Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Ten thoughts on the literal and the literary

by Kim Fabricius

1. The more literal, the less literary a person is likely to be – and vice versa. A survey of the reading habits of fundamentalists would be an interesting exercise. I suspect that they would score low on reading classical and Booker/Pulitzer prize fiction – and even lower on poetry. I wonder what they would make of William Empson’s seminal study Seven Types of Ambiguity. To plagiarise Paul, the literal crucifies, the literary resurrects: meaning walks through closed doors. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

2. It is an interesting fact that fundamentalism is predominantly a Protestant phenomenon, a reductio ad absurdum of the Reformers’ emphasis on the literal meaning of scripture to the exclusion of the medieval “fourfold vision” (Blake). Is there a lurking fear here of a connection between polyvalence and polytheism? How ironic that, on the contrary, an insistence on a single, solid, certain meaning – i.e. semantic closure – is indicative of idolatry. The burning bush is the horticulture of divine deconstruction, and the golden calf is bull.

3. Another interesting fact: the rise of Protestant literalism went hand in hand with the desacralisation of nature, which – the good news – entailed the rise of the natural sciences, but which also – the bad news – issued in the evacuation of God from the material world, soon followed the absence of God from the world of culture. Modernist atheism itself is the spawn of biblical literalism. And when belief did a bunk, it was the priesthood of poets that helped keep the rumour of transcendence alive.

4. So another connection: the “disenchantment” of nature (Weber) and the impoverishment of the imagination. Chesterton observed a “combination between logical completeness and spiritual contraction.” And he said: “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so makes it finite.” There is also the spiritual contraction, the failure of imagination, of legalism and moralism. Hence R. S. Thomas’ description of Welsh Nonconformity as “the adroit castrator of art.”

5. There has been much discussion at F&T about the nature of theology as a science. Of course – this is a Barthian blog! But Barth himself was a master of stirring rhetoric and stunning imagery. And, of course, there was his passion for Mozart, and his admiration for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Melville’s Moby-Dick. Barth wasn’t so hot on the visual arts – a Protestant prejudice! – but the Church Dogmatics is a cathedral, stained glass windows and all. In short, if theology is a science, it is also an art.

6. Which should not be the least bit surprising. After all, God-talk is impossible without the deployment of analogy and metaphor, and the Bible is incomprehensible apart from a narrative hermeneutics. Is it not therefore a scandal that, until recent times, theology has been in thrall to an ontological and epistemological captivity – and inevitable that it would take a Catholic, Hans Urs von Balthasar, to write a theological aesthetics and dramatics? Is not faith itself an imaginative perception of reality?

7. Theological ethics – another test case. Fundamentalist ethics are rule-based, and the answers to moral problems are found, decontextualised, at the back of the (good) book. Jesus’ preferred method of ethical instruction, however, is the parable, “subversive speech” (William R. Herzog II). Indeed Richard B. Hays argues that a “symbolic world as context for moral discernment” is fundamental to the entire New Testament. “The kingdom of God is like this.” Enter the story, work it out – then act it out!

8. Follow the trajectory to virtue ethics. The accent is on agency and action, dispositions and desire, time and telos. Rules are not excluded, but they function heuristically, as “perspicuous descriptive summaries of good judgments” (Martha Nussbaum), to inculcate habits appropriate to the development of Christ-like character. Moral theology works best when it tells the stories of the saints. Virtue ethics is narrative ethics, where the script is unfinished and improvisation is essential. The Christian life is jazz.

9. One of the great filmic send-ups of biblical literalism: the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The camera pans to Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and then to a group at a distance where our Lord’s voice doesn’t quite carry. “Blessed are the cheese makers,” one character hears. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” asks a woman. “Obviously it is not to be taken literally,” her husband replies; “it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

10. Moral: a cultureless theology is an ecclesiastical disaster – and a “two culture” (C.P. Snow) theology is not much better. If we are ignorant of science we lapse into Idiocy 101-102: Creationism; or Imbecility 201-202: Intelligent Design. But if we are ignorant of literature, mere ignorance becomes downright dangerous – witness the nonsensical interpretations of biblical apocalypse by the religious right and its pernicious influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East. If pastors should be community theologians, community theologians should be writers-in-residence, exercising what Yoder called “word-care,” and teaching their folk how to read.

18 Comments:

Jim said...

Ok, ok, ok, ok.... it's high time and past it that Kim start his own blog. He has (he? I'm supposing aren't I since Kim can be either a male or female name) posted lots of interesting things and he needs to just take the plunge!

Ben, in order to facilitate this- I believe you should force him to start his own blog by refusing to post anything for him. You are enabling him to avoid his own responsibility!

;-)

Chris T. said...

Beautiful thoughts as always, Kim.

I would quibble with the asides made in #10, however. While I share your concern that Christian faith not be rendered ridiculous by succumbing to the theories promulgated by creationist/ID folks, I do think some of their ire comes out of a legitimate perception that scientism and materialism are running rampant in Western society. (You know how I feel about Mary Midgley!)

I feel like everyone — scientists included — could benefit from trying to figure out just what is driving this wholesale rejection of pretty uncontroversial scientific claims as evolution.

BTW, I particularly like #3, #6, and #8. I find myself disagreeing with Hauerwas more than I agree with him, but virtue ethics is hard not to agree on. But then, I am an Augustinian through and through when it comes to Christian ethics, which can also be blamed on Midgley, and Arendt.

Richard H said...

I was a fundamentalist when I first became a Christian (17 yrs old). I shifted away from being a fundamentalist mostly from reading the bible for myself.

A couple of comments:
1. It seems quite easy to take your propositions - esp. #1 - as condescending. I don't find it useful to approach practicing fundamentalists in such a manner - unless I feel the need to make myself look more educated than them.
2. Do you think the pioneers of the American Fundamentalist Movement (dating from the publication of the Fundamentals) were completely misguided in their assessment of that which they saw the need to react against? If not, is there anything comparable that deserves a comparable response today?
3. As a pastor/preacher/teacher I start with people where they're at. Most of the people I work with (small town E Texas) are not readers. Oh, they know how to read, they just take no joy in it.
4. Alas, though I am no longer a fundamentalist, I'm very far from being a poet. I see complexity every I look. I'm notorius (at home and at church) for not being able to give much in the way of a straight answer. But when it comes to poetry & literary writing - just not my taste for the most part. I know I'm supposed to like it so folks will allow that I'm really cultured (and not just a pretender), but I'm happy the way I am. That's a long winded way of saying your analysis may be too simplistic.

Anonymous said...

The tone of this was a little harsh when it needn't be, but some interesting quotes and points nonetheless: thanks.

andrewE said...

Kim,

Very interesting; elegantly worded. But with Richard h I do feel that some of your comments look more like highly-educated disdain for those with less literary ability than concern for the faithfulness of brothers and sisters.

Perhaps such an attitude is required by the problem you address; but I suspect not.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jim West. That said, he's not going to like my next comment. #1 is right, but it is not just a reductio of Protestant biblicism, but specifically of hyper-Zwinglism. I am not so much railing against Zwingli himself, but against so many of his followers--who speak of the sacraments/ordinances as MERE symbols, for instance.
But Zwingli's antipathy toward statues and icons (with some biblical justification) quickly became in his followers a hostility toward all art--and maybe even all beauty.
This hyper-Zwinglism can manifest itself not only in fundamentalism (and the "evangelical rationalism" of a Carl Henry), but also in Bultmannian demythologization programs (programmes to those with British spelling). An aversion to mystery is behind the fundamentalist cessationism that hates Pentacostals and behind the Bultmannian fear of anything mystical in a scientific age (never realizing that most physicists, even the atheistic ones, are mystics at heart--read any contemporary scientific cosmology!).

Anonymous said...

Kim,

in relation to thesis 7, have you read Samuel Wells Improvisation: the Drama of Christian Ethics? If you have, I'd love to hear what you think of it. I'm using it in an intro to Christian Ethics course.

Patrick

byron said...

A blog for Kim? I assume he's been writing abstracts for his forthcoming books.

kim fabricius said...

Hi everyone.

A few folk have commented on my "tone" (Brandon) in a couple of the Thoughts. A palpable hit. You must forgive me if I make some points too strongly, let alone sneeringly. It is a temptation to which I am prone to succumb when it comes to fundamentalists, let alone the religious right.

However "highly educated disdain" (Andrewe) is a different matter; disdain I do not feel at all. Certainly we are not saved by literacy, let alone erudition; intelligence, however, is a moral imperative - at whatever level our education - while ignorance is always a vice. There is too much aw-shucks anti-intellectualism about that wears the cloak of piety - and it generally comes from the fundamentalists.

Patrick, I have indeed read Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (2004) - and bravo for using it in your ethics course! Samuel Wells, of course, is a student of Hauerwas, who is a student of MacIntyre - a mini-genealogy of of the advocates of virtue ethics! Wells offers a particularly rich description of what narratively informed discipleship looks like, including a few case studies. Highly recommended.

And, Byron - bless you! - but I don't do books, basically because books are for people with original ideas - and I'm not sure I've had an original idea in my life. I just play around with really creative people's chips and try out new configurations. Some people seem to find it helpful - and I won't argue with them. If others think I'm a charlatan - I won't argue with them either.

Scott Roberts said...

Kim,

I object, in #4, to seeing reason as the attempt to make the infinite finite. True, that is how the word is generally thought of in this disenchanted age, but it seems to me that one of theology's tasks is to rehabilitate reason from this sort of misapprehension. 'Reason', after all, is just as good a translation of 'Logos' as 'Word'. Take someone like Nicholas of Cusa, whose work is through and through rational, but whose accomplishment is (as Hart would say, I think) to preserve the analogical distance between the finite and the infinite. Or Goedel, who demonstrated rationally that "logical completeness" is impossible for anything interesting.

To put it another way, in the end, there is no difference between reason and art, and so in the present, they should not be seen as at odds. Excessive reason is not the problem, insufficient reason is, especially in the form of bad reason from bad presuppositions, the sort evinced by fundamentalists and by scientific materialists.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Scott.

Thanks for that. The way you use "reason", I'd agree with you - as, I am sure, would Chesterton himelf! (The "reason" he critiques is usually called "instrumental" reason.)

And the Goedel reference is so apt: a perfect example of a mathematician and logician - i.e. a "pure" reasoner - whose incompleteness theorem, with its brilliant, heterodox insights (which dovetail nicely with my thought about closure) could only have come from a man with imagination.

Anonymous said...

Kim, there's an article you might like (by willie abrahams maybe?) called "the superiority of pre-critical exegesis". It's great stuff; tries to rehabilitate the allegorical method, etc. I would also recommend reading the response to it by my former theology proff (though I don't know he would claim me) Daniel Treier posted in the Journal of the evangelical theological society: "superiority of pre-critical exegesis, sic et non".


happy xmas!

sw

michael jensen said...

Hmm. I found this the least enjoyable of your lists Kim, for the reasons others have mentioned. These are cheap shots, IMHO, however fine they sound.

Rachel said...

"Virtue ethics is narrative ethics, where the script is unfinished and improvisation is essential. The Christian life is jazz."

Thanks for this! "Jazz" gives me a new way of looking at current questions.

Caro said...

Hi!
There is a friend traslating the portuguese writings form Ricardo Gondim (www.gondimenespanol.blogspot.com) and you can´t imagine the responses to his simple words: "I want to read poetry to understand more the human soul".
You see.. in spanish-christian blog-word there is so much ignorance. There are some who thinks that "true" christianity only comes from americans or pro-american ideologies (you said "christian right"). There is such confusion...
That´s why I thing it would be so interesting to read this post in spanish.
Could I translate and post it in my blog? I would quotate your authorship and keep on alert to make a good translation.

Thanks for this great space.
Carolina from Mexico

Anonymous said...

Kim, there's an article you might like (by willie abrahams maybe?) called "the superiority of pre-critical exegesis". It's great stuff; tries to rehabilitate the allegorical method, etc. I would also recommend reading the response to it by my former theology proff (though I don't know he would claim me) Daniel Treier posted in the Journal of the evangelical theological society: "superiority of pre-critical exegesis, sic et non".


happy xmas!

sw

Rachel said...

"Virtue ethics is narrative ethics, where the script is unfinished and improvisation is essential. The Christian life is jazz."

Thanks for this! "Jazz" gives me a new way of looking at current questions.

Caro said...

Hi!
There is a friend traslating the portuguese writings form Ricardo Gondim (www.gondimenespanol.blogspot.com) and you can´t imagine the responses to his simple words: "I want to read poetry to understand more the human soul".
You see.. in spanish-christian blog-word there is so much ignorance. There are some who thinks that "true" christianity only comes from americans or pro-american ideologies (you said "christian right"). There is such confusion...
That´s why I thing it would be so interesting to read this post in spanish.
Could I translate and post it in my blog? I would quotate your authorship and keep on alert to make a good translation.

Thanks for this great space.
Carolina from Mexico

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