Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Good Grief, J. K. Gayle

We all hope he'll post more on David E. S. Stein's “On Beyond Gender: The Representation of God in the Torah and in Three Recent English Renditions” published in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues.

I'm listening, instead, to John Hobbins dedicating an entire blog post to me. "Dear," he starts and calls me by a nickname my father gave me when I was a tiny baby. As I listen to his charges, to his list, to his "I've been meaning to. . . " - I remember hearing my father when I was in grade school telling me not to say "Good grief" or "rats" or any of those "disrepectful things" that characterized the Peanuts comic book characters' speech. He made his meaning clear in various ways, many of which I felt profoundly. When I was sent away to boarding school he sent money after me if I would read (and when I could convince the dorm father I had memorized particular passages of) the Bible. When I went to undergraduate school he was not there (and neither were the fathers of two of my dear missionary-kid friends who ended their own lives prematurely - renouncing Christ and his heaven eternally according to those fathers of theirs). Lots of water under the bridge. Didn't I blog for you already how my father accepted my invitation to the defense of my dissertation some months back? How he took the opportunity to question me there in public, as if my "feminist rhetorical translating of the Rhetoric of Aristotle" were somehow a threat to Nature and the nature of things as they really are?

This post of mine is not Plato's Socrates' apology. It is not my dissertation defense all over again. I don't think it's even valuable to review, here, the values of feminisms, rhetorics, or translating with respect to sexist texts of patriarchal men. I had, some of you remember, started blogging when doing research and stopped for various unspeakable reasons. John Hobbins has outlined, more recently, several charges desde él en mi contra. Here are some:
  • "Most people for whom the Bible functions as light, mirror, and compass, are not going to give you the time of day, as you must realize by now, because they hear you saying that the Bible is darkness, profoundly distorting as an instrument of self-examination"
  • "exactly what you are saying [is. . . ] 'sexism in the Bible,' as it works itself out in precept and teaching, is equivalent to the waterboarding of women"
  • "the 'love patriarchy' of Ephesians 5 is still 'patriarchy' . . . But . . . the 'love patriarchy' of 'the Pauline economy' is no better (and perhaps worse) than that of Aristotle."
  • "the Bible is darkness, profoundly distorting as an instrument of self-examination, and in need of a 'strong reading' from the outside in order to render it innocuous."
  • "the Bible is imperfect and fallible - except for the parts we like based on some external criterion"
  • "you are unwilling to go down the path of reciprocity with those who are not feminists after your own heart."
  • "you speak of 'bibliobloggers' on the one hand, and 'feminist' bloggers, a category you identify with, on the other. . . . you developed this binary opposition in the context of a defense of Obama's pro-choice positions"
  • "people today, and Christians, too, hold very different opinions on abortion, Obama, and many other subjects, with defensible reasons in each case. The tone in your relevant post suggests that you may not."
  • you perhaps do not "respect the alterity of the texts, their non-feminist alterity included."
  • likely "you contribute to creating an environment in which Bible readers who do not share your passionately chosen brand of feminism will feel free to ignore and even disrespect your particular alterity."
I think it could be helpful to answer some of these charges. I'd already been toying with the idea of posting on how "light" figures in the Greek new testament. So in other posts on other days perhaps.

The elephant in this room, for me, is why and how this is such a huge thing for John Hobbins. I've grieved at how certain voices of a certain individual have been silenced at his blog, perhaps because she's a woman or speaks (out) feministically, and how he's watching water run under the bridge. This isn't to minimize John's charges. But aren't there other things to talk about when talking about the Nature of the Bible and of bible reading?


Bob MacDonald said...

Charlie Brown's Good Grief is the best exclamation. My children said 'O Dee' before they could say O dear. Whether one should spell Dear with a capital or not I don't know.

Our personal reactions are vital and they bury theological prejudice, abstraction, and even politics. Truth is not contained by prohibitions.

J. K. Gayle said...

I love it, Bob! Thanks for sharing your childrens' language and for cheering me up!!

John Radcliffe said...


I don't think it's surprising that how one views Scripture (or what one considers Scripture to be) should influence or control how (and indeed, why) one reads it. Now I don't know what your view of Scripture is, and it's not my intention to ask you to divulge such personal information here; it is, after all, entirely your business (or at least, yours and God's).

For me, I guess, the Scriptures have for more than 30 years now acted as "light, mirror, and compass" (to use John H's terms), but not, I trust, in a simplistic way (although I'm sure some might think so). Rather, I hope, in a way that honours the God I see revealed in those Scriptures.

I also hope you'll forgive me if I quote something I wrote as a comment on someone else's blog a couple of years ago. As my "insights" on the matter (although I doubt they really qualify for such a grand name) haven't moved on, I've found no real need to "re-think" them. They're not offered as "an answer" (and certainly not as "the answer"): they're just the outcome of following a particular line of thought to its conclusion. Feel free to enjoy or ignore, as you consider appropriate.

I believe that the Bible we have (after allowing for transcriptional errors) is exactly the Bible God meant us to have: it is as much his "word" as if we heard him say the words himself. So just as I don't believe that God would lie to, or deliberately mislead me, I don't believe his word does either. (This also implies that it should, in some way, "make sense".) That, in effect, is what I would mean by calling it "infallible" or "inerrant".

So why isn't it clearer? Unlike some "clear-cut" religious groups where people are told what to believe, do, not do, wear, eat, etc, frequently God seems to do things differently: things aren't always neatly packaged, clearly black-and-white, and we have to weigh up alternatives that don't seem to be mutually exclusive.

But why? Why is so much of the Bible anecdotal and descriptive ("A did B and C happened") rather than instructional and prescriptive? Now I don't think it's just to provide jobs for pastors, preachers, teachers, commentary writers, theologians, etc. Nor is it a set of puzzles for us to solve, or a series of tests to keep him amused as he watches us fail. So what on earth does God think he's doing?

For me, that last question offers the key. If we are perplexed by how God deals with us, it's because we fail to grasp "what on earth" God is in fact doing with, in and for us. If all he wanted was for us to "live right", then perhaps an instruction book would have been the answer. But what if he wants us to grow and mature in Christ-like-ness, and to develop relationships with other people and with himself? The fact is, whether we like it or not (and usually we don't), we usually grow most during difficult times [insert your own illustration here]. Consequently, that is frequently what God gives us.

So when it comes to doctrinal disputes, what if God is as much interested in how we reach our conclusions as in the conclusions we reach? By "how" I mean not only the interpretational principles we use, but how we interact with those who disagree with (annoy, verbally attack, or even slander) us. And in what we judge to be "so fundamental" that we must take a stand on it (even to the death, if need be), and what issues we consider "compromisible".

So I don't think we've got the Bible by chance. I suspect it's an optimal result: I think God did the critical path analysis and concluded: "OK, the Bible it is then".

J. K. Gayle said...

we have to weigh up alternatives that don't seem to be mutually exclusiveJohn, I appreciate what you've said here in many ways. Sometimes writing on a blog, I confess, for me is weirdly revealing. There's the personal that bleeds out and conversants with me, like you, only get bits but more clearly see other things, things other than I see too. Perhaps God and the bible are like that in a way. Maybe the Bible is his blogging in our histories.

I do think, when you or John Hobbins, mention the Bible as light, there is all of the difficulty with light to manage - before we can even come to the metaphor.

Scientists and us lay people using English alike often have trouble with light. Just the description of it: is it a particle (i.e., something measurable)? a wave (i.e., something with no clear boundaries, something with spectrum)? a field (i.e., something always best understood in relation to say, darkness, or to time or to space)?

The point I'm trying to make is that all three variant perspectives are human ones. Maybe they're godly perspectives as well. When we talk of "light" we may choose how. How we choose determines (not only what we mean but also) light in certain senses. How we talk about it changes "light," and it also changes us, doesn't it? The notion of objectivity is shot through by our observing so subjectively.

But when we talk about "the Bible" - even before we make the metaphor "the Bible is light" - then we have the same issues. What is this particle, this closed canon, this inspired-by-God-Himself thing? And isn't is wave-y? Which set of texts, which manuscripts of those texts, which translations of those? And might we not see it relationally? As the word of God? As a two-edged sword cutting and piercing me? As something leaving women and girls and slaves out while more including men (a set of texts by men and for men - if also some addressing others)?

The structure of the metaphor, then, is more like a particle. The aristotelian implication is that if the Bible is light, then the Bible is not darkness. Or if the Bible is light, then it is light in ways that other books or sets of them may not be. We want the metaphor, however, to be more personal. The bible is my light. It enlightens us. It guides me away from darkness, dispelling the dark.

But we can hardly do without our talk. The Jews have their midrash. The Christians their commentaries. Light for the Bible to interpret for us.

And yet, as mentioned in my most recent rambling post, there are hermeneutics that God gives us - even for reading the bible. I just love that Jesus would ask, for instance, How do you read it?

Bob MacDonald said...

I like this conversation. I need some help with Job. It is relevant to this conversation. It seems to me that prior translations of Job that I raced through (thinking I was reading) were all politically motivated. It's not only that I come across places that I translate in ways that suggest other meanings to me, but that Job is not a political animal so the religious framework gets turfed by him. His repentance in the 'light' of Yhwh's speech is not a religious repentance. It is an awareness of a different face. The repentance does not even use the word שוב but נחם usually used of God's 'repentance' or 'consolation'. What is Job doing using "God's" word? (I am not there in the book yet)

Also - and I am here - in chapters 10 and 14 and 23 Job seems to create the necessary human space to see a truth of God that is essentially what we need. I know I am reasoning from a purely human point of view - but is this not better?

Bob MacDonald said...

Lightly - piano, piano as I said to Hashem while cycling to work this morning, what is this metaphorical 'light' that Kurk so beautifully notes in the physical world, where our best 'brains' have struggled with axiom and logic to push human knowledge to fearful places? Light passes us, warms, corrects, invites, feeds, informs (or so we think) and polarizes!

Kurk - not sure where you stand in this very personal place, but there is 'information' pace Eliot's Journey of the Magi in the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ". (2 Corinthians 4:6) I am confident in this light that it cannot exclude in any way those whom it has fashioned, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female, (insert latest pair of complaints from the religious). I personally wouldn't be bothering with the Bible apart from this motivation. Whether this experience is really sharable is moot for me. Wherever you live, the political is a necessity for order and it definitely forms a shadowed diffraction pattern of the light source. Perhaps it is the apocalyptic perspective that governs the field more completely.

John Radcliffe said...

Thank you, JK, as always for your courteous and thought-provoking response.

I guess when I describe the Bible as "light", what I mean (others may differ) is that it allows me to see more clearly "where I'm going" (both on a day-to-day basis and, I trust, on my eternal journey), both in discerning the destination (where I'm headed) and the path I should take (how I get there).

Of course, how it might do that isn't immediately obvious or straightforward! It may be a process of infusion rather than intellectual exertion.

I do know, though, that the more I come to know, the more I realise I don't know, and indeed the more I conclude is probably unknowable. So while my knowledge might increase numerically, it decreases proportionally. I recognise more things that I'm happy (or at least willing) to be agnostic on, while (I hope!) recognising what is truly important: what one really "needs to know".

One of the books I'm reading at the moment (one I took on holiday with me) concerns the Trinity. So far, in the introductory sections on the "biblical basis" for the doctrine, I've found it very unsatisfying. To me it seems the writer is involved in an exercise in "eisegesis" rather than exegesis, as he seems to be reading the traditional doctrine back into the text and interpreting the biblical text to fit in with the doctrine rather than vice versa. This doesn't particularly surprise me and, to be honest, the reason I bought the book (or rather asked for it as a Christmas present) was for its later coverage of the historical development of the doctrine and the various controversies surrounding it, which I hope will be more satisfying or at least informative.

You see, I do firmly believe that God is triune ("there is one God but Three who are God"): i.e. that the doctrine is both biblically based and in some way "describes reality". The reason I bring this up in this conversation is that I don't think we should be surprised to find that life is all about relationships (as, in fact, I believe it is), if God, the source of our existence, is also relational. I find that idea profoundly encouraging, and that thought lies behind my earlier comments about "what on earth" God is trying to do "with, in and for us".

continued . . .

John Radcliffe said...

One of the differences I see in what Christians call the OT and NT is that the former is typically painted with a broad brush (very broad at times), whereas in the latter the author often uses a pen with a fine nib to fill in fine details. Accordingly, I wouldn't be surprised if an entire OT book (such as Job) was intended to drive home a single "point", whereas in the NT a single "chapter" might cover a whole swathe of ground. Of course what that single point might be for Job is open for debate, and I wouldn't dream of excluding the possibility that the writer will make "asides" along the way!

Thanks to the KJV, Job's "patience" has become proverbial, but in an extremely misleading way, as the English term has drifted since 1611. In fact Job was anything but "patient" in the modern sense, as he rages and argues and puts down his "friends" and their application of "current wisdom" to his situation. But what I find encouraging is that God doesn't seem to have a problem with us acting like that, in fact he seems to encourage us to question, debate, yes, even rage if the target is appropriate. In fact isn't that part of the relational journey? How would we learn or advance by sitting still and meekly accepting what we see to be wrongs (whether afflicting us or others)? Unfortunately, that today is what some people tell us we should do, one example being those complementarians who believe we should fix the relationship between the sexes as it was in NT times, although that's not something I see even the NT writers themselves doing.

As a recent UK telecom advert put it: "it's good to talk" (and especially if one isn't adding to the coffers of a telecom company by doing so). Even if we don't reach any "conclusions", and ours paths just touch or cross occasionally along life's journey, we can share a few thoughts, then give a brief wave of farewell and strike out again in the varying directions our own lives dictate, cheered at the very least that even when we walk alone, we're not in fact "on our own".

Kind regards to you both, John

J. K. Gayle said...

Again thanks, Bob, for your comments! I especially like what you said when you wrote: "I am confident in this light that it cannot exclude in any way those whom it has fashioned, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female, (insert latest pair of complaints from the religious)." Now, I some ways, you've reminded my of Jesus saying "I am the light of the world" and of C. S. Lewis saying of Him: "He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, ‘pinned down’. The attempt is (again I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam." How I wish I could offer you some help on your wonderful project in translation of Job. I just marvel at your observations, Bob!

John, Thank you for sharing your reflections on, among other questions, the Trinity. I like your preface to those comments as you also reflect on "knowing": "It may be a process of infusion rather than intellectual exertion." I'm also terribly encouraged, with you, "that God doesn't seem to have a problem with us acting like that, in fact he seems to encourage us to question, debate, yes, even rage if the target is appropriate. In fact isn't that part of the relational journey?" Yes!

And why don't those "who believe we should fix the relationship between the sexes as it was in NT times" ever want us to be even more conservative so as to fix the relationship between the sexes as it was before these times (as also described in the Torah)?

I appreciate conversation with you both very much.