Nature of Scripture: Part 2: Scripture as Myth

Scripture as Myth: A God Who Comes Alive Again

Myths and archetypes echo across the pages of scripture just as they echo across Hebrew and non-Hebrew cultures. C. S. Lewis has a great deal of wonderful things to say about this—ideas that come together most beautifully and most powerfully in his greatest novel, Till We Have Faces. For now, I will simply relate that, before his conversion, C. S. Lewis was an atheist who loved myth—who loved it because (among other reasons) it evoked in his soul what he calls “sweet longing.” His initial appreciation of Christianity was mythic—as yet another instance of the corn-God who dies and is resurrected in the Spring, bringing renewed life to his peoples. After he came to be persuaded that it was implausible for this powerful story to have been invented in that culture and in that way and in those words, he came to believe in the story of the dying and reviving God of the Bible as fact. But it was not as fact instead of myth—it was as the “myth that became fact.” And he continued to believe and teach that a man might obtain spiritual nourishment from the myth even if he does not believe in the historicity or the doctrine.

It seems to me that C. S. Lewis is right about this, as about most things. I do obtain spiritual nourishment from the myth. There is an energy and joy that I feel at Christmas and Easter that is non-doctrinal, non-rational, but mythic. Divine fingers pluck the same deep soul-strings that sound the keynotes of the stories of Balder, Osiris, and Orpheus.

There is a long tradition in Christianity that the great poets and philosophers of antiquity were inspired demi-prophets, because so many of their stories and teachings anticipate Christianity. This Spirit-as-muse theory is one way to account for the archetypes and myths that transcend cultures. For members of the church, another possibility is that the shadowlands of the mind retain certain memories from our pre-mortal existence—and although the veil of forgetfulness prevents them from rising as memories, the fine-tuned imaginative faculties of the world’s poets still find access to those shadowlands. This possibility, if true, is both exemplified and discussed in Wordsworth’s great Immortality Ode, where he sets forth the doctrine of the pre-mortal existence (in which he did not believe as doctrine) and explores how we still catch gleams and glints of a forgotten world in which the human spirit was more at home—a world that grows more distant as we are carried in the current of time away from the dayspring of birth.

The whole Ode is worth reading and re-reading, but this stanza is perhaps the most obviously pertinent:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; 
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
          Hath had elsewhere its setting
               And cometh from afar;
          Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
               From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
               Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 
               He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east 
     Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
          And by the vision splendid
          Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away, 
And fade into the light of common day.
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Nature of Scripture, Part 1: Scripture as Art

Abbey Bible
Picture Credit: https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/09/getty-museum-medieval-bible-.html

It is debatable whether more ink or blood has been spilled throughout history over disagreements about the nature of scripture. The greatest expenditure occurred during the Reformation, but the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also resulted in a substantial outflowing. And yet the issue has never been settled, either amongst the denominations or within any single church. In addressing this subject in our age, I need not fear violence, but I fear I may not hope for many readers either.

There is much to love about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the least of which is its unique take on scripture. We believe the scriptures to be the word of God in a sense not entirely pinned down, but we do not believe in scriptural infallibility. From this perspective, church members should be free to appreciate the scriptures in a relatively free and broad-minded manner. Yet we tend to slip into the habit of reading our scriptures as if the main point was simply to set forth true doctrine (i.e., “Mormon doctrine”–what we already believe and understand)–as if the scriptures reached no higher and probed no deeper than the Gospel Principles manual. Without denigrating the eternally important purpose of teaching true doctrine, I hope to set forth other aspects of scripture to encourage a less dogmatic approach that is both richer and truer to the text. Stay tuned over the next week or two for a series of posts highlighting what scripture is besides doctrinal instruction, starting with art.

Scripture as Art: A God Who Puns

Among scholars of scripture, the claim that scripture is art must be one of the few uncontroversial claims. Whatever else it is, whatever more than art, it is certainly not less than art. The canonical words of the Bible and Book of Mormon come down to us in the particular art forms and genres that developed in the ancient Hebrew culture; the great sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are stamped with a wonderful conglomerate style that mingles two of the literary high points of English prose–King James’s reign and the mid-19th century.

Part of the reason we tend to miss the artistic aspect of scripture is that some of it is lost in translation. “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” The Greek word “petros” (rock) made this statement a pun. This is one of the better known instances, but punning and word play is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Few of them translate into English. Nor would any use of meter, consonance, assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.

But though we lack direct access to the original sounds that the original authors used to aesthetic advantage, we are still without excuse if we fail to recognize scripture as art. Many of Jesus’s parables are perfectly constructed gems from a purely aesthetic perspective, leaving aside their truth and moral power. Much of the prophetic writing in the Old Testament is in verse (though the King James translation fails to capture this fact). And while much of the aesthetic flourishes of scripture do not translate, some do. When Jesus told Peter, “I say unto you, not until seven times, but until seventy times seven,” the wordplay here translates pretty well. The word “times” in English evidently corresponds with the original language’s word. Both carry the related meanings of “instances” and “multiplied by.” Both cultures used a base-10 system of counting so that “seven” correlates with “seventy.”

Note that if Jesus had intended merely to express clearly and unambiguously the actual doctrine, he would have simply said, “always forgive” or some such statement. His use of aesthetic flourishes actually risks obscuring  his meaning for a people who seemed to take everything he said literally. So why did he not adapt himself to their weakness and speak in plain, unmistakeable prose? There are no doubt many good answers to this question, but my main point here is not to address the why of it, but just the fact itself: the scriptures bespeak a God who is alive to the richness and play of language, and who sometimes prefers a good pun or an ambiguous story, that he may express his meaning (or meanings) in a manner pleasing to the sense, tractable to the memory, and demanding of the intellect. Because of this, scripture requires, even more than most texts, an interpretive act whereby we put something of ourselves into the text.

Next: Scripture as Myth: A God Who Comes Alive Again

Announcing A Change In The Brothers Sabey Blog

The Brothers Sabey has always been and will remain a blog about “the issues”–and particularly about marriage and family, the culture wars, respectful dialogue, and our defense of what we believe to be valuable and right in the weakening traditions of our society. However, we have always written to a general audience and have tried never to assume that our readers shared our philosophical, political, or religious presuppositions. Our goal was to reach a diverse readership and not to alienate those who do not already share our views–the very people we would most wish to influence or at least have dialogue with. But as it turns out, as best we can tell, our readership is predominantly made up of like-minded people, and mostly fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Furthermore, to be hospitable, you have to occupy some place where you can host others. While we maintain our commitment to “courteous conversations” and hospitable dialogue across political and other differences, we also feel a need to acknowledge and explicitly speak from the particular place we occupy in American culture. In our minds, a fundamentally important part of that place is our membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Obviously we do not speak for the Church, nor are our perspectives (political or theological) necessarily shared by other members, but we realize that whenever we offer hospitality to the Other, we do so in part as sincere believers and practicing members of this religion. That community of faith constitutes a large part of the ground on which we stand and from which we speak; we no longer want to abstract ourselves from it. We have never attempted to hide our membership in the Church or some of the religious associations of some of our views. But going forward we will be addressing, among other issues, those of particular concern to the Church or the Christian community generally, and may sometimes adopt an overtly religious or theological stance. We do not consider this a “Church blog” (or a “Mormon blog” as we would have said before the last general conference). And we will still hope for a diverse readership. We hope to benefit all of our readers by this change–our fellow-members by addressing issues of importance to them, and our other readers across all political and religious divides by a more complete revelation of our views and identities, always hoping that they will respond in kind, affording us all a mutual opportunity for courteous and hospitable dialogue.

 

 

The Inevitability and Potential Benefits of Gender Norms

The world turned upside down, by Israhel van Meckenem the Younger.

James Damore was fired from Google for saying that women are biologically less disposed towards engineering jobs than men. He then sued Google for discrimination against employees who were white, male, or conservative. Let’s take a moment to savor the craziness.

In a saner world, the layers of irony in the whole situation would prompt a serious discussion about gender norms across society. The question would be one of factual inquiry: are women in fact less predisposed to engineering jobs? If so, is the cause biological or something else?

Some (including the paid scientific experts) took the occasion to respectfully disagree with each other. But those phlegmatic conversations have been like the one remaining mobile home in the wake of a tornado. In general, the reactions were “hysterical” (CNN’s Kirsten Powers’ word). Various thoughtful persons across the spectrum deplored the ideological histrionics displayed by most the rest of us (see the excellent Wikipedia article).

A slight majority (55%) disagreed with Google’s decision to fire Damore, according to a Harvard-Harris poll. But that means that 45% did not disagree with it. Many in the 55% majority disagreed with Damore’s opinions about gender dynamics, but still felt he should not have been fired for expressing them at work. But to a full 45% of the polled population, the expression of such views is apparently so heinous that termination is the appropriate response.

Obviously, gender norms are rather unpopular nowadays. And not without reason. I admit that gender norms, mis-conceived or miscarried or related to in mal-adaptive ways, can and do injure people, whether because those people do not conform to the norm or because they do.

But I also submit that a society without gender norms is possible only in theory and that this theoretical society is not the one we should aspire to. Continue reading

The Inevitability of Masturbation and the Honesty of Sin, Featuring Tractors

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There are few topics that mainstream liberal and conservative minds will come to such clearly divergent opinions as masturbation. Most other disagreements between the liberal and the conservative tend to be like ships passing—both right about what they affirm, both passionate, both speaking right past the other. But with masturbation the argument seem to be more straightforward. As such, it is seldom actually argued. For once people have begun to argue they will almost immediately reach an impasse. From one perspective it is permissible, enjoyable, even healthy and from the other it is sinful, self-serving, and destructive.

The facts are straightforward and mostly agreed upon. Sexual impulses are natural for most people and mostly unavoidable. Sexual impulses, if followed, can lead to very positive results, minor results, and dramatically negative results. And so some of our sexual impulses must be restrained when they will damage ourselves or others. But the line between what is good and wholesome and what is destructive is drawn on opposite sides of masturbation by the traditionally liberal and the conservative opinions.

Whether or not masturbation has negative effects or positive effects is debated but the more fundamental question is whether or not it is avoidable. There may be negative effects of drinking unfiltered water from a river, but that becomes irrelevant when you are lost in the mountains and about to perish from thirst. You’re going to drink. And you should. If masturbation is avoidable, then we must debate whether it is constructive or destructive. But if it is unavoidable, the merits become mostly irrelevant. It will happen. Continue reading

In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers #2

 

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The following post is adapted from my post in December

By now we ought to know that below cliché is often the deepest sincerity. This was made evident to me once again after the Parkland, Florida shooting. History has repeated itself on my social media feeds. I see the same people writing the same messages I saw after the Las Vegas shooting last October. After that tragic event, my social media channels filled with people “sending thoughts and prayers.” The next day I encountered several reactions to these “cliché” responses which criticized people for their seemingly trivial and laissez-faire approach to a tragedy which took over 50 lives in Vegas. It is happening again, this time 17 lives in Florida were lost. People are sending thoughts and prayers. And other people are denouncing them for doing it. The sincerity of these complaints I believe deserves an honest evaluation of “sending thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy.

The most creative complaint against “thoughts and prayers” I have seen so far took the form of a game. By clicking on a link you became a player and were instructed to click two buttons over and over again. The buttons were labeled “Thoughts,” and “Prayers.” When the game starts, a number in the middle of the screen begins to increase exponentially indicating the number of deaths in the USA by gun violence. Ostensibly, by clicking the buttons the player is working to stop that number from rising. But, predictably, no matter how many times a player clicks one button or the other, the deaths continue to rise.

The obvious criticism is that sending thoughts and prayers is ineffective and the deeper and more subversive critique is that sending thoughts and prayers is cliché and easy—like clicking a button. Though witty, the critique falls flat in both instances. Continue reading