Friday, September 27, 2013

These Essays: Salutary Force

          What we Christians need is salutary force. Or at least, that is what I think our interpretations of Scripture need. Salutary means for something to be of benefit. The theologian Karl Barth believed in salutary of doctrine. For example, the doctrine of original sin, he thought, should be used to lead people to Jesus – and for no other purpose, such as driving them to despair. Now I don’t know that our interpretations should lead people directly to Jesus, necessarily. That is not what I’m saying. But I think they should have salutary impact. If we are Christians, our interpretations of Scripture should heal. And, all else being equal, we should prefer those interpretations of Scripture which do heal, which have salutary force.  

         This is not just a kind idea or a gentle thought. For Christians, those interpretations of Scripture which have salutary force are actually better interpretations. Now precisely why this is so will take a great deal of explanation, and that will be the purpose of these essays. But I am not the only person to have thought this. There is currently a resurgence in the therapeutic use of Scripture, which in the old days people just would have called biblical pastoral care. But what is of interest to me is that all of this research tends to do one of three things.

          First, the research focuses on what we might call the authoritative contents of Scripture. The Bible offers wisdom about how to live that people could not get elsewhere. Second, the research may also focuses on the empathetic, linguistic form of Scripture. The Bible was written for us as human beings. And it comes to us in particular ways, though the language of poetry, narrative, letter, and parable, and how we read or hear all of these affects our cognition, empathy, and understanding.

          Finally, the research may combine Biblical form and content working together to foster human transformation. The Bible was written for human beings seeking right relationship with God, and – as the apostle Paul was quite clear – this project requires wholesale change, the new birth of spiritual, mature human beings.   

          Now I myself agree with this last focus. But I do not want in these essays to eschew any of the research I’ve encountered, whether psychological, linguistic, or theological. The purpose of the Bible is obviously going to employ both its form and content. So these essays will focus on the themes of authority, empathy, and transformation in the Bible. And hopefully in the end we will all have a better sense of why an interpretation which follows the salutary content, form and purpose of the Bible is actually going to be superior to those that do not.  

          Perhaps I should conclude with two visions of what such interpretation might look like. The first of them is quite old. It comes from Augustine, one of the church fathers. He says that “so our medicine, Wisdom, was by His assumption of humanity adapted to our wounds, curing some of them by their opposites, some of them by their likes.” So here we have a therapeutic relationship between affinity and opposition—between kingship and kinship, as the ancients might have said, or through authority and empathy, as we might say today. In the Bible that which commands us as human also relates to us as kin.

          The second image actually comes from contemporary psychological therapy. And what is fascinating about modern therapy is that it comes in very many different forms, which nearly all have about the same rate of success in helping clients, no matter what reason or school of thinking lies behind them. Now the scholar Robert C. Roberts has outlined what almost all such therapies have in common: the therapist is considered an expert, the client trusts, the client makes an effort to confront or change the problem, and the therapists recommends altered behavior while conveying a sense of empathy.

          Do you see how this might happen when Christians read Scripture? We trust the text as authority (content) and empathize with the people Scripture imagines (form). In doing so, we come to a new understanding that allows us, through the power of Christ, to “live into” the reality that Scripture imagines (transformation). This is the face of salutary force. Holistic, personal growth through transformation is the healing which salutary force should indicate.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

These Essays: Two Wrong Answers

" Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man." - The Dude 

          So there are at least two wrong answers to the question of interpretive validity - on what makes an understanding valid. And they are both common in America today. The first is that, whatever one’s opinion, a text can have only one true meaning, usually what the author intended, and it is our job to sort through all the fuss and figure out what that is. The second wrong answer is that, whatever the facts, all interpretations are equally valid because we all come to a text from various limited perspectives. So, everyone has an equal right to his or her own point of view, and the best we can do is quiet down and listen respectfully.

          Now anyone who has tried to communicate a complex message can see that the first answer is too narrow. What one writes can and will be taken in various ways by diverse persons. And not all of these will be incorrect simply because they differ, especially as one cannot even convey the entirety of one’s own intention. Language is both limited and limiting. 

         More, though we certainly should listen respectfully to one another, the mistake of the second answer is even easier to see. What one writes can clearly be misread, interpretations can go egregiously wrong, and readers of a text can miss the point entirely. Such readers can have little basis for their misunderstanding – or worse, no basis at all other than their own iniquity, greed, or contempt. So a right answer to the question of interpretive validity may well lie in some uneasy tension between these two errors: more than one, but hardly all, interpretations must necessarily be valid.

          So: what are be the rules? What are the criteria? What makes some interpretations more valid, and others less so, or not at all? Christians, as it happens, have a long tradition of developing interpretive criteria. They were developed for reading Scripture. So if Christians are good Biblical readers, they will try to reach certain benchmarks with their interpretations:  appropriateness, fecundity, consistency, comprehensiveness, and responsibility of methodology, among many others. And those criteria are not wrong. 

         But they may not be sufficient. You see, these “first-tier” criteria are mostly of a kind. They are technical, procedural, secular criteria that consider the production of some form of the “best possible” interpretation. Now such a goal can hardly be ignored, but for Christians it has not always been sufficient.

         Rather, those who believe in God have often considered what the interpretation of Scripture must itself be for. And the various religious traditions have arrived at many different answers: Scripture is for determining God’s regenerative will (Calvin), for building up the love of God and neighbor (Roman Catholic), for hearing the Word of God spoken through Jesus Christ (Lutheran), for bringing about the reconciliation of God and humankind (Orthodox). 

        But through all of these we can see that throughout the bulk of Christian history, Scriptural interpretation has not been an end in and of itself. That is actually a recent invention of modernity and the Enlightenment, which assumed that we ourselves deserve to know the truth and that knowledge is as high a concern as anyone need have. But the words of Scripture and of Christ  encourage us to look beyond the processes of interpretation to include, even as we interpret, the purposes and ends of our interpretation.
         The problem with these second-tier criteria is that they are, by their very nature, quite broad. They try to comprehend the whole of Scripture rather than those particular texts to which an interpreter might be attending. So it has not always been clear how one’s interpretation might build up the love of God and neighbor, discern God’s will, or bring about reconciliation. 

          In fact, Christians interpreting Scripture have quite often produced understandings that had precisely the opposite effect. They have condoned slavery, supported the subjugation of women and foreign and domestic peoples, legitimized horrific and brutal wars, and aided many other evils. Such outcomes cannot reasonably have been part of any of the good purposes toward which Christian traditions have pointed interpretation in the first place.

         So we have something of a problem. The technical considerations of the first tier can only tell us whether or not such interpretations have been correct, and not whether they have been wrong. Remembering the second tier of criteria long proposed by Christian tradition, this seems insufficient. Yet, at the same time, history would indicate that the dogmatic criteria of the Christians traditions have been too broad, or at least too easily forgotten, to have been authoritatively persuasive among interpreters of Scripture. What we need is a criterion that rises above technical considerations but does not escape the rigors of confronting actual Scriptural texts. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Two Pages a Day: One Hundered Six

            Nogilian shook his head “The jewel city of Kasora possesses relics called the Golden Arcs. They were great weapons, but have not awoken in centuries. They never left the earth. ”       
            “Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I thought.”  
            If he said any more I did not hear it. Eventually, he left. I watched the waves far beneath me, churning in the storm. I felt longings I had not since Redmarak. It would be so easy, a hundred meters down. One more added to the rolls. Nightwind wouldn’t get me. Augers wouldn’t get me. Just the waves. The men would rally behind another person, one more suited to the task. He always had been.
            Suriel came back. I glanced up once and saw him, sitting there beside me. Maybe he wasn’t going to try to stop me, either. He wasn’t the hue that would be inclined to do so. He was matte black and red, now, and cloaked utterly in what seemed like nightwind.                         
            “You look too damned much like the other side,” I said.
            He peered at me with all the sadness of the universe. And I cursed that Niskivim trait that makes you feel whatever they are feeling, and sometimes to feel it more. I choked on the intensity of grief. I couldn’t breathe.
            “Let/oceans/enfold/you,” he said, amidst about a million other things. He said it like it was the last thing he would ever be able to. I looked away. I considered the stormy sea.  
            “Yeah,” I said. “Maybe this isn’t the best time for that. I know it’s not about us. It’s never about us. This is about that other war. Your war against them.”
            I looked back. He was gone, of course. Maybe I’d scared him. Neither are the Niskivim the only non-human sentience in the universe. Though I wish they were. There are beings much darker and more ominous. 
            I sat there until Ash approached. There’d been a messenger, he said. “Jerem Cozak has landed early. Everything has changed. There is less time. You will plan the rest of the conquest together. He says to listen to your dreams tonight.” 
            I never turned from looking out upon the waves. I noticed I had started learning forward.     “No,” I said. 
            I almost felt the interruption of his departing bow. “Our Guardian?”
            “Dammit, Ash, there are too many voices in my head!”
            He waited.
            “Do you know what they have me wanting to do? Drive my valkyrie over  the cliff, lead all of you with me. Have you ever seen one of them explode? I’m not doing any of it. The other continent, his dreams, Nogilian’s battles, none of it. I’m done. I’m out. Tell Nogilian the army’s his.”
            I could hear him swallow. “Part of the scenario he wishes to convey is that in the south they have found artifacts of great importance. Their strength is gathered there. We’ve been fighting remnants only.”
            If you could measure despair, I ask myself, how deep could it go? How many thousands of meters beneath those waves? I know the ladder I would make, the rungs the names of the truly dead. “That’s Nogilian’s job. It always has been. He’s so much better at it. I’m communications.”
            “But the men revere you. They formed around you. They will not leave without you.”
            “Then tell everyone I’m sorry. But I never wanted this. I never asked for this. And I’m telling you I’m done. I won’t move a muscle. If they won’t go without me, then no one’s going anywhere at all.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Two Pages a Day: One Hundred Four

            Then we went, chameleonic. We avoided collisions because one night in Nogilia the White Swarm did something to each of us. When we woke, we saw each other as the White Swarm saw us: as clusters of machines. The Swarm was always visible to itself. Only our flesh and armor and riding machines could disappear from their sight. As we rode to war we saw each other only as white and spectral forms, intensifications of machine-made mist. No one else saw us at all.
            I sent Nogilian with thirty-five thousand men to wait deployment in the valley behind us. The rest I took ahead to my previous post upon the ridge.
            We brought artillery. We’d only found twenty pieces scattered throughout Nogilia, a few at each of the most prominent cities we had taken. I hoped it would be enough. The sea breeze whipped our faces as we rode out on the open. Smell of salt air. Good.  The delta spread below us. Flocks of white egrets sailed for the horizon. Three hundred meters away the city squatted like a tick at the waist of the world.
            I ordered the officers to fire. Suns arced across the sky, landing mostly on the wall. The thing about conducting such a siege is that it takes patience. You’re not blasting away with shells. You’re confusing trillions of nanites with blasts energy, until a wall loses its cohesion. It took till noon for the Profusionist metal to break. I poured down the hills with my ten thousand to deal with the landing craft that had come from the docks southwest of the city. Nogilian streamed down behind me, kept on going toward the falling wall, and roared across the bridge of the White Swarm, which unchameleoned itself as he neared, and which had been in a day in undiscovered growing. Afterward, he went on the city square to face a force of ten thousand Augers standing armed and waiting over the cache that we had come for.  
            Not that I would know. I wasn’t there. Me and my ten thousand were off guiding five thousand converted Augers along a silty beach. By the time I got to the city square, all I could do was watch the corpses. 
            And those were dead in truth. No one got up again. I’d waited, in Nogilia, too. Watched to see it happen. Kissed more than I would care to count. I’d inquired to Ash about it. I’d certainly asked Nogilian.
            “Why can’t you do it?” I asked the Swarm now. “Why won’t you bring them back?”  
            Silence reigns on Thaeron. Time to call the roll, and add new names. I don’t remember how long I stood there with them. Even at the time it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing much did. I know that by the time we formed up to encamp outside the city, the sun was fading from the sky.
            Not that it had shown up much that day. Sepira is known for frequent storms. By the time darkness fell and I was sitting beneath my awning, the downpour had come again. I sat and watched the waves. The despair that haunts commanders would not depart.  
            Nogilian came to see me. “The caches were nearly full. Five thousand artillery disks, fully operational. We cannot use them, but they will make a mighty gift for Jerem Cozak. There will be nothing else like them on this world.”
            I shrugged. Messengers had given me that news thirty times over.
            He went on. “Tomorrow we can begin herding the mastodons. I do not know how many there will be, but this is their land. We will have them all for Jerem Cozak.”
            I scowled. “What’s across the sea, Nogilian? Our warlord never said.”
            He winced as the wind brought a wash of rain beneath the awning. “Three lands: Kasora, Nesechia, and the Shuni Plateau. Kasora, a mountain valley holding the oldest and strongest city in the world. Nesechia, a series of broad peninsulas reaching out into the ocean. The plateau, arid and flat and high, another land for valkyries.”
            “Any place you’d look for interstellar ships?”