Tag Archives: hermeneutics

Approaching the Bible as Literature

The Bible is Holy Writ.  Dismiss it, curse it, scoff at it, take it literally, take it metaphorically, don’t take it at all but it still falls culturally and historically into the category “Holy Writ.”  Therefore, it has value regardless whether or not you think so, though that “value” for you personally is for you to determine.  It might be that you “value” it not at all and if that should be the case you will never find me arguing with you.  I would have at one time but somewhere along the line I managed to “get a life.” In this blog, an evolving enterprise of mine which is gradually taking a different shape, I am exploring what the Bible and the Christian tradition is to me.  This is now a very personal endeavor as I am much less controlled by the “party line” that I was given as a child, this “party line” usually having an important role in the early stages of one’s faith.  But as the Apostle Paul put it, “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

“Holy Writ” falls into the general category of literature.  In my youth to consider the Bible as literature would have been tantamount to heresy as it would have appeared to be presenting it as “mere” human endeavor.  But approaching it as literature reflects the evolution of my alter-ego, Literarylew, which materialized when I came to understand and experience life in fluid, metaphorical terms. This means that I now have the liberty, and the courage, to see Holy Writ…and certainly the Bible…as having layers of meaning none of which necessarily have to be excluded.   Some see the Bible, for example, as a literal historical document in which a literal, concretely existing deity dictated it word for word.  I have better things to do than to quarrel with anyone who approaches it that way but I would encourage them to toy with others.

A literary approach to the Bible facilitates a personal interpretation and application of the truths being presented.  If one approaches what he reads literally, he sees it only as an “owner’s” manual and the God that I see in the Bible is not an “owner” but one who offers a relationship with Him, a relationship which facilitates more open, honest, intimate relationships with our fellowman.  If God is our “owner” then we are a mere object and we will then be inclined to see and feel ourselves only as an object and to subsequently view our world and our fellowman as an object.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

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The Myth of Hermes and Language

When fresh out of high school, I attended a very conservative Baptist seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas for one year.  There I learned of the term “hermeneutics” for the first time, having it presented to me as interpreting the Bible with the right frame of reference.  I now see that the problem I had with this seminary, and my brief effort at the ministry, was this notion of a “right frame of reference” as I now see it meant merely to “use the Bible to impose your world-view on others,” because you, and only you, knew what “right” was.

One basic precept of a more mature hermeneutics is the realization that one brings a frame of reference to anything and all things in life and that if this is not understood one will do great injustice to everything, and certainly holy writ.  Understanding that one is putting a “frame of reference” on the table is recognizing that there is a subjective dimension to one’s experience of life and that this subjectivity does not permit one to be objective about anything.

Grasp of this wisdom is more than an intellectual endeavor.  Coming to recognize the subjective dimension of one’s life is to cognitively and emotionally experience being alive in human form, subject to all the delights and limitations of this “fallen” state.  And when one brings his attention to any literature, especially holy writ, one must approach it with more humility than I was capable of in the Little Rock seminary and more than was even permissible there.

Hermeneutics derives from the Greek mythical figure Hermes whose many responsibilities included boundaries and transitions.  One dimension of the story is that property boundaries were determined by the posting of an “herm” on one side of the property, the “herm” being a pole with a man’s head upon it.  This herm was very important and commanded great respect.  Anyone who failed to respect the herm, and cross the boundary represented by the herm, or anyone who defaced or even pushed the herm was guilty of a capital offense.  This myth recognized the establishment of boundaries, or definitions, in the birth of the Greek language and was a beautiful way of emphasizing the integrity of words, their ability to “capture” a subjective phenomena and give it verbal currency in the tribe.

BUT, Hermes was extraordinary in that he established the boundaries but, being also the god of transitions, could cross between them.  He could “break” the boundaries of words, teaching us that with proper hermeneutics words can offer value and meaning when we are willing to enter the fluidity of the verbal field that is our reality. The myth teaches us how the poets do their magic, “breaking” the words and allowing their hidden riches to be apprehended by a willing and open heart.

Another dimension of his boundary fluidity was that he was the only god that could ascend to heaven and descent into hell, conveying messages between the two kingdoms.  And he was the prankster god, creating mischief in his world much like talented poets can do.  Poets “play” with language and allow the resulting breakage to evoke hidden riches.

Hermes demonstrated the need of nuance in language.  Words must have integrity or they lose all meaning.  But if their “integrity” is sacrosanct and no “mischief” can be applied to them, then they will become sterile and moribund.  This myth conveys to us that words have value when they can be taken metaphorically, when “the word” is not “the thing,” which is the mistake that leads to biblical literalism.  For example, in the literal world of linear thinking, the term “God” is mistaken for the subjective experience of God, an experience that lies beyond the grasp of any word.

But without doing the work of hermeneutics with holy writ, the book will become a rule book, mere dogma, and thus amenable to enslaving people to the agenda of a mindset that favors the powerful.  To be more specific, “the way things are” in a tribe (aka “patriarchy”) will assert itself and the holy writ will cease to be deprived of the “Wholly Otherness,” (i.e. “God”} needed by all tribes to provide meaning to their life.

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Here is a list of the three blogs I have.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

In my youth a Sunday afternoon religious radio broadcast I listened to would start with a musical refrain of “Back to the Bible,” and proceed to reason why that our country needed to return to the Bible as a way of following the call of Jeremiah to “turn from our wicked way” and bring “healing to our land.” Even today, though no longer steeped in a fundamentalist faith, I still see the value of a call for returning to spiritual values as a way of “amending our ways” and thus healing our land.  And, I greatly value the Bible today though I am no longer slavishly dependent on a culturally instilled way of interpreting it.

In my country, the United States of America, I think we are witnessing a classic example of a divided soul, a divided psyche, in which a healing is needed.  When this happens with an individual, descent into mental illness is a serious risk and I think anyone looking at our wonderful country from outside of our blissful myopia would say, “Hey, those guys are going nuts!”  And, I could offer a poignant example of why they could make this point but I don’t want to wallow in Trumpism at this moment.

The word religion stems from “re” and “ligio,” the “ligio” having the same root as ligament, that part of our body that ties our muscles together.  Religion refers to our deep-seated need to wrestle with the meaninglessness and absurdity of life and find a coherent world view that allows us to remain connected to the human endeavor.  But the key to this effort is to finding a “meaningful” world view  that facilitates relationship, i.e. “connection,” and does not promote that contrary impulse of the ego to foster separateness and disconnection, creating insularity.  And the clarion call of “Back to the Bible” I found so appealing in my youth revealed a noble human and Divine impulse but at that time in my development it meant only a desire to “make the world just like me and use the name/image of Jesus Christ to accomplish this.”  For at that point, I wasn’t mature enough to see beyond myself; and to make it worse I lived in a culture in which cultural myopia was a staple of one’s spiritual diet.

Even with these roots in fundamentalist Christianity, which is evangelicalism on steroids, I still have great appreciation in biblical faith though I find this faith much more meaningful with the broader perspective that life has afforded me.  But I am deeply grieved currently to see how a “simple” human being like Steve Bannon could seduce evangelicals into voting for a man of similar darkness to his own.  And now I know that some of them are beginning to sense they were duped and have deep regrets, sentiments which are very challenging to the notion that “the Lord was leading them” to vote for Trump, even with his egregious moral, ethical, and spiritual flaws.  This brings to them the same challenge that Trump himself has, “Can I admit making a big mistake?” or, in Trump’s case, “Can I admit to making any mistake?”

The mistaken premise that evangelicals live under is that if God is leading you then you could never err as God never gives bad advice. But the mistaken part of that premise was the unquestioned assumption that ego was not involved in interpretations of God’s will and that self-serving interpretations could easily be tempting because of what the Apostle Paul called, “the flesh.”   But in evangelical culture, the bromide, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” makes any interpretation of motive verboten.  It is this assumption of objectivity in which faith gets “de-humanized” that Shakespeare recognized when he said, “To err is human, to forgive is Divine.”  If we are unwilling to become human and recognize, and experience, the phenomena of “err-ing,” then the Divine Grace of God is denied any chance of being experienced.  We can “know” and “understand” it very well; but “knowledge” is such a ready and convenient way of avoiding experience.

This is related to the “de-humanization” effect of all extremist ideologies, faiths, and political viewpoints as disembodied ideas afford one the opportunity to invest in the idea rather than the experience that the idea points to. These viewpoints are not seen as “view” points which is the only thing possible for a mere “human.” But for those who have usurped deity, and taken as absolute facts what is merely a perspective, suddenly realizing they are wrong (or at least not as objective as they had thought) is frightening and even crushing.  This “god-complex” fails to appreciate what the meaning of the Christian story of God’s forgiveness in the Person of Jesus Christ was.  This beautiful image was an attempt to convey to mankind that we are accepted “as is” with no caveat.  And the crucifixion dimension of the story was God’s way of saying, “Hey, it will be painful.  Disillusionment is gut-wrenching.  I’m going to give you a graphic picture in terms that you can understand of just how painful it is.”  But most people opt to interpret the gospel, or the teachings of any spiritual tradition, on a superficial, literal level and not allow its meaning to seep down into the heart where Grace can become something other than a noble idea.  For this to happen, those raised the in Christian culture often need to realize they were “guilted” into their religion as is usually the case with religion.  But if the religion can escape the self-serving temptation of literalism and cultural enslavement, it can facilitate a dynamic relationship with its teachings, allowing greater meaning upon reaching maturity.  The teachings which children were guilted into accepting for the simple solace of belonging to the herd can then open-up into a rich spiritual heritage, empowering them to live a more authentic life and escape the drudgery and despair of being a simple doctrinal marionette.  However, it is much simpler to keep things on the surface, clinging desperately to a literal view and experience of life, knowing in some subtle manner the wisdom of Shakespeare, that it is less painful to “cling to these ills that we have than fly to others that we know not of.”  For letting go of the bondage of guilt leaves us with the “giddiness of freedom” (i.e., anxiety) and the burden of responsibility.

Imagination is Needed in Religion

A blogging friend of mine from Australia keeps me informed about many interesting spiritual things in the culture of her country.  She sent me a Lent essay from noted Catholic priest and Benedictine Monk, Laurence Freeman, from which I clipped introductory thoughts re Shakespeare:

Shakespeare didn’t waste his energy inventing stories. The plots of his plays were already on his bookshelves. He had only to read them and by the power of his creative imagination to utterly transform them, lifting old tales and soap operas into the realm of timeless and unforgettable reflections of nature and the infinite, interactive shades of human character. In one scene he can show how a number of personalities respond differently to the same events

It is very interesting to note that it was Shakespeare’s imagination that is responsible for leaving us such a treasure trove of literary/spiritual wisdom.  He took stories from his day and employed that vivid imagination of his to transform them into literary master pieces which have so deeply enriched the life of many, certainly including this bloke from the sticks of Arkansas.

He and other marvelous writers have helped awaken and energize my imagination since I “discovered” literature, and the power of metaphor three decades ago.  My imagination had lain dormant since my very early years, possibly even early months, as I think being born into a linear thinking world stymies the imagination long before we learn to talk.  And in recent years I have begun to use this imagination in my approach to the Bible and the Christian tradition, discovering that comedian Bill Maher is not wrong, Jesus is “our imaginary friend” in some very important way.  Or at least He should be.  If we don’t find the courage to employ our imagination in approaching faith, our spiritual experience will be confined to a very rigid interpretation from the cultural dictates of our early years.  This will inevitably mean we re confined to “the letter of the law.”  By using the imagination we bring a “personal” dimension to our interpretation to religion, “personal” in the sense of an interpretation that is influenced from that rich domain of our heart, that domain that is usually “crusted o’er” by habits of thought as Shakespeare noted in Hamlet.  The “spirit” that is employed with this imaginative hermeneutical enterprise can begin to flow when our faith is no longer the “canned variety” but one that is the result of dogma being invigorated by this deep-seated “spirit”, a phenomenon described by W. H. Auden as what happens when “flesh and mind are delivered from mistrust.”  I like to describe this as a work of God’s Spirit which might be described as the “enfleshment” of the Word, to use Christian terminology.

But a discourse like this is always fraught with the peril of having lapsed into Christian jargon.  Words like “Bible” and “God” and “Spirit” and “enfleshment” usually mean something totally removed from human experience.  That is not how I use them.  Approaching Holy Writ as literature, and thus capable of being spirit infused, is about human experience and I think that is what the teachings of Jesus were about.