Saturday, December 7, 2013

These Essays: Scripture Colonizes the Mind

Of course, there are psychological transformations and then there are psychological transformations. Christians have been interested in those which we may judge to have been better. Psychology is, for Christians, a moral arena. Scripture’s morally transformative nature figures heavily in the work of Ellen Charry. Her By the Renewing of Your Minds advances Scripture’s aretegenic, or moral-building, purposes, which include the alteration of both behavior and cognition.

She develops, of course, the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans and his injunction that they are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). We are, Paul implies, to follow the pattern of Christ instead. While Paul seems not to have been entirely clear on precisely what virtue or ethic this might entail, Charry argues, along with a number of secular theorists, that the act of reading itself changes the reader. This happens via a sort of cooperative colonizing of the mind, an interactive conspiracy between author and reader through a text.

The author intends to help the reader; by reading, the reader solicits this moral, psychological, and emotional aid. In other words, if Scripture gives us Christ, our reading Christ in Scripture might be something of how this happens. It may be the case that the Bible colonizes the Christian mind because we ask it to. Such holistic colonization of the mind is true of all texts generally; to be informed is to be transformed, to be of a new mind, often in ways similar to those an author intended. We “absorb” their good—or their evil.

Yet this cognitive alteration is not exhaustively true of Christian Scriptures which also insist, particularly in the case of Paul, that Christian identity is also ontological transformation. The language of the New Testament does not mean to be “merely” moral, though we follow Ellen Charry in saying that it is certainly so. But the transformation Paul concerned himself primarily with was Gentiles beginning to follow the way of Christ.

And Paul's treatment of pagans, that particular group of people from which most current Christians come, is on the whole positive, and certainly salutary of outcome. God’s universal call to pagans precedes both scripture and the creation of the world. They are the ultimate focus of God’s attentive plan, and thus endowed with both dignity and self-respect. Freed slaves, they receive the clothing of baptism in Christ as both liberation from sin and as moral responsibility to aid one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

If pagans are to be embarrassed, it is because of their current failures to live into the goodness of their new identities. Paul chides them not for being impure, or for failing to be better, but rather for their refusal to change holistically, for being weak in Christian identity. That is why Paul writes to them, to urge them into the abundant life inaugurated by Christ crucified. He hopes that they will read, and either be transformed or open to the transformation offered by God in Jesus Christ.

Reading changes us. Reading Scripture in particular changes us in particular ways. 

Charry’s point in advancing her aretegenic reading of Scripture, and one of my purposes in proposing a criterion of salutary force, is the hope that the way we are reading Scripture may change us in ways more particular and desirable still. As she writes, “the proposal for aretegenic reading, then, is that attending to the psychological dynamics and rhetorical art of a text may disclose its moral shaping potential.”

One might hope that if we understood and explained Scripture as though our healing were possible and preferable, our interpretations would more often change to healing ones. This would be in more accordance with God’s purposes for both Scripture and ourselves. As Charry argues, by saying that Scripture wields therapeutic authority, we are also implying that knowing its wisdom will perhaps be like knowing medicine—which we see as both science and art, things which grow best in practice.

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