Saturday, March 8, 2014

These Essays: The Value of Difficult Texts

Say that we agree that Scriptural texts can have a plain or relatively straightforward sense. And say that we can agree that Scriptural texts can have a more obscure or figurative meaning. That should not be particularly difficult. These things have been true since Augustine.

But interpreters have had a great deal of trouble agreeing for long on which should be properly applied in any given Scriptural case. We may call this Scripture’s obscurity, and we can follow this in some detail when considering, briefly, a study done by Frank Kermode on the Gospel of Mark.

He is likely quite right to point out that there likely are no narratives of greater obscurity than the parables, and few parables of more difficult interpretation than those in Mark’s Gospel. But just as metaphor was a hopefully illuminating case of language, and scripture a heightened example of created revelation, so too may hard parables indicate the particular nature of Scripture’s narrative meaning.

And these parables are, like the metaphors and symbols we have so far explored, clearly open to interpretation yet eliding any final conclusion. Also like many of the other uses of language by Scripture which we have explored, the words of the parables must “mean more and other than what they say.”

What is unique in Mark’s parables is the clarity of their refusal to be understood: “The opinion of Mark...says that the parables are about everybody’s incapacity to penetrate their sense.”
Referring particularly to Mark’s parable of the sower, Kermode writes, “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven.”

 He concludes: “Mark is a strong witness to the enigmatic and exclusive character of narrative, to its property of banishing interpreters from its secret places.”

What is the value of such obscurity? Kermode admonishes that it “cannot be a work of irony or a confidence trick.” Rather, we may assume the following difference is key: “Outsiders see but do not perceive. Insiders read and perceive, but always in a different sense.”

 But where Kermode assures us that “world and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing,” providing “the perception of a momentary radiance, before the door of disappointment is finally shut on us,” we have far less reason for such pessimism. Ricoeur’s point, and ours, is that meaning in unstable rather than ephemeral and endlessly occurring as much as it is fading away.

We may ask ourselves then, if what matters between insiders and outsiders is the difference, the change from ignorance to understanding. If that were so, then a metaphor, a narrative, a Scripture that constantly suggests and then transcends its apparent meaning intends to lead all who read it into a life of perpetually startled recognition.

This understanding occurs as an event, a beneficent transformation. Now this may or may not be the same effect as the transformation from glory to glory spoken of by Paul. But it has salutary effect regardless, and that suffices for this study. After all, even Kermode is not pessimistic enough to say that everything resets when the lights go out.

Scripture shatters communities. That is, the practice of the interpretation of Scripture challenges our assumptions, counters our experience, baffles our intuition and defies our best attempts at reason, proclaiming that we do not understand. Scripture, like Lewis’s Aslan, is always on the move.

Scripture provokes argument and encourages dissent, dividing one from another. Interpreting Scripture is not for the faint of heart. Honest interpretation exposes our injustice and unrighteousness, the self-seeking of our thinking, the glibness of our understanding, and the futility of our efforts at finality – not because we should be ashamed but because the vital goodness of God stands in such sharp contrast to so many of our sicknesses.

The interpretation of Scripture kicks us out of the fold, showing that we misunderstood and will no doubt misunderstand again, because in this world finitude is the price of understanding. That is the authority of Scripture.

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