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

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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.

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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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À la Recherche des Lego Perdus

OK, so we watched The Lego Movie the other night, and I recognised 1980-Something Space Guy from Nate and Si’s days playing with Lego, so I looked him/her (can’t honestly tell from the minifig, can you?) up in the Brickipedia, as you can see from the link above.

That got me started thinking about the earliest Lego I had, a set which was sold from a side section of Benoit’s clothing store in Brunswick, Maine — in the days when even mail order was a somewhat exotic phenomenon, and local retailers were by far the commonest form of access to commercial goods. If Benoit’s were restored to its mid-sixties condition, I could take you directly to the Lego section (which had only two or three sets). I think I was first given this set, or one very much like it:

Basic Lego System set

I thought I recalled that the cardboard packaging was gold-yellow in colour, but I don’t see any such boxes at the Brickipedia site, so that must be a mistake. The package I remember was definitely a vertically-oriented oblong solid, and I was subsequently given the Gears set, some wheels, and a set with clear bricks, doors, and windows.

As you can imagine, all of this research and reminiscing absorbed several hours. Thank you, Internet.

(Yes, I do remember that I used to blog daily. Baby steps.)

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Examination

I’m put in mind of the classic Milton Bradley/Hasbro electrical game Operation; we have the Final Honour School examinations running here at Oxford, and this afternoon I catch a train to Edinburgh here I’m serving as external examiner for their biblical classes. If I am not voluble on this site, please take these circumstances into account.

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My Type at Pusey House

HoopoeThis morning it was my great privilege, and a significant honour, to preach at High Mass at Pusey House. Father George, the Principal, has talked with me before about his work on Pusey’s lectures on typology (awaiting publication from Fr George’s transcription), and just the other morning at breakfast one of our ordinands asked me for more teaching on typology — so all of this was a red rag to the hyperactive bull of my imagination, and when Fr George noted that the readings for the morning would include the passage from 2 Kings (or 4 Kingdoms, or just plain “Kings” if you want) in which Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire, I knew right away what my topic would be. I append the sermon in a downloadable PDF in the “Continue Reading” link below.)

I worked hard to make the sermon more of a sermon and less of a lecture, and from what people said afterward I think I succeeded. (I should give a shout-out to the Logos Bible Software’s Anglican Gold package of texts and software, which I’m currently in the process of reviewing; searching for references to Elijah’s chariot in sermons from the medieval, post-Reformation, and Oxford Movement periods was made vastly more simple when I figured out how to operate the functions of the Logos package.) In the preaching of it, and in the conversations after the service, it felt as though the emphasis duly fell on the value of figurative interpretation for binding us together with biblical characters and with our forebears in the faith, but I acknowledge that this skated closer to the verge of didacticism than I ordinarily approve.

The service and music were glorious, which is no surprise coming from Pusey House. The hospitality, both at the House after Mass and with the Westhavers afterward, was sumptuous; the weather for relaxing in their quad with a glass of fizz simply couldn’t have been beaten. It was one of those pinch-me moments: I’m here, a tutor at Oxford, serving in the monastic buildings that once housed the mother house of the Cowley Fathers, and preaching today at Pusey House. If this is a dream, don’t wake me up!

Now, late afternoon, I’m sitting with my sweetheart on our patio enjoying the warm sunlight (well, she’s enjoying the warm sunlight, I’m enjoying the shade), sipping a gin and tonic, and reading essays from Edinburgh in preparation for going north for a couple of days this week. For all this, and for all you who encourage and support me, I give hearty, heartfelt thanks.

Continue reading

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Annual Check-In

I’m still curious to know about the gospel choir number about which I’ve posted before, and today somebody arrived at my page looking for the answer. I don’t know who you are, knowledge-seeker, but I still haven’t turned up any evidence that that song existed apart from your query (the mere existence of which gives me consolation). In the age of Google, I’m amazed that the internet yields no trace of this number — but sooner or later, all will be revealed.

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Metaphorically Literal

Quadriga Ages ago — the last time I blogged a two-paragraph hermeneutics post — I opened the case that the familiar distinction between literal and figurative (and its relatives “metaphorical” and especially “symbolic”) should be abandoned. Of course, the terms do very well for casual and heuristic purposes. I’m not in the least suggesting that we can’t say “No, I meant a literal brick wall” or “Donne’s use of metaphor sets him apart from his contemporaries.” The heuristic usefulness of the terms, however, does not warrant reifying the distinction nor extending it from a useful tool to a pair of ontological categories.

Symbols and metaphors work not because of mystical linguistic properties, but they work in the same way that literal language works. Where “literal” expressions rely on utterly familiar, unambiguously conventional usage, “metaphorical” language slides the usage from “quite predictable” further toward “unusual” (that could be as slight a difference as using a less common “literal” word or phrase) to “rather unconventional” (a word or phrase for which established patterns of usage haven’t worn a clear enough path to warrant calling the usage “literal” at all) to perplexing (“Is that a metaphor, or is she just talking nonsense?”). [I have two digressions to mark here, before I resume my second paragraph. First, yes, this is straight out of Nietzsche and Derrida, among others. As I said the other day, I’m not claiming to have invented this. Second, the relation between “metaphorical” and “nonsensical” warrants my exploring, too. Just not here.] In other words, metaphor isn’t an abuse of language, or a woo-woo special use of language: it’s a gamble on the part of the offerer (composer, artist, writer, speaker, whatever) that some portion of those who receive the expression will twig to the oblique association that the offerer envisions between the metaphorical phrase and what would be its ordinary, everyday, who-he-is-when-he’s-at-home “literal” usage. Sometimes those gambles don’t work out. Sometimes the oblique offering generates a rich field that includes unanticipated. But in the hands of a capable communicator, the choice of a less-than-obvious offering (be it linguistic or musical or a piquant combination of flavours) actually communicates very effectively indeed.

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Here’s the Thing

QuadrigaIt’s been a long week of marking and revising and meeting and saying Masses and leading classes, so I’m allotting myself more than two paragraphs (if I want them — we’ll see how this turns out) to point to an oblique aspect of my hermeneutical proposal.

First, I acknowledge that this hermeneutic of offering-and-uptake risks undermining some deeply-help theological convictions about biblical inspiration on one hand, and the significance of a theology of the Word on another. Probably some third and fourth hands, too, but those two come to mind right away after years of gentle arguing and intense discussing with unconvinced sisters and brothers. Add to those factors the human inclination to resist destabilising changes, and I can understand a number of powerful reasons for doubting, or simply ignoring, the work I’ve done. (I don’t understand quite so well when people who have read, and reviewed, my work write essays that make points similar to my own, without mentioning my prior art; but I am small-minded that way, and if I wanted you to think I’m humbler than I really am I wouldn’t mention this.)

But here’s the thing: even if you want to uphold your unwavering commitment to a hermeneutic of subsistent meaning, of the unique semantic capacities of linguistic communication, of the objective and unchanging meaning of The Word — even if you’re set on all those fronts, and your hermeneutics have to work around the aporias these premises raise for you, you can look at meaning from the perspective I commend to you on an ad hoc basis. If you want to understand misunderstanding better (and I insist that if your hermeneutics can’t explain misunderstanding, you’re in a very bad spot), or if you want to understand the relation of verbal to gestural or artistic or musical expression, or if you want to understand how the catholic tradition could flourish without insisting on texts having single determinate meanings, or any of a variety of other issues, you can just pick up my gesture-and-inference hermeneutics for the short term and put it back down once you’ve resolved your conundrum. “This approach to interpretation explains the role of gestures in pastoral communication, but of course it fails to honour what we know to be necessary about linguistic communication, so it can’t provide a comprehensive angle of insight into biblical hermeneutics.” That’s OK with me, and it might be of help to you.

I have referred to this as “my” hermeneutic several times here (and probably in earlier posts as well). I don’t mean by that to imply that I thought this up and that I, the lonely genius of hermeneutics, lay claim to a discovery or a proprietary priority in this. I’m constantly embarrassed by how much this work draws on the authors in the syllabus of my imagination for instance. I constantly reread a favourite essay or book and realise that it makes one of the points that I feel obligated to drive home myself. So, let it be said firmly and emphatically, this is not original to me: Augustine, Thomas, Nietzsche, Peirce, Magritte, Wittgenstein, Goodman, Barthes, Derrida, Kermode, Fish, and numerous comrades have done the heavy lifting on all these issues. I’m only reminding people about what their work may add up to.

I don’t insist that anyone buy these wares in a single vast lump. Pick them up, use them for what they’re good for, put them down again. So far as I can tell, if using these ideas becomes habitual to you, you may find that the whole megillah is a more viable basis for hermeneutics than you thought before; that’s how I got here. But if you aren’t satisfied with the conventional dictum about meaning and application, or the necessity of historical criticism, or single determinate meaning, or whatever, this work may help you out.

And very soon I’ll return to my abolition of the “literal” and “symbolic.”

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More Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeI suspect I’ve found another example of the role of desire in interpretation: the alleged prevalence of promiscuity and prostitution in first-century Corinth. At this point, the prevailing sense among classical historians (as far as I can tell) favours the view that interpreters of the relevant texts should acknowledge that the oft-cited instance of the Temple of Aphrodite and the thousand sacred prostitutes has no relevance for interpreting the culture of the first-century city. I’m satisfied by the research that questions the basis for the story in the first place — but even if one grants the existence of prominent sacred prostitution in Corinth in the centuries before the Romans razed the city in 146 BCE, surely 150-plus years of passing time would render the past city’s reputation moot. Or do people conventionally think of cities based on their reputation from several centuries ago? (This would make the reputation of many US cities complicated, since they will only have developed as such within the window between the destruction of Corinth and its renascence under Roman rule.

The story lasts because it gives people a chance to leer retrospectively at the goings-on in Corinth, not because there’s any significant evidence that Corinth was a more lascivious city than any other centre of trade. Scholars and their audiences alike want to think about a sexually outrageous Corinth, and that’s the strength of the story’s persistence. Evidence is a side issue.

[I grant that I haven’t subjected the topic to exacting study, and I don’t have time right now. I’m putting “Corinth: Sin City” on my research list, though. Maybe I’ll learn that I’m wrong, in which case I’ll be sure to write about it here.]

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