Literacy and Biblical narratology

From the beginning of the Reformation, protestants clamored for a “return” to a supposed originary Christian experience and community. But one all important project of the Reformation prevented protestants from ever realizing their hope for a return to such a primitivism. Although I don’t believe any of the original theorists of the Reformation ever put the matter in so many words, the social trajectory of their insistence that a good Christian faithfully adheres to the letter of the Bible leads inevitably to some project for universal literacy, since no good Christian can be denied access to the Bible, and because literacy itself is not an ability with which good Christians – or any others – are born. Any one who could prove a good Christian would therefore need to learn to read, in order to read the Bible, a necessary part of that proof.

Eventually, this project was abandoned; Calvin really planted the seed of its demise by insisting that most human beings were born to be damned; that being the case members of God’s Elect, “good Christians”, would find their own way to literacy, guided by the inner light of God’s freely given Grace. All the non-Elect literates were clearly engaged in some sort of mimicry of the real thing – an assertion the Nazis used to “explain” why Jews (supposedly of an inferior species) were able to read and write. As this instance shows, the theory could be used to parcel out literacy to those who could be used for their reading and writing skills, and not to those condemned to lives of physical labor.

But the Protestants had another problem with literacy, right from the start. Although the Reformation theorists themselves wrote books, they expressed the fervid hope that eventually there would come about a Christian society in which there existed only one book to read, the Bible itself. (The books they themselves wrote were only tools with which to bring this about, to be abandoned once this chore was completed.)

The Fathers of the Roman Church also believed this at one time, including Augustine; but as the years rolled by, many of them ceased to consider this an appropriate goal for an active project, since this would require premonition regarding the precise arrival of Judgment Day, and most of the Fathers abhorred such arrogance. (Especially since Judgment Day never seemed to arrive on time.) It was not simply the case that most of the Fathers valued reading and their own ability to write; more importantly, once the project of canon-selection of Biblical texts became an obvious necessity, if a unified tradition was to be handed down until Judgment Day, difficulties of properly interpreting those texts quickly became apparent to them. This is why Augustine developed a theory of interpretation emphasizing the need to find an inner unity to the texts, and one tolerably consistent with normative human experience (since Augustine’s god is no trickster).

I am not going to elaborate this theory, to be found very well explained by Augustine in his On Christian Doctrine. It is more important to recognize that this is precisely the theory of interpretation that the Reformation theorists reject; which suggests that they were also rejecting, just out of hand, any standard of unity or consistency with which to determine a proper reading of these texts.

This has proven to be the case. Over the years countless Protestant theologians have insisted on giving the Bible a “literal reading”. Of course, such a reading is always an interpretation. But the interesting thing about these interpretations, as opposed to that of the Roman theologians, is their utter lack of consistency. God is read to be all-merciful in one verse, and never-forgiving in the next. One day Jesus is said to have had brothers and sisters, the next he is proclaimed an only child. And sometimes the “New Testament” is said to completely overturn the weight of the “Old Testament” (thus reducing its importance to that of a historical artifact), and sometimes the Old Testament is held to supersede the New. Such interpretive reversals are produced within the text of a single author, frequently within the short span of a single sermon.

It must be noted that such inconsistencies derive from that of the Bible itself. It is really a collection of texts written over a period of some 500 years. That would be a long time, even within a single isolated culture, for generations of writers to be expected to write pretty much the same unfolding narrative in a consistent manner. And, unfortunately, the Bible is not the product of a single culture; there are at least five recognizable within the context of the Bible itself: the pre-Mosaic, the post-Mosaic, the late kingdom of Israel (the culture of the prophets), the Israel under Roman domination (that in which Jesus appears), and the Gentile Christian culture that developed outside of Israel, which Paul addresses in his letters. Another five or six “sub-cultural” off-shoots from these can be surmised; for instance, we know there was a Jewish-Christian community in Israel which objected to Paul’s over-valuation of the importance of the Gentile converts, which objection, and Paul’s reply, remain embedded in some of the preserved Epistles.

This is really not the sort of source material from which to draw a unified narrative. The same characters in different passages have differing personalities; the “moral” of one episode is undercut by the criticism embedded in another; the Judgment day promised in Revelations looks nothing like that promised throughout the Old Testament – did God change his mind? More importantly, could God change his mind? The Protestant theologians tell us this is not possible (God‘s will is always and everywhere the same), and then turn around and reassure us that this is precisely what God did.

The Latin theologians wrestled with a similar question for many centuries, at least since Ambrose; when the debate at last exhausted itself in the texts of the later Nominalists, it was quite clear that, while something of God’s design for humans could be understood, as well as the divine love generating this, the will of God would need to remain theoretically indeterminate. God did whatever He damn well pleased.

The Protestant theologians, on the contrary, frequently assert they have solved this riddle, and the solution is that the will of God is embedded in the Bible, properly interpreted – as long as no one makes the effort to interpret it. Apparently, it just comes shining forth whenever a good Christian allows it to do this. (Bad Christians – that is, the non-Elect – are of course condemned to endless, since futile, efforts at reading and interpretation.)

The Protestant ideal of a literacy directed toward the reading of a single text is poor theory to begin with, for two reasons. The nuances of a text get lost if there are no other texts with which to compare the experience of reading it. This is especially a problem if one intends – as did Luther – to translate the text from one language into another. How can this possibly be done, if there are no other texts in the language the main text is to be translated to? The fact that Luther evidently believed that translating the text from Latin (not the original Aramaic and Greek, since he was especially suspicious of Greek) into German would make THE text available to good Christians, only indicates a slightly psychotic attitude toward literacy per se. This isn’t even so much as to presuppose written language to be a “translucent” medium of communication, it presumes language to be wholly irrelevant to some primary function of communication, probably the passage of narrative from one mind to another, or some set of moral rules supposedly contained in that narrative. In other words, Luther was just basically daydreaming about the possibility of telepathic communication with the Divine through a text that was probably just a magic trick God performed, intended to mislead the devil.

The second major problem with a single-text theory of literacy is that a text that does not, or is autocratically not allowed to, communicate with other texts is a dead text. One surely doesn’t need the dialogic semiotics of Bahktin to recognize this, although Bahktin certainly gives us the most incisive discussion of it, far superior to the wimpy “hermeneutics” of Gadamer (not even a pale shadow of Schleiermacher’s). But these names are dropped here for possible future reference; the idea is plain enough without much theory. A text that cannot communicate with other texts is closed off from any accountability for its own miscarriage of language. That is, a text incapable of correcting other texts, incapable of correction by another text, cannot possibly correct itself; it ceases to be an intellectual conversation with a possible reader, and becomes a paranoid-schizophrenic’s word-salad monologue.

Of course, a “good Christian” might respond here, that the Bible, as the word of God, is clearly intended as a monologue-for-an-audience, so to speak – one long sermon, without reference beyond itself.

But if that were truly the case, there would be no mention of the Pharaohs of Egypt, nor of the Caesars of Rome. When Jesus holds up a Roman coin and says “give unto Caesar what is Caesar‘s,” that coin has a face imprinted on it, and letters of the Latin alphabet spelling words announcing the coin’s imperial origin and asserted value. That’s a text. And it is a text to which Jesus, God or not, responds.

Arguably, the Bible responds to a myriad texts beyond itself, from at least the moment when Adam eats the forbidden fruit. Indeed, by eating the fruit, Adam places himself outside of God’s text, which may be one reason we don’t read what was going on in his mind at the time (which, after all, God could have known, if He chose). The Fall from Eden is an exile into an universe filled with many texts – the Mark on Cain’s forehead, the many competing voices of Babel, the signs convincing Noah to ready his Ark for the Flood, the symbols of the Pharaoh’s political power, the Ten Commandments – one reads in all of these myths the residue of a great many possibly real texts, most of which having long since vanished beyond history, preserved only as the incoherent memory of the books collectively called the Bible.

But isn’t to say that all this is somehow “evil” as much as to deny the creator the author’s prerogative of disagreeing with himself? – a prerogative no author can afford to surrender, since it allows one to change a story in the process of the telling of it.

In fact it can easily be demonstrated that both the Pentateuch God and the Gospel God change their minds several times, and not all that consistently.

One can well believe that God is somehow the author of the Bible – but only if one allows Him to be a highly eccentric and somewhat schizoid scribbler, inventing various characters to speak their own languages and run away with themselves, while the narrative unravels unpredictably. Of course everybody dies at the end – all mortals do.

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