The Devil's Peak in the dusk, 2014, looking south from the Hawker Road.

Translating into meaning

This was a response to one of my lectionary commentaries.

Hi Andrew,

I read right through this one. Two questions lingered. What does it mean for us today, to take up our cross? What is the significance of the suffering of Jerusalem in its destruction? Overall, how do we translate these historic events into something meaningful for us in our time and situation?


Here is my reply:

This is the question! How do we find something meaningful for our own time?

We talked a little about this in our weekly bible study at Hare Street. How do we get from an intellectual understanding of the text that has studied the background, and sources, and redaction, to something that applies to us?

This appropriation of the sources and traditions is the key task of religion. It is the making real of the tradition; the tapping into the spirit of the religion; the grasping of the greater reality to which the tradition is pointing. We make our own meaning using the tradition, and our experience, as building blocks.

The last part of my post on the Palm Sunday reading reflected my attempt to open myself to the realities that Luke is speaking about. I have dwelled upon my emotions that well up when I am at a parade. I trust that somewhere in that I will find more building blocks for my life; further directions for how I will live.

I describe the task of helping people find the meaningful in our old texts and tradition, by using the metaphor of "the art of religion."

Art is a "letting go" of the purely intellectual to discern and reflect and re-present the whole reality around us. "Good" art taps into the wider reality, and shows us more of life and who we are, whereas other "artworks" (like those beloved of home improvement shows,) are less perceptive, badly executed, or plain kitsch.

Art is not simply subjective. Just as we have widely accepted skills and standards in hermeneutics and literary criticism, art understands and uses perspective, ratios; eg, the golden ratio, colour harmonies and contrasts, and so on. "Good" art generally reflects good technique.

Our approach to the lectionary is the same. It looks for shape, flow, rhythm, context, perspective... and then makes that art-ful leap into re-presentation. Good exegesis "does the science." Hermeneutics—interpretation—makes the leap.

It cannot be forensic; it is not maths. Hermeneutics questions and suggests, rather than directs or insists. "How can you say you are carrying your cross when you not only live in more luxury than you need; more than most of the world, but you are seeking still more, and seeking to make yourself even more secure?" This I can ask you. I cannot tell you that how you live does not carry a cross.

Like art, our hermeneutics reflect who we are. I used to speak of pain mostly in terms of the physical. My appreciation of psychic pain was theoretical, and shallow.  Now I am older. I live with someone, and love her and give myself to her, and fail her. I have suffered life threatening illness, and bereavement. I think and speak of pain differently.

And so to parades: I am always churned and alienated by parades. My friend who saw her young husband marching off the ship at the end of the war, still alive, coming home to a child he had never seen, may always watch parades with a memory of joy and relief; to her they are forever a gift.

So you and I cannot mandate and define each other's theological art, aka discipleship. We can only ask how much it is a fair re-presentation of the tradition. How much does it reflect a generous spirit; the spirit of the endlessly, lavishly giving God? Or do we remain an elder brother, unable to discern the love and the freedom and gifting in which we live our every moment? Is our art converting us from being an older brother as we see new realities?

I have watched my daughter—who is an artist—and myself as we work at our respective art. Practise, repetition, failure, dead ends, 'out-there' ideas, frustration. All these things refine our ability to draw  more fluidly, more insightfully, and more truly. In my case that means drawing conclusions, ideas, and word pictures.

She has scrawled on the back of her studio door, "To be an artist is to dare to fail as no other dare to fail." Perhaps to be a Christian is to dare to give as no other dare to give. That would guide our hermeneutic!

As a preacher I'm a bit like a good gallery guide. I can't tell you what to make of a picture; what it means. I can give you background and perspective. I can alert you to common misconceptions and failed efforts to understand the work. My calling is to help you re-present the work; to find the hooks into your own life.

And perhaps we can be church by doing some of that imagining together rather than it being a solitary personal pursuit. You may even think that your drawing is rather more accomplished than mine; it may well be!, but we will work together.

Andrew Prior 2013

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