time, I thought this was over-statement, because I was aware of James Joyce's Ulysses and Finagins Wake. But I have come to agree with him. In other words, it does not surprise me that we should misread the Bible. It isn't lit lite.

A deeper thought deals with the nature of reading itself. (What follows may be apt to seem overly academic.)

Many in my field (literature) discuss "the intentional fallacy," the idea that it is a flaw in logic to judge someone's words based upon their intention. This idea comes to mind, Owen, because you mention Jesus' intention above. Proponents of the intentional fallacy believe intention to be unknowable. Or, at the least, they believe it to be irrelevant. To an extent, I agree with them. Put simply: Many is the student who intends to hand me an A paper, but doesn't. If a student writes "the savage breast" by mistake, his intention does not make the remark less humorous.

Believers in the intentional fallacy would say that Jesus' (or the ancient authors') intent does not matter. Taken to extremes, this view would mean that we cannot know the heart of God, at least not based on a text. And, again, I would have to give them their due: there is some degree of validity to their ideas. "Love covers a multitude of sins," for instance, can mean 1) because you love, God will forgive your sins, 2) because you love, other people will forgive your sins, 3) because they love, other people will forgive your sins, etc.

But other scholars have devised the phrase "the unintentional fallacy" to revive the idea that intention does matter. They would say - and I would agree - that, yes, intention can be a slippery slope, and that, yes, texts can contain content not conceived by their authors, but they would also say that intention can be inferred to some degree and does matter in textual interpretation.

For myself, I find that misreading is possible and discernable. To say that "Love covers a multitude of sins" is a statement about elephants is clearly wrong. I adhere to a postmodern reading theory called Reader-Response Criticism, which holds that all textual meaning is a collaborative act between author and reader. The meaning isn't the black marks on the page, any more than music is... Music is created when someone interacts with the notes on the page - author and interpreter together create.

Does all this theory have any practical application here? I think so. To me, it suggests that Christian leaders must be humble and responsible collaborators with the scriptures. It is a tough job. To my mind, they cannot know the author's or speaker's intention fully, and they bring their own baggage and inadequacies to the text, which, unfortunately but necessarily, help to create the meaning. They also bring their own creativity and genius. In effect, I find a wise postmodern approach to the scriptures to be, "Here's what it says: [insert quote]. And here's what I think it means..." In McLaren's language, let us focus on conversation rather than conversion. It leaves room for God.

I often tell students in my lit classes that the role of lit scholars is not to arrive at definitive readings, but to vex each other with insights. Even if the Bible itself were a static text - which it isn't; new translations and discoveries prevent that - its meaning would still originate partly in each new reader. We may not like it, but it looks to me as though this is the way God set things up.

So read not with pride. It is easy to commit Moses' sin. Many is the sinner who has fallen into the hands of an angry...preacher.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

One further thought: If my Reader-Response approach to the scriptures above is valid, if the meaning of the Bible is necessarily a collaboration between author and reader, how are we to apply this to the concept of inspiration? Readers are, of course, free to reject my approach as invalid. But here, either way, is food for thought.

All the best...

12:48 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

I agree with much of what you say.

One of the problems with the modern approach to the Bible is that it confuses reading with interpretation. Like it or not, we bring epochal, cultural and religious baggage to the Bible all of which influences how we understand and apply what it says to our personal, religious and cultural situation. Many of us are completely blind to those presuppositions and views of reality that we hold and how they impact our understandings of works like the Bible. All of us are blind to them to some extent. But they have a disproportionate effect on how we understand what we read.

An example: one of the Psalms contains a passage that refers to "the paths in the seas." I have heard that the person who discovered ocean currents either used that as inspiration for examining the ocean to discover the currents (which I highly doubt; though even if true, it doesn’t matter) or that this just goes to prove the scientific accuracy of the Bible. Well. I would answer that the Psalmist, from his view of his world, intended nothing of the sort. I would even go so far as to say that God, whatever his involvement in the writing of that phrase, also intended nothing of the sort. Rather, a modern person has come to the text looking for justification for holding a scientific view of biblical inerrancy and is picking and choosing based on knowledge that we have today that no one at that time would have understood.

I do not believe in a willy-nilly reading of the text. I can mix up verses and make the Bible say anything I want it to. There is the old interpretive method called sortilage, or letting the Bible fall open where it will and pointing (without looking) at a place on the page, expecting to learn God’s will. An old joke follows that method. A man did that and the first verse he came to said, “Judas went and hanged himself.” Puzzled, he tried it again, which resulted in, “Go, thou, and do likewise.” Really concerned at this point, he tried it a third time. “Why tarryest thou?” was the third phrase his finger landed on. There is much of me and not much (if anything) of God in that, IMO. The historical and cultural context of the biblical writings, as well as the literary context in which the phrase finds itself, is critical to at least having some idea of what the writer was trying to say. (Perhaps I am showing my modern roots here. After all, the early church used allegory to great extent when interpreting the Johannine writings. And some of Matthew’s quoting of the Psalms and Prophets is interesting, to say the least!)

Getting back to the sermon on the mount and Jesus' exhortation to "be perfect". Using that phrase as it has been used of late in the common juridical understanding of salvation is much akin to saying that the same phrase is talking about elephants. That is true when one looks at the commonly used meaning of the word translated "perfect" as well as when one considers the context of what Jesus is talking about in the sermon. In other words, we take a common English understanding of the word "perfect", as in without fault or blemish, and apply that meaning to a context which says nothing of the sort. I know that is my opinion and that some who hold dearly to such a systemized view of salvation will consider what I just said to be pure heresy (and probably condemn me to hell for it). But I cannot in good conscience hold to that old view any longer.

There is obviously plenty of room for me to be wrong about this. I most probably am. But whatever is "right" in this case (if anyone can speak conclusively of such a thing) is certainly going to go in a different direction than this traditional evangelical interpretation, which is a result of modernism more than the text, again in my opinion.

We do this a lot with the Bible.

I understand reader response criticism and have some significant appreciation of its usefulness in the biblical texts (and in literature). As a writer, I have an appreciation of the responsibility of the reader in the process of reading what I have written. I have often told audiences when I have presented as an author, that the story is not complete until they read it. (We may have spoken of this in the past.) But at the same time, the reader who reads responsibly is in a collaboration with the author, not on a sole venture. That collaboration extends beyond simply using the words to one's own devices.

I do believe that reader response criticism has an important place in our approach to the texts of the Hebrew and Christian bibles. For one thing, it distinguishes between reading what the author said and the interpretive process that the reader engages in. If the Bible is a holy book through which we find the communications/power of the living God, how can we know that it is God speaking and not our “baggage” or wishful thinking or ??? This is where I do fall back on the purpose, presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the interpretive process. Somehow. Ask me to explain it at this point and I cannot. But I don't know how God could communicate otherwise. "Who has known the mind of the Lord?"

This is not to excuse ignorance or identify every thought that I have as the mind of God. Great humility is called for, and great dependence on God as an active part of the process is necessary. I also think our approach to the Bible needs to have a primary purpose of pursuing relationship with him and others, rather than fully arriving at a complete set of “truth”, whatever that is, and which has largely been the modern pursuit. We must have been out of our minds!

Something else I’ve discovered when I read the Bible... pretty consistently it treats words (especially God’s word) as something more than a linguistic system designed to impart meaning. It treats God’s words as dynamic and with effect. This is true from the opening words of Genesis, “...and God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light,” clear down to at least Hebrews 1 where the writer says, “ these last days he has spoken to us in his son, who....” The words “has spoken” are actually at their root understood as “the thing said” as in “God said, ‘Jesus.’” This is different than the way we use and consider words. So perhaps Reader Response method is a good step in the right direction, but is still inadequate to fully appreciate and participate in what God has said. Maybe it's just the way the ancients viewed words. Then again, may Jeffrey Satinover (sp) is right. And maybe conversation is more than just the sharing or honing of ideas. Hmmmmm.....

Interesting conversation, Marshall.

Grace and peace,


3:23 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Hi, Owen, et al,

Owen, your last several comments above are mysterious to me. Are you suggesting that our words bring things into being as do God's, though on a lesser scale? I am intrigued by the idea of God as Narrator. As any writer knows, once a few words are settled upon, the range of possibilities lessens for what directions the story can take, which would make us collaborators in the act of creation. So do lower-case words have a "let there be" power on a small scale? Hm.

By the way, I'm sorry that I took this conversation string so far afield from a discussion of the poor. What is a poor blogger to do, eh? :)

Around, behind, beyond, between, before
lies that which IS, the master storyteller;

we, however, minds who merely are,
also create, as paint dictates what shall
be made with paint. We are the medium –

akin to birds and stones and moss, the stuff
of galaxies, time and space and thought.
We have, as any artist knows, some clout.

So here am I, mid-poem, -philosophy.
I balk. I fall in reverence. I, the half-
unwilling, God’s collaborator. You,
the same. Let’s make it beautiful.

The medium allows catastrophe –
the liberty of quanta make big waves –
but our storyteller has a memory;

we may arise from death’s caesura.
Is a new creation so improbable?

Let’s love and help and serve and sing.
Picasso knows: there is no merest thing.

August 17, 2005

3:20 PM  
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11:05 PM  

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