Monthly Archives: August 2014

Treasures, But No Grill

In case I don’t gather my wits in time today to write more paragraphs about hermeneutics, nor have Net access till bedtime, I’ll post today yesterday’s sermon. The gracious Father James Wilkinson of the Church of St Laurence in the Parish of South with New Hinksey (that’s not to be confused with St Lawrence, North Hinksey!) had invited me to preach for the patronal festival, and it was my honour yesterday so to do. The church itself is a lovely small thing (I took some pictures which I may add if I have time), with its thirteenth-century nave and eighteenth-century chancel, and many generations of the local saints interred in the churchyard. Margaret worried during the sermon, because the rood screen comes perilously close to the top of my head.

The sermon went well, I think; at least, the regular congregants from St Laurence’s with whom I sat at lunch seemed to have received it kindly. The parish lunch held at the much newer and larger church in the parish, St John the Evangelist, New Hinksey, was a feast fit for a hungry visiting preacher, and good conversation, some impromptu stand-up comedy, and Margaret and I returned home well-fed, welcomed, and well tired! My thanks to Father James, to my friend, colleague, and neighbour Dr Mark Philpott (who helped us with the intricate history of the two churches and the various Hinkseys, arranged for transport, and subdeaconed at the Mass), and Lee and Eileen Clark who brought us home.

St Laurence 2014

Even With the Web, Sic Gloria Mundi Transit

HoopoeWhile I was writing my earlier post for today, I recalled a church-related public service announcement from my youth. My memory involved an animated clip of someone being mugged, of a judge walking past and humph-ing “Drunk!”, and a “Mexican” on a burro spotting the victim and saying “¡Ay, que lastima!” I thought it would make an apt, historic, multimedia addition to my argument about the meaning of the Good Samaritan parable.

That PSA seems, however, to have vanished almost without a trace. By determined, persistent Googling, I found a single mention of the theo-biblical advert, with a context that had, at the time, escaped my attention:

RIGHTS GROUP CHALLENGE
Chicano Says Samaritan Not Good
… A nationwide effort to portray the parable of the Good Samaritan in “Bonanza” terms is being challenged by Chicano civil-rights groups. Nick Reyes, executive director of the National Mexican-American anti- defamation committee Wednesday accused the United Presbyterian Church of trying to perpetuate the image of the Mexican as “a man on a donkey.” “The Good Samaritan,” a 60-second television spot prepared and distributed by the church’s division of mass media in New York is racist in tone, Reyes charged. But Charles Brackbill, who developed the short film, was puzzled by the accusation. “The Mexican is shown as the good guy of the parable,” he said. “He shows mercy and compassion. How can anybody object to that?”

I can’t find a copy of the clip now to check, but Reyes’s complaint rings true to me. “But Reyes said Brackbill said it never occurred to him that… no Chicanos were ever consulted about the strip.”

This reminds me of the grand premiere of the American Bible Society’s “Out of the Tombs,” a “multimedia translation” (or “transmediatization”) of Mark’s story of the Gerasene Demoniac. The producers and sponsors of the nine-minute film were there, the video was shown, the invited scholars responded — and the critics were harsh, to say the least. The demon spoke with a woman’s voice; why a woman? The white demoniac was depicted as reintegrated into society by depicting him in a charming contemporary suburban neighbourhood; did they mean to suggest that suburban life represented an ideal Jesus espoused? And so on, and so on. The producers might have said, along with Brackbill, “How can anybody object to that?”

History, unlearned, repeats — and so we hear of Ridley Scott’s biblical epic in which Blackness correlates to “being against Moses.” Possibly it never occurred to Scott to consult anyone with a smidgen of racial awareness about what that might signify.

The topics to which my search led me extend in a myriad of directions. If you know of a place I can see that original advert again, though, please let me know.

Meaning and Differences

Quadriga On the premises I’ve been developing (and, I fear, repeating) here, we anticipate correctly that there will be no exact outcomes for interpretation — that when Rembrandt interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan, his painting will look different from the Chagall’s depiction in stained glass.

The Good Samaritan paying the innkeeper for the upkeep of the traveler
Chagall's stained-glass window incorporating scenes from the Good Samaritan

And not solely because they were working in different media — each of these interpreters wants us to focus on, to recognise different aspects of the story. Interpretive difference isn’t a problem, it’s an inevitable reflection of the profound differences that attend (and make up) our motivations, our audiences, our cultures, our capacities, our experiences, our media, and so on. The same principle applies to interpretive difference in linguistic interpretation; we stumble into the dead end of struggling for interpretive homogeneity from the extent to which we can align our linguistic interpretive interests into disciplines and practices that, when accorded effectual power in temporal affairs, upholds their own premises, axioms, methods, and so on as necessary, solely legitimate.

We can essay relative assessments of Rembrandt and Chagall just as easily as we can compare and evaluate Hans Conzelmann and Kavin Rowe — and just as easily as we can compare the interpretations of the Good Samaritan implicit in two government policy statements, or by the simple gestures of pedestrians who approach (and pass, or not) somebody curled up on the pavement. However insightful Rowe’s interpretive work on Luke’s Gospel, one oughtn’t imagine that he has more truly articulated its meaning than has a sympathetic passer-by who accompanies an injured man to a surgery, or an artist who produces a luminous window. If we bracket the impulse to treat interpretation as a zero-sum death match between muscular scholars struggling for domination, we can advance toward interpretive practices that both comport better with difference and afford ample space for articulating reasons for considering one better than another (by specific criteria).

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Ephemeral Interpretations

QuadrigaOne last point that helps make my transition away from the literal/metaphorical distinction to the continuous interweaving of particular expressions in divers expressive modes: Even the most apparently nakedly verbal expressions entail inflections of appearance, tone, style that destabilise the question of whether they are “literal” (or even what “literal” means in such situations). To deploy an example I’ve used in other contexts, the same text represented differently must be allowed to mean differently:

Example

Likewise, imagine the words “Yeah, sure, Mom!” spoken by an eager-to-please eight-year-old child and the same words spoken by a sullen teenager. A focus solely on the words of an expression can never attain the goal of a definitive account of what it means, no matter how determined and expert the researcher. Even if a researcher had access to the original verbal expression — and the idea of “original” in this context is itself intensely problematic — that researcher could never determine just what Snell Roundhand or Comic Sans “means,” what the aural notes of the spoken filial response “mean.”

When discussing and evaluating interpretations, the terminology of “correct” and “incorrect,” “really means” or “doesn’t mean” or “can’t mean” or “has to be understood as” or any of these arm-twisting expressions betrays a category mistake about the activity and goal of interpretation. We can always propose better or worse interpretations (and in specific circumstances these can casually but never rigorously be conveyed by “right” or “wrong”), and we can give reasons for our discernments — that’s it. The willed determination to squeeze “right” and “wrong” into the interpretation of verbal texts arises not out of an feature of textuality, but out of the interpreters’ desire to enforce their judgments upon others, to authorise binding inclusions and exclusions, to extract particular judgments from the to and fro of inevitable historical change and install them as idols of the technical cult.

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Literal Pizza

Quadriga About six weeks ago I pushed my argument against the categories of “literal” and “metaphorical” again, and in the next two paragraphs I’ll take another pair of small steps. In between then and now I’ve marked a great many exam scripts, recuperated from marking exam scripts, and gradually brought my brain back to focusing on scholarly pursuits. I regret falling off the blog habit, but there we are. To resume from where I left off: “Symbols and metaphors work not because of mystical linguistic properties, but they work in the same way that literal language works.” Readers encounter familiar and unfamiliar words, consider what best accounts for their combination in this context, and ascribe that meaning to the the expression in question. Now, back to the flow of my previous chains of paragraphs.


Rather than reifying “literal” and “metaphorical” as categories (or abandoning the notions altogether, per impossible), we understands the world better by treating expressions as more or less direct, perhaps, or obvious; or we can contrast “prosaic” with “poetic.” Such a gesture may appear superficial, a scrim of hermeneutical exactitude covering exactly the same discourses as before, but (to my mind) they serve helpfully to remind us that when we try to apply the “literal”/“metaphorical” dichotomy to other instances from the more general phenomenon of expression — let’s say “dance” and “baking” — it’s easy to see that they categories don’t work well. Some dance more closely simulates narratives and themes that it appears to depict, and other dance defies assimilation to such a schema. Some cooked foods involve the careful preparation of particular edible items without particular transformation (I’m partial to lightly stir-fried broccoli, for example) and other foods are prepared to resemble, or taste like, or suggest, other foods or inedible items or themes. That doesn’t make a medium rare steak more literal than a pizza whose ingredients are laid out in the configuration of a human face, or sushi made to resemble Ewoks (no, I’m not kidding).

We operate with a literal/metaphorical distinction in language because language offers a degree of conventional precision in expression that we find it convenient to deploy terms that point toward particular patterns of usage. Since no one’s going to mistake seaweed-wrapped rice for adorable short furry aliens from a Star Wars film, we don’t need to make that distinction. We struggle in graphic arts, working with the distinction between representational (or “photo-realistic”) and non-representational or abstract; likewise, even less successfully, in music. Instead of trying to force other expressive modes onto the Procrustean bed of linguistic precision (a precision that nonetheless falls short of what its partisans ask of it), we do better to recognise language as an atypical instance of expression, letting our expectations of language to begin from (and continue some of the imprecisions of) music, sculpture, cookery, and painting. Some verbal expressions are more evocative and indirect; some are more plain and obvious. And that’s OK, and it doesn’t require us to multiply entities.

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