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Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Old Church

The church that I belong to seems old. It has lost the ability to grow and it deteriorates with age. But it isn’t old just in the sense of losing its capacity to grow, in its energy; it is old in the sense that it imagines itself as old, and places itself at a time more than one hundred years ago, around the time of 1850 or so.

That was the time when science never heard of natural selection. A time that was still pre-industrial and climate change was far into the future. It was a time when race was solidly understood by the majority of people as a great divide and a biological imperative. It was a time before the age of mass destruction from warfare and mass shootings. It was a time before even the term “homosexual” was known and used, and certainly not other terms such as “trans-sexual,” “queer,” “gay.” It was pre-dispensationalist, and so end times were not given so easily as an excuse for inaction. It was a time before the landmark collection, Essays and Reviews, was published, which for a time destroyed the idea of an inerrant and consistent reading of the Bible (cf especially, H. B. Wilson’s ideas concerning the need for morality to be ascendant over doctrine; and Jowett’s essay On the Interpretation of Scripture), and gave a leg up to modern theological liberalism with its view that reason has received short-shrift in many an evangelical church.

We in the Church/church have walled ourselves off because we use creation science, not the real science, to justify the inerrancy of biblical language. We treat Jonah as really being in the belly of fish/whale; we treat Adam and Eve as being real people (and Moses, and Abraham, and Jacob, and on and on). We think that Noah (real guy, that Noah) built a great big ark (real ark!) so that all the animals would survive a worldwide flood (real flood!). We don’t tend to discuss climate change. We do tend to discuss the coming of Jesus. We spend all our time building a fortress that keeps other, more knowledgeable people, outside of our cult-ish interior.

With age comes many things, wisdom often quoted among them--but not always present--in aged institutions and people. Though there is often, with age, an impulse to divulge, to present openly when before, at a younger age, one tended to wait, to recede in the background, to see how others put forth their arguments, their beliefs. As you age you sometimes get bolder.

But not the church.

You cannot call yourself bold when you are living in the far gone past; 1850 does not allow you to be revolutionary in any mode of thought.

But, some in this old, old church will say, it is better to be right than merely modern. Prevailing opinion isn’t correct just by virtue of it being current.


Yet a church that fails to argue the points is a church that has already failed to convince any to its point of view. The secularists have made their choices. They have walked away. They have largely argued these views individually and come to conclusions that the church disagrees with, and not just those views touched on previously, but spiritual doctrines that many people simply do not believe in anymore.

A church that teaches the same doctrine, views the world through the same eyes, has the same viewpoints that occurred in 1850, is not a church that will survive much longer. Indeed, it is something of a miracle that it has survived this long. Do not expect it to survive beyond this next generation, because this generation has made itself known as one for which progress is important, and which demands that ideas be talked about, and defended. This generation wants, and needs, a church that will be the tip of the spear to thoughtful, progressive ideas and solutions to the problems in a modern world. That is where the energy is deployed. The church, to them, is now more the butt of the shaft, held tight (to the past).

If the church wishes to remain relevant, it needs to speak to relevant topics, in a modern way, with modern ideas (science) not viewed as the enemy of God but as Calvin saw it all, as non-threatening, as merely a part of a revealing nature. And if it does not wish to take part in relevant discussions, does not wish to partake in the controversies that surround us, then why should we care if it lives or dies? Something else will replace it. Jesus said nothing will prevail against his church, but did not say that the church would remain stagnant. As the church changes, it becomes other than what it was. Someday, perhaps very soon, those in the church will find themselves outside what the church currently establishes itself as, and those in the church of 1850 will not recognise it, will not even see it as a church at all. They will be lost in the past, and only history books will speak of them, if they’re even that fortunate.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Beautiful Book

Image result for signsThere is a sense in which you can take any sign whatsoever, whether a tree, a musical note, a word, and find ambiguity, find a space that resonates and echoes until you lose it completely and you wonder, What did that mean?
There is also a sense in which you can take any sign and apply it almost exactly, precisely to a given situation. You have the sense that you know it completely.
Signs are like this, like a jazz composition, that the composer has written down and gives to a few different bands to play. All the bands have the same musical notations, the signs, and they appears exactly the same on the page. Yet all the bands will play a different song, if only slightly different, playing within the ambiguous space of the composer’s signs.
That is language.

Everyone knows what it is; and no one knows what it is.

Nietzsche apparently felt that truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms...illusions whose illusory nature has been forgotten.” Umberto Eco apparently disagreed. When reading semioticians my mind fogs. But however Eco dismantled Nietzsche, the philosopher caught that sweeping nature of signs, of pointing to an expanding truth, but a truth that is vaporous and that does not have a distinctness to it. You simply cannot draw an outline around the truth and shade it all in, point to it, and say, There! That’s it.

So when I listen and read the evangelical predisposition to absolute truth as written in the inspired Word of God, the Bible, I am predisposed myself to add a rejoinder: Have you never thought about the words? The words themselves? What do you know about them? What can you know about them?

I am going to guess that after studying Eco and all the other great semioticians one would, if even a little like me, still be left a bit askew. It’s a tall task. It is a task that few even seem to know exists: a bit like not noticing that, Ah! Over there is a mountain called Everest. Never noticed it before! How’d I miss that?

Here is a bit, as explanation, of Eco’s formula (taken from an online lecture by Gary Genosko:
Consider, then, the nuts and bolts of Eco’s model. A sender makes reference to presupposed codes (and the circumstances orienting these) and selected subcodes in the formation of a message that flows through channel; this message is a source of information (expression) with contextual and circumstantial settings (settings that are coded according to cultural conventions or remain relatively uncoded or not yet coded such as biological constraints). The addressee receives the message and with reference to his or her own presupposed codes (and the actual circumstances, which may deviate from the presuppositions) and selected subcodes, the selection of which may be indicated by the context and circumstances, interprets the message text (content). Here, Eco adopts from Metz the redefinition of message as text as “the results of the coexistence of many codes (or, at least, many subcodes).” ((A Theory of Semiotics, p. 57.)) The structuralist disconnection of the message-text from authorial intention helps to underline Eco’s sense of the interpretive freedom found in certain kinds of decoding that eludes such a point of reference.

Well, that clears it up.

It must be clear that our texts, and our cultural assignations of that text, and our interpretations of that text, the connotative and denotative meanings, and so forth, render meaning inescapably...fuzzy.

Back to our jazz band. Let’s suppose that the musical score is Genesis (an analogy). Each of our jazz bands takes the notes and interprets them differently, each sees some freedom within the signs and toots out a different tune. Chord changes occur quite apart from the text itself, but one’s interpretation of signs leads to different outcomes. A different song appears, and not just between the three bands, but if allowed to play the tune again, each time it becomes something else.

This is not merely true of music. This is what happens to language.

The Bible is not language embedded in concrete. It is musical. It is interpretive. It is fuzzy. That is just the way it is, you cannot get around it, though many pretend otherwise.

An evangelical fundamentalist reads Genesis and interprets the melody, calculates the rests and time signature, and concludes that the earth is 4500 years old, give or take. He calculates that we came from one man, Adam. He calculates that God walked the earth and gave him fruit to eat but that Adam disobeyed and ate of that one tree he should not have eaten from. He further calculates that evolution is crap and a whole lot of people walked the earth named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Moses. And so forth. He closes the canon and declares it Good! (But homosexuality is very bad!)

Such is the result of not knowing much about semiotics, language interpretation, mythic reading, translation theory, or much about anything. This is what ignorance does, propping up mis-readings as idol-worship, as bibliolatry.

There is a cure for this sort of destructive non-interpretive mode of reading the Bible: it is to read it as Art. William Blake thought of the Bible as the Great Code of Art. And so it is, but only if you understand how language works, how the hidden inconsistencies (actually, they are not so hidden but are quite openly declared if you choose to see them) within the Bible show humanity’s grappling with the warring tendencies of life, how life is this and that, at the same time; Job resisting the impulse to curse God but pretty much cursing him anyway; God telling Job who he is talking to...and not telling him anything; psalms of great praise to God and psalms questioning God’s goodness. And that is just the Old Testament. There is a lot here in the Bible; a lot that needs digesting. But don’t think that it actually can be digested, that it can be made sense of. It cannot. You have to hold the warring factions in your head all at once, as if a Zen koan; the Jehovah of death and destruction alongside the Adonai of Jesus. The sound of one hand clapping.

Beautiful things have tension, lack perfect symmetry. They say: A terrible beauty. They emerge, beautiful things do, out of time and space and history, full of noise and terror and cradled softness: it comes and then it goes, born to die. It is not easy, this sort of book, and neither should it be.