Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeAs the Sturm und Drang about the (apparently forged) Jesus’ Wife Fragment waxes and wanes (the Sturm waxes, the Drang wanes?), my predictably eccentric interest concerns the role of evidence and of non-evidential factors in shaping positive or negative assessments of the fragment.

Let’s start again by noticing that, even at its very earliest plausible date, its most genuine condition, the fragment doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know: that in the late second century, some people thought Jesus had been married. If we didn’t think Jesus was married before, we don’t have more reason to think he was; we just have further evidence affirming this particular view (often associated with, or dismissed as, Gnostic). Apart from the ordinary interest that the discovery of a hitherto unknown manuscript from early Christianity, this fragment should not generate much excitement in any but the more arcane academic circles — and that’s on the assumption that it’s genuine.

So the furor over the fragment, and the side-taking over its authenticity, require an explanation. If the JWF is not particularly novel, if it may not even be genuine, why did it become controversial? Certain aspects of the fuss can easily be explained: there is money in media coverage, and a television special would certainly line somebody’s pockets. Likewise media attention to the fragment, for which each click and link meant more advertising revenue. And even high-minded scholars like attention; most of the time, most people ignore us, and the glamour of broadcast authority would be difficult to resist for all but the most ascetical among us. (I mean no slight at my colleagues who appear in documentaries or news coverage — those whom I know are all lovely people whom I respect, and for whom I wish only the best, for whose good fortune I congratulate them.) One can dispose of much of the sizzle by ascribing it to cash considerations and publicity — “most”, but not by any means “all.” The role that money and publicity play in the construction of academic controversy and knowledge warrants closer attention, but I’m particularly interested in the residuum.

For instance, why did anyone think the fragment was genuine in the first place? I am not a papyrologist, a palaeographer, or a reader of Coptic — but the early photos of the fragment looked odd to me right away. Clearly, they looked right enough to pass muster to Karen King and the experts she consulted, so my unease doesn’t count for much.

I can’t keep from thinking that somewhere in the alchemy of academic judgement, some people wanted to think the JWF was genuine, and others that it wasn’t. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that I know this was true. Did a prior disposition in favour of revolutionary, disruptive, rebellious parties in early Christianity have any effect on Prof. King’s judgement about the fragment? In an irreproachably sound academic way, it certainly did: she more than many other scholars is open to the possibility that non-standard traditions about Jesus circulated broadly and for centuries after the consolidation of conciliar doctrine about Jesus (as in fact it still does). Many scholars would be less disposed to consider anything about a JWF from the start. So without impugning her scholarship in the least, it seems fair to say that her disposition affected her judgement at least as far as her interest in the fragment and her willingness even to consider its genuineness.

By the same token, plenty of vociferous scholars have the opposite disposition, and we saw some immediate negative responses to the JWF which may well have owed as much to the scholars’ inclination to downplay the genuineness of apparent evidence that early Christians held divergent views about Jesus as they owed to identifiable faults with the evaluation of the fragment.

And some scholars, I should add, contributed substantive evidence to the discussion. The direction of their inquiries may have been affected by their desires to support or debunk the genuineness of the fragment, but evidence resists desire somewhat more effectively than do sentiment and temperament, and the comparisons to other fragments and to other texts (and their provenance, and their conditions of publication) help immensely in reaching a thoughtful conclusion about the JWF.

Over and above the reasonable, inevitable, productive inclinations (“positive prejudices,” as Gadamer called them), though, is there not visible a certain longing-to-[dis]believe, wishing-it-were[n’t]-so, that we see more clearly when non-specialists latch on to particular notions regardless of the historical or evidential basis? The attraction of metanarratives such as “the church conceals the truth from you”, or “in the twenty-first century no rational person can believe…”, or “this is the truth unambiguously and definitively handed down changelessly from the first century to now…” resides not in the evidential basis for any of them so much as in the desire that they be so.

We cannot extirpate desire from our interpretive reasoning, not even by dint of determined will. Must we then be silent about our entanglement with desire? When a professed radical interpreter finds Paul to be an anti-imperial subversive, is it disrespectful to note that the exegetical conclusion conveniently fits the interpreter’s wishes? And most difficult of all, what of the interpretive desires of people whose allegiances and principles cannot conveniently be labelled and mapped? And — when any charge of interpretation-by-desire can be answered with a tu quoque (“the same to you”) so that one can’t simply dismiss an interpretation because of its background, how can we construct a discourse in which desire is neither a taboo nor a blank cheque?

One might think that the hermeneutics of desire follow relatively straightforwardly from autobiographical interpretation, but I don’t remember hearing the topic addressed as a matter of methodological or metacritical reflection. If I missed something, please let me know.

Pervasive Latent Criteria

Quadriga Summing up from last time: “meant” and “means” aren’t distinct from one another in the way that the standard account presupposes; and, there is no theoretical account to be adduced which will arbitrate how to apply a posited meaning. (This paragraph doesn’t count against me.)

Absent a subsistent “meaning” that provides a polestar for interpretive validity, we reckon the soundness of our interpretive activity by more proximate criteria. A tremendous proportion of interpretive legitimacy is not itself reasoned out, but “caught”, assimilated, from the interpreters whom one regards as authorities. Sometimes they hold authority by force: as in the academy, where students learn positively that “so and so is an admirable interpreter of whom our tutors speak highly, and we should endeavour to emulate his moves” or negatively that “Such and such never even appears on our reading lists; we can regard her work as utterly insignificant” or “Our tutor referred derisively to this book; we’d better not say anything good about it.” Learning interpreters strive to be like their positive models (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Raymond Brown” or “Tom Wright” or “Bart Ehrman”). Even among more advanced interpreters, a tacit sense of “what goes” in academic discourse affects the tenor of interpretive deliberation. We can make some of these criteria explicit, but others remain difficult to articulate (if we can recognise them as criteria at all, so deeply have they been assimilated).

Our interpretive activity does not simply observe the expression-and-apprehension interplay; it is itself an exercise in apprehension (of criteria, of tone, of acceptable conclusions, of audience) and expression (not only “This is my interpretation” but the representation of one’s deliberation as revolutionary or as compliant with extant discourses, as easily intelligible or as arcane, as authenticated by institutional authority or as self-justifying, and so on. The persona of the interpreter plays a role in the interpretation offered (“She explicitly alludes to Christian theological points of reference”, “He cites continental critics whose work I can’t read”, “He’s smartly dressed”, “She’s wearing shredded blue jeans”, “He slouches and mumbles”, “She looks us in the eye, speaks clearly and fluently and confidently”). All of these function willy-nilly, regardless of anyone’s intentions. The speaker/writer may intend to sound intelligent and confident, and a hearer/reader may think of him as pompous; a speaker/writer may intend to sound sensible and humble, and a hearer/reader think she’s not sure of herself and her case is weak. Even the most fair, even-handed, balanced interpreters are — cannot help being — affected by elements of a discourse that are not exhausted by an author’s intended meaning. Interpretive judgments comprise a great deal more than an inferred intent in words with subsistent meaning — and any account of hermeneutics that neglects, or suppresses, or circumvents, or denies the reality and power of these elements in the offering-uptake interaction misses some of the most important aspects of interpretation. And simply saying “Those other factors don’t count, they aren’t legitimate, we only accept the real meanings of words” doesn’t change the realities with which those who express and those who infer are daily dealing.


Meant, Means, Application

Quadriga For the purposes of my developing this argument, let’s take my expression-apprehension model of interpretation as read. On this account, now, we can explain a great many problems that the standard “subsistent meaning” account generates. For instance, the standard account gets into great headaches about “the difference between what it meant and what it means today” (Krister Stendahl); on the expression-apprehension model, there is no static “meant” or “means” to diverge. Under particular circumstances two millennia ago, people apprehended a particular expression in several identifiable and explicable ways; today, people apprehend the words of that expression (usually in translation, in this example) in several identifiable and explicable ways, and that’s just what we would expect. Is there an interesting, convincing vector of continuity among these apprehensions? My best answer to that sort of question involves the next paragraph.

A second persistent toothache for the standard account involves the question of how one gets from “meaning” to “application”. It’s all very well, we are told, to develop a technical argument that some biblical passage “means” X, but how do we apply that in the lifeworld? I answer that an argument about a text’s “meaning” that does not already (or imminently) correspond to a manner of living can be correct only in the most narrow of senses. In other words, “application” is not a problem to be solved in theory; ethos is itself a primary commentary on any purported textual application.

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Êthos Anthrôpôi Daimôn, on Flickr


What It All Means

Quadriga To sum up from the past eight paragraphs, or so: Most of the problems in hermeneutics can be addressed most productively by regarding the problem as in interplay of expression and inference. A canvas by Monet entails one particular sort of expression; an installation by Tracey Emin is another sort of expression; Nigel Hess’s theme for the BBC television series “Campion” is another sort of expression; Margaret’s irresistible Oatmeal Lace Cookies are a different kind of expression; and a letter from St Paul is yet another sort of expression. St Paul expressed himself in words, but not only in words: although his facial demeanour, his posture, and vocal inflections are lost to us, we can be sure that we would apprehend his expression somewhat differently if we were on the spot. That doesn’t mean that our interpretations are insufficient in Paul’s physical absence, only we infer meaning differently when we draw on different pools of circumstantial information. When we have access to information that suggests that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are an interpolation into the text of Paul’s letter, some of us read the passage differently from the way we read it in the absence of that information.

Hence there is no intrinsic meaning. “Meaning” is something we infer, sometimes prospectively (before attempting a particular expression), sometimes retrospectively (drawing inferences from an expression from days past), sometimes in the moment (though of course that’s best considered as a blend of retrospect and anticipation — but all expression, I suppose, is extended in time). This sense of “meaning” — the zone where expression and inference, apprehension, uptake approach and perhaps converge — doesn’t require a subsistent quality to the words, paint, dough, marble, harmonies, or whatever. It partakes of the same faculties that make inferences about what wordless phenomena such as sunrise or smoke or the scent of bitter almonds imply. That’s the heart of my picture of hermeneutics: gesture and inference, expression and apprehension, offering and uptake.


High Five

Quadriga Adding words to our account of the communicative landscape does not fundamentally change what we’ve observed about inference and communication. Just as I make inferential estimates of what time in the morning it is (speaking of which, I need to find my sleep mask soon), or from my beloved wife’s mimed gestures when babies are sleeping, so I make inferential estimates of the most likely sense for the words she speaks or writes. There’s no “inner” or “real” meaning in the words; they’re a gesture, a verbal gesture, with the same status as a finger held to her lips, or a flat hand raised above her shoulder.

But that’s the second key element in the picture: when Margaret (or anyone, but we’re talking about Margaret now) speaks or writes words, they are words she has chosen based on her estimate (as speaker) of what I am most likely to infer from them. Again, there’s no intrinsic meaning at stake; she produces words calculated to elicit from me the results she wants. If she wants me to go to the grocery store to obtain food for dinner, she says, “Sweetheart, would you go to Tesco for a couple of things?” and it’s a pretty safe bet that I will in fact satisfy her desire. Were she to aim at the same effect by saying “Rapidly piddlepot strumming Hanover peace pudding mouse rumpling cuddly corridor cabinets?”, we may safely predict that the results would be different. Linguistic communication, on this account, is not sui generis nor paradigmatic for other modes of communication; it is continuous with other communicative modes, albeit in an extraordinarily precise, rule-governed way. It would be a dire mistake, however, to leap from “atypically precise” to “intrinsically precise” in order to amp up the degree of certainty that our inference can provide. We may be able often to recognise “time to wake up”, but that doesn’t entail our capacity really to ascertain that it’s 6:47.


The Flesh Is Weak

HoopoeThis evening, Margaret and I were dining on a sumptuous feast of leftovers, including some fried aubergine with garlic — friend aubergine and garlic that had made the most of its time in the refrigerator. And it had gathered its forces into one concentrated clump of pungency. One clump, hiding in the rice at the bottom of the bowl. Lying in wait.

Most readers will know me to be the sort of guy who thinks the best of everyone until they compel me to think otherwise, so I didn’t give the clump of rice at the bottom of the bowl a second thought — it was just there to contribute to my tasty repast. Little did I anticipate the intense explosion of garlic fury in my mouth. Worse yet, the sudden burning sensation cause a hiccup, a mini-gasp, that drew a knot of the garlic stuff to the back of my throat. That was an unfortunate turn for me; for the next four or five minutes I was wheezing, gulping breaths, nose streaming, mouth ablaze, coughing, sucking air.

It took about fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, till I felt normal again. This provides the sort of occasion through which one can perceive vividly the frailty of mere human flesh, and return to comfort before too long.

Adding Words

Quadriga You have graciously borne with me in considering communication by wordless inference, in both non-intentional (“natural”) and intentional (“conscious animal life”) circumstances. I used inverted commas in my parenthetical characterisations because I’d like to allow for non-intentional inference in circumstances that aren’t simply “natural”, and because I want to be careful about what I say about intentional communication among some animals (without prejudging the circumstances for or against). Clearly animals interact in ways that seem to imply “communication” of some sort — and again, that’s all I’m after at this point.

I’m ready to add words to this picture, but please allow me to do so not all in a rush, but very slowly and carefully. Let’s go back to Margaret and me communicating; you’ve already allowed that we can get by, when we need to, without words (for topics that don’t require intense intricacy or precision). Once we begin to add words into the picture, our capacity to communicate effectively enters an entirely different domain of economy, precision, and effectiveness. We’re about to go buy some groceries; if we had to work out our shopping list, indeed even the premise of “going to the grocery store”, without words, we would take a very long time and might not arrive at a fully agreed agenda. With words, we can assent to the premise of a shopping trip, determine what we anticipate purchasing, and change our plans on the fly with minimal trouble. Yes, sometimes we misunderstand one another and find ourselves at cross purposes — but compared to the practice of communicating for such errands without using words, our verbal communication functions with fabulous ease and success.


Not That ‘Happy’

HoopoeWell-intentioned vicar Dick Keith of St Eormengyth’s Church in the Isle of Thanet generated concern and dismay at the Easter service this morning. The priest — perhaps inspired by the BBC television series ‘Rev’, and apparently hoping to piggy-back on the viral success of clergy seen singing reformulated pop songs and dancing at weddings — instructed a churchwarden to be sure to videorecord the sermon this morning. Upon ascending the pulpit, the culturally tone-deaf clergyman burst into a specially composed version of the pop song “Happy.”

Unfortunately for him, and for the congregation, the vicar of St Eormengyth’s knew that people from all ages, all nations, and all occupations had made videos miming along to the hit song — but he confused the Oscar-nominated ditty by American rapper Pharrell Williams with the forty-year old single from the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main St.:

Never kept a wafer past sunset
Always drained the chalice right down
Never made a bishop happy
Never got a post in a market town

I need God’s love to keep me happy
I need God’s love to keep me happy
Jesus, Saviour keep me happy
Jesus, Saviour keep me happy

Always gave communion to strangers
Didn’t want to baptise no babe
Never want to be like Pilate
Crucifying lads every night and day

The performance reportedly went on for several further verses, as horrified Easter visitors made hasty departures and dismayed parishioners looked on. Local resident Arianna Worth-Portentous noted that although the congregation had been dwindling over the years of the vicar’s tenure, she was not convinced that this was the most promising way of evangelising the community. ‘The parish has seen much better days,’ she intoned, ‘but it would be better if someone would stand up and be counted, someone with a sanctified mind.’

The vicar himself was undaunted by the unexpectedly tepid response to his plan. ‘Ministry in the twentieth century requires us to go out on limbs sometimes, and some stodgy traditionalists aren’t ready to reach out to today’s young people in their own way. A prophet is not without honour, except in St Eormengyth’s, I guess.’

The churchwarden who recorded the ‘sermon’ declined to make a copy available to the press, noting that he had been instructed by the diocesan chancellor to embargo it pending action in consistory court. The recording was played once before a small group of local journalists, one of whom indicated that ‘[“Happy”] would no longer be her favourite tune’.

Mick Jagger could not be reached for comment, but a representative said that he was sympathetic.

Busy Holy Saturday

I know, I missed Maundy Thursday, and now I’m taking this feeble way out of posting today as well. I spent all day today working on a sermon, all the time that I wasn’t praying or rehearsing. But at least I remembered to post an apology.