Literacy, Context, the Bible, and Modern News-media

It takes sophisticated reading skills to properly deal with the Bible — Old Testament and New Testament alike. And it’s important to deal with the Bible, even for non-Christians and non-Jews, because it’s a very fundamental part of Western Civilization in all its aspects. Unfortunately, the Bible demands still higher reading skills than even complex novels such as Moby Dick or The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy. And few nowadays can read those novels even as a difficult task, let alone for pleasure.

Many modern readers and writers believe that a story should be told from one point-of-view. This isn’t really a belief as much as it’s a cover for our low-levels of reading and narrating skills. The man with one eye convinces himself that those with no eyes and those with two eyes are both freaks. In this case, the partial blindness is induced and nurtured by our upbringings and poor educations in a deteriorating culture.

In many of the psalms, the point-of-view switches from the psalmist to God to omniscient observer and then to whatever. In Moby Dick, the first-person point-of-view dominates. Ishmael is telling the story, but there are some weird shifts, such as the transition to what I call locally omniscient point-of-view during the night watches on the deck. The observer is not truly omniscient but he is able to hear the words of the mates and Captain Ahab as each is alone on deck.

To read the Bible properly requires high reading skills and a flexibility of mind which can be nurtured by those skills. In recent centuries, the Bible has typically been read with a certain inflexibility of mind that can also be found in many evolutionary theorists, philosophers, and physicists.

Despite the primitive origin of certain parts of the Bible, it’s a literary masterpiece which is complex beyond the writing skills of any human being. This is not to say that God wrote it or even dictated it. It’s better to consider the bible to have been a conversation involving many authors and God. I don’t believe that any of those human beings necessarily spoke with God in the way of two human beings sitting on facing chairs. In line with my Thomistic form of existentialism, I would say that we hear God in a different way: we learn to both speak and listen with God. We hear God by participating in His act of speaking to us, so to speak.

The book of Genesis can only be read intelligently if you realize that it is itself a critical work, a meta-book if you will. That sometime strange book of the Bible plays games with pagan views of the Cosmos, often turning them upside-down to make the point that all human beings are called to worship God, even to set aside a day of worship.

The writers of the books of the Bible gave fairly clear signals when they were switching point-of-view or when they were switching from, say, myth to history. Even when a modern reader admits to the value of these different styles, he might well have some sort of belief that myths teach — at best — general truths while historical narratives give us a stream of snippets which can be fairly labeled as ‘facts’. Skeptics, including some evolutionary biologists and philosophers, agree that texts can be read only in that limited way, as myths or facts, and then go on to deny that the Bible teaches us any useful truths not found in the general literature of our race. At this point, the public discourse about the Bible sometimes breaks down into simple assertions that the Bible is literally true or that it is not really true at all.

The uses of different literary style are not pre-defined. We sometimes try to think in ways that are caricatures of forms for presenting legal arguments or techniques for presenting mathematical proofs. Lawyers and mathematicians themselves don’t think that way in their primary or creative work. They do research and they develop their lines of thought the same way that the rest of us do, which often reduces to muddling through by trial-and-error until something feels right. A legal argument or a mathematical proof is what’s written after the answer is already established.

Exploration and experimentation. And context. There is no such thing as a legal argument free-standing and independent of a particular tradition of justice. There is no such thing as a mathematical proof that is free-standing and can be directly read using only basic mathematical skills — a huge volume of proofs provide the foundation for each other.

Let me give an example of a textual problem: Are the birth-narratives in Luke historical or mythical? Read Luke 1-3:22. Now read John 1:1-34. You arrive at the same scene where a seemingly ordinary man has been revealed as the Beloved Son from God. How are we to understand this at least well enough to make some narrative sense of the mission of this Jesus of Nazareth? Just to make sense of the stories of His miracles and His refusal to triumph over His earthly enemies by earthly means presents a difficult problem. Those stories need some context and, for right or wrong, the authors, editors, and redactors Luke and John decided to provide prologues before telling us about the earthly mission of Jesus. The stories of that mission are ‘raw’ in a way that indicates historicity.

The prologues? John’s prologue is a theological and spiritual poem. Luke’s prologue is formed of narratives of the conceptions and births of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. They serve the same purpose. This is a complex matter where more than casual speculation is needed, but my point stands: these are very complex texts assembled from different sorts of texts and, often, the meaning comes from the entire assembly. In nearly all cases, the small pieces of Biblical text, even the clearest of revelations, are still enriched by the greater context.

We often don’t recognize that there is such a thing as meta-narratives. The books of the Bible are mostly such rather than being straightforward narratives. Primitive texts can be assembled into those meta-narratives the way that most of us assemble words or phrases into sentences of greater or lesser complexity. Some of the texts in the Bible give clear signals, sometimes ‘rawness’, that they are historical but even those are assembled so that the meaning is explained or enriched by relationships to other texts, sometimes historical but sometimes didactic or poetic or mythical.

We should be aware of a dangerous aspect of the nature of texts and meta-texts. When seemingly plain sentences are assembled into large blocks of text, they can also develop higher meanings — or lower meanings in the sense that they are immoral. We should look for more sophisticated ways of reading the great books, especially the Bible, but we should be aware that a sophisticated reader will begin to see frightening meta-meanings in some texts.

For example, read the articles and editorials expressing the moral outrage of the Western press against the brutality of the Chinese government in 1989 — the massacre in Tienanmen Square, Beijing. The context is provided by reading the Western newspapers, or watching the television news, over a number of years. The Western news-media had generally done their best to justify or ignore the murder of tens of millions of Chinese peasants by the Maoists especially during the 1960s. Then the Maoists were overthrown by some tough men, capable of brutality, who had sometimes suffered in the same slave-labor camps as those peasants. In a effort to secure their hold on China, those men gave orders that resulted in the murder of about 100 Western-style intellectuals.

A few years after the massacre in Tienanmen Square, we watched as hundreds of people were burned to death in Waco — as a result of a full-scale military assault on a civilian compound. That assault was ordered by President Clinton and Attorney-general Reno. The victims this time were human beings with strange religious beliefs and leaders who were seemingly unlikeable and very possibly dangerous to their followers and perhaps their neighbors.

There was no moral outrage on the part of the media about Waco, though there was some honest concern about the sufferings of the children. Apparently, the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the talking-heads on television think Western-style intellectuals are true human beings to whom all others have moral responsibilities but they have their doubts about Chinese pig-farmers or village shop-keepers and also about religious nuts in Texas. Or maybe they don’t really have doubts.

There are no clearly-defined borders between our various problems: political, religious, moral, cultural. We don’t even understand our problems because we can no longer read the greater and lesser texts which provide meaning and context for those events and groupings of people we call ‘Western Civilization’. We can’t even read the news in today’s newspaper in the context of what was printed last week.

Explore posts in the same categories: Christianity, literature, Modern culture, Moral issues, philosophy, Religion

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