Friday, April 07, 2017

Cogito, ergo skeptical

"I'm just a boy whose intentions are good...."

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great work of American literature that is, or is not, marred by the free use of the "N-word."

I don't weigh into this debate to argue for or against sensibilities on that subject.  If I can overlook the offensive term, it's because I could never use that term as the title of my autobiography, as Dick Gregory did.  I am not a person that term was ever used to describe, or used against.  I don't want to justify Twain's use of the word, or condemn it.  I have an analogy in mind.

One can argue the term is offensive, and taints the entire novel.  Or one can argue the term is vernacular, as the entire novel is, and accept it in that way.  Either way, you have to deal with the issue of anachronism:  the culture has changed so much in such a short time that Huckleberry Finn exists partly out of time, but with one foot still stuck firmly in its time.

Frankly, most literature benefits from understanding that time in which it was written.  Beowulf and Gilgamesh make more sense if you don't try to read them as written for a contemporary audience.  Shakespeare has tremendous insights into human life and nature, but his works are very Elizabethan, for all their universality.  If I treat Shakespeare's works, or Huckleberry Finn, as written for me, I turn them into anachronisms and distort them very badly, indeed.

So, am I skeptical of the gospels if I critique their validity as records of history?  We know not to treat literary works as historical records; at least unless we are approaching them from an historical-critical perspective, or looking for clues to the novel from the biography of the author (Hemingway is a favorite for this technique; indeed, almost no one reads Hemingway without being aware of "Papa Hemingway" the lover, journalist, war correspondent, ambulance driver, deep sea fisherman, safari hunter, child of the American wilderness, etc.).  We have, in short, elaborate theories of literary criticism for how we approach and appropriate written texts (even to call them "texts" is to employ literary theory).  We do this in part so we don't read the texts as something written for us; or, more accurately, to acknowledge we can only read them from a contemporary perspective, that we cannot begin to understand them as the original audience would have.  And we acknowledge that, to try to avoid distorting the texts and getting from them ideas that are merely reflections of what we want to see there.

We try, in other words, to avoid anachronism.

Texts do not transcend history because of something inherent in the text.  They do so because of us.  John Donne's work was all but forgotten until T.S.Eliot branded his work "metaphysical" and taught us to read it with contemporary insights and appreciation.  Ditto the work of Julian of Norwich, whom Eliot rescued from obscurity with the last lines of his "Four Quartets."  We lose "great works" to the mists of history all the time, only to rediscover and appropriate them.  Beowulf would have remained an obscure work, even after its discovery in a British library basement, had it not appeared at a time of renewed interest in "folk tales," as opposed to the "classical" tales of Greece and Rome.  Those stories go regularly in and out of fashion; timeless at one point, all but forgotten at another.  We are constantly treating texts as anachronism, as something out of place in contemporary times, or more commonly something that only makes sense in contemporary times, something we have finally learned to appreciate.

And so, too, the gospels.  Since the German scholars in the 19th century, the gospels have been subjected to criticism (which is to say, critical readings, not "you're-ugly-and-your-mother-dresses-you-funny" criticism).  And the result for some has been a diminution of their message.  But which is truer to the message of the gospels:  to treat them as history, recording facts the way we expect the New York Times to do?  Or trying to understand the purpose of the original writers, the reception of the original audience, and trying to let those works speak to us the way they want to, rather than the way we want them to?

If I do not try to understand the gospels in their original context, I treat them as anachronism, because I read them as contemporary documents written with post-modern, or at least post-Augustinian, sensibilities and purposes.  By the same token, I can't get past the offensiveness of the "n-word" in Twain's novel, if I can't read it as 19th century vernacular.  And maybe I can't; my life is not immeasurably richer or poorer without that novel in it; but my life is poorer without the gospels, and richer with them.

The gospels were not meant to be historical accounts as we understand history today.  We condemn "revisionist history" because history as we learned it in school won't stand still, won't remain frozen in amber.  But history is not a thing to be surveyed like the crust of the earth, changing only because tectonic plates incrementally move.  History is interpretation, is focus, is what you choose to consider history.  Thomas Gray quietly upended the "Great Man" theory of history in an English country churchyard.  History is what Pepys experienced as much as what the King decided.  And no history is objective fact.  Perhaps war started on such and such a date:  but why?  To what purpose?  And to what impact?  As Chou En-Lai is supposed to have said in answer to the question, "What do you think of the French revolution?":  "It's too soon to tell."

Even Josephus doesn't write history the way we understand history today.  Even Josephus is read skeptically, and not just when he says the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. led to streets running with rivers of blood that reached the knees of the horses (or was it the knees of the soldiers?).  Everything, in contemporary theory, is subject to interpretation, to the nature of observation (not just Schrodinger's cat).  Were the gospels written with our expectations of recording history in mind?

No; and it does them a disservice to think so.  The alternative is not that they are wild conjecture, either; this is not a simple dichotomy, or even a muddled "both/and a little bit of neither".

So, am I "skeptical" about the gospels?  I prefer to say I am respectful (but such things are always in the eye of the beholder); that I approach them trying, as I was taught in seminary, to exegete them by letting the texts speak to me, not me to the texts.  But that is a religious approach; it is an appropriate one, but it is one only.  I've read the works of truly skeptical Biblical scholars:  atheists and non-believers and non-Christians, and I find their interpretations misleading, or lacking, or unpersuasive.  Of course, there are religious readings that I reject, too.

Am I skeptical of the gospels?  No.  I'm skeptical of certain ideas about how to read the gospels.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I'm going to have to read it through several times.

    It's funny because right before I read it I happened to look at my copy of Lila and I was thinking of M. Robinson's use of a third person narrator who knew what Lila was thinking instead of having Lila telling the story out of her understanding of it as Twain had Huck Finn narrate his novel. I think having an adult narrator allowed Robinson to address a lot more, a lot more deeply than Twain did. The road in Lila led to mature, responsible adulthood, the river in Huckleberry Finn ends in childhood and a denouement that has more in common with Peter Pan.

    I think my problem with the scriptures flowed entirely from the absurd, anachronistic method of reading them that you mention. It's a lot harder to read them in a way more appropriate to the writers' intentions but it's the only way to understand those intentions.