Sunday, March 6, 2011

Readerly Intercourse: Nancy Mairs

How do you read the Bible?  Who has influenced how you do?  Who else might transform the ways you interpret the collection of texts?

Well, would you be interested in how Toni Morrison might, with no small degree of astuteness, regard texts as more open inter-texts?  Or, at least, when closed as some sort of container that would contain her:  "It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl ... and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world."  Morrison's writing here in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination about how the white world is a fish bowl for blacks in literary America USA.  Similarly, a white woman blogger in North America, Suzanne McCarthy, is astute to the reality of the fish bowl for women grasped by the likes of kyriarchic masculinists such as "Denny Burk [, who] writes for the CBMW"; in her blogpost "Not even all devils..." McCarthy points out how "some theologians writing for the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood have interpreted 'did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped' as an indication that Christ is in some way not equal to God" and the there's a glass ceiling where females in the church and the Christian home, "not equal to men," must live by implication:  "What kind of 'equality' did he [Jesus in Philippians 2:6] refuse to grasp for? He refused to 'grasp for' a functional equality with the Father that would have usurped the Father's role as Father."  So Morrison has us white and black readers look at the literary glass of the fishbowl; and McCarthy has us look at the relatively recent literary glass ceiling of the CBMW.  We read the Bible differently by examining this social constraints of other would-be readers of it.

Well, would you be interested in how Krista Ratcliffe might recover listening rhetorically?  So that we readers might take an open stance when listening in on a text?  Doesn't this method allow us to stand back, to be open, to listen not for the author's singular intention but with our own intent?  Here's how Bible translator Phyllis A. Bird in her work aims "to overhear an ancient conversation, rather than to hear [one]self addressed directly"; and so she moves forward:  "It is not the translator’s duty to make her audience accept the author’s message, or even identify themselves with the ancient audience, except in the sense that any literary work invites identification with its subjects. I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard.”  Bird is writing of "women and gender in ancient Israel"; but what of this Philippians 2:6 hymn in ancient Macedonia?  Why when we read someone else's mail (i.e. Paul's letter to somebody else) do we immediately assume he has arguments that will, that must, order our world?  Their world was that land of Alexander the Great, where his teacher Aristotle had taught that females and barbarians (like most of us) don't really belong.  What might we overhear in Paul's conversation with his readers?  In their hymn about their Jesus, the slave, obedient, dead?  Ratcliffe, and Bird, are quick to hear, slow to speak, and doesn't this seem a wise way to read the Bible rather than telling everyone else exactly what the text must mean to everybody else?

Well, would you be interested in Alice Walker?  I've already told you in my recent series of posts here how she helped me see all reading, and all reading of the Bible, is an outsider experience.  For black American women in a predominately white Christian man's world, it can be a particularly difficult text when God is viewed as a white man.

Well, since we're talking about Alice Walker, would you be interested in Nancy Mairs's ways of reading?  Yes, this is the Catholic Nancy Mairs, author of Dynamic God.  But, I'm talking about even before she authored that book, when Nancy Mairs, white, couldn't read Alice Walker, black, and how the one was subsequently influenced by the other.  Let's listen in as Mairs writes to you and to me (and we really are her intended audience for her Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer):

[Growing up as a white girl, then a white young woman, then as a white writer, isolated from literature of and from much contact with African Americans] I was missing any meaningful black reality.  In the end, Alice Walker forced me beyond my readerly timidity [when I finally read her In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose]....  [I'd also had] a lifetime of academic training, teacher after teacher admonishing me to trust not myself or the text but them and the authorities they'd direct me to.  But they never taught me how to read a black woman.  Just as well.  Then and in the years since, I have let Alice Walker teach me to read Alice Walker."   
When Mairs talks of her "readerly timidity" she also wants to talk of readerliness otherwise.  Her readers who write to her, she says, sometimes want to give advice, sometimes criticism, many times thanks:  "many want simply to thank me for putting their feelings into words.  These voices, lending materiality to my readerly ideal, transform monologue into intercourse."

This is what I like best about bible blogging if anything.  It's the intercourse.

But even beyond the Aspasia or Socrates like dialogue, there's something else in Mairs's methods.  Something most important.  Let's listen:
Like the French feminists, I subscribe to the premise that the world we experience is itself an immense text that in spite of its apparent complexity has been made in Western throught to rest on a too-simple structrual principle opposing reason to emotion, activity to passivity, and so on, every pair reflecting the most basic dichotomy -- "male" and "female."  Like them I seek to disrupt the binary structure of this text, or Logos, through l'écriture féminine, which "not only combines theory with subjectivism that confounds the protocols of scholarly discourse, it also strives to break the phallologic boundaries between criticalanalysis, essay, fiction, and poetry...."  I took on the dichotomies, in particular the one that has proved most vexatious to my work, the one between "creative" and "critical" writing. It is rooted, like most binary distinctions, in a very complicated struggle....  [In choosing not to divide creative writing from critical] I've chosen, or been chosen, to be a poet-scholar in an age when that option renders me a shady character in both camps.  I've become everybody's other.  A true woman.  I believe in the reality of work.  Period.  I do not distinguish between creative and critical writing because all writing is creative.
So, if we were to go with Mairs back to, say, the text of Philippians 2:6, we might want to challenge the readerly binaries of some.  We've already talked about the "God above" / "unequal Jesus" dichotomy of the CBMW effected by Denny Burk's "functional equality."  

So now what if we read Paul's letter here, just this bit even, not only as (A) some doctrinal statement separate in importance from less important creative writings but also as (B) poetry, as (C) lyric, as (D) a hymn whose words do also give life to varieties of meanings, ranges of them?  And what if, likewise, we do not accept the binaries imposed:
  • that Paul's chosen word "ἁρπαγμός" is / NOT the "ἁρπαγμός" of Plutarch or of Vettius Valens?
  • that the non-Paul "ἁρπαγμός refers to the event or action and are therefore / NOT equivalent to ἁρπάγμα"?
Just to be clear, here are the troublesome Western, Aristotelian binaries imposed on this Jewish text: 

  • God / Jesus
  • doctrinal text / musical lyrics
  • Paul's inerrant HARPAGMOS / earlier, non-Christians' HARPAGMOS
  • Paul's HARPAGMOS (that might not imply exploitation) / Gorgias's HARPAGMA (that implies exploitation, abduction, robbery, and RAPE of a woman)

Isn't this necessary binary, the dichotomies, the issue for one of my blogger friends at Better Bibles Blog?  Isn't this issue for Nancy Mairs "every pair reflecting the most basic dichotomy -- 'male' and 'female' "?  And what if we could, if we would, not so easily separate the Logos, the male and the female?  What if we read the Bible the way we might more easily be willing to read other texts, the text of our life?

In summary, this is a continuation of an ongoing series during Women's History Month, in which I'm trying not only to identify some who have influenced my reading of the Bible but also to get into how they help me read it.  I'm hoping it encourages you some, that you might be interested in these writers and their ways of reading also, and that you might try reading the Bible this month in most helpful ways.

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