An investigation of interpretation
I've had some discussion with a colleague about my post on Matthew 14 with a colleague. As always, he has been incisive in his critique, and forced me to clarify what I am trying to say. Underlying our discussion are a number of issues which are often not acknowledged. Not least of these is the immense pressure that comes "from the pews," and other places, not to betray the received understanding of particular portions of scripture or, indeed, the received understanding of wider theology or doctrines of the church.
There are also profound interpretive issues which will affect what we see in any scriptural story. Some are highlighted in the current week's reading, which is The Feeding of the Five Thousand (plus women and children) in Matthew 14.
Who are we as we interpret scripture? Are we looking to preserve the way we read texts, or are we seeking to be transformed, opened to new possibilities? This is at the heart of much debate about biblical interpretation, although not always obviously so.
When we read scripture, we can be seeking to have our world view expanded, to be led into greater understanding, or we can use our world view, primarily, as a defence mechanism; that is, as a protection from what is new, and from what is different. We are all a mixture of these two urges. We all need to construct a world view, and do so, even if unconsciously by simply be adopting the ruling world view of our environment.
But transcendent humanity lies in becoming conscious of how we see and perceive, and of the pressures and assumptions that clarify or blind us to what is around us, and to what it might mean. Otherwise we are making very limited choices in life, and are, instead, likely having many choices made for us!
Being open to change and transformation is a process which takes great energy. It can provoke hostility from those afraid of new insights, or from those who stand to lose privilege because of new insights.
As we progress through life one or other way of these ways of being will characterise us. We will be defensive, on balance, or we will be more open to the new, able to explore it to see if it offers us opportunities for growth. When we arrive at a point of contradiction, these basic tendencies, especially if we are not conscious of them, will colour our response.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus Walking on the Water are two such occasions of contradiction. On the one hand, they clearly intend to say something about Jesus being uniquely powerful, on the other, they can be read as a claim that he does things we know to be impossible for someone who is fully human.
There may have been a time when one could say, with intellectual honesty, that Jesus could have done these things— literally generate matter out of nothing, and defy the laws of gravity and flotation— because of the power of God in him. We can’t honestly say that today unless we undertake special pleading which we would not accept in other areas of life.
One response to these stories is to seek to conserve our cultural understandings about narrative and truth: stories need to be literally accurate or they are not true. We allow some latitude: “This movie is based on actual events,” the subtitles may say. Our normal response to the Feeding of the Five Thousand is to say that it could not happen. It’s fiction, and unlikely. What’s more, it’s fiction that lacks narrative credibility: that is, you don’t see Luke Skywalker producing food out of nowhere. We can imagine a Force, but we don't imagine that The Force produces food like that.
Christians, who claim the scriptures to be somehow revelatory, are therefore at a point of contradiction; what we say to be true and important is, in the two stories I have mentioned, apparently based in something we know to be untrue. One approach to this problem is to suggest that our rapidly growing realisation of how little we know about our reality means we are hard put to know what is impossible or not. “It is hard to know what is reasonable in advance,” someone has said.
This is an entirely reasonable statement, of itself, and makes a point which we forget at our peril.
But when this statement is applied to the Feeding and Walking miracles, what I see it translating into; that is, being used to achieve, is this: “Jesus did produce food from nothing, but my faith / trust in the literal truth of this act is not so outrageous as it seems. It is only a case of us not knowing the laws of physical reality. It’s a sort of argument from silence mixed in with "Well, you never know…"
Observe what such an argument does:
1. It says there is no miracle! It pretends to believe in the miracle, but justifies this by saying that really the miracle is made reasonable by certain laws of physical reality which we don't yet know about.
2. It maintains—it defends—our cultural view of narrative and our cultural view of what it is that “truth” consists. Truth is bound to literal physical occurrence. The story can’t be true unless it happened. The Bible can't be true unless the story literally happened.
So, unconsciously, the defence of the miracle is really a defence of our view of the nature of literature and of truth. And undermines the miracle! The great irony is that such arguments are used to support the notion that Jesus is somehow different or transcendent of our usual humanity, while really saying he is just doing something quite simple, if we only knew how. Of course, some would say that he does have some special power, as God’s Son, which we do not possess. Although the possessing of such powers would seem to contradict our affirmation of his full humanity.
Stan Duncan says of the feeding miracles (there are six in the New Testament)
When I was a kid in church camp at age 15, one of our camp sponsors led a Bible Study in the morning on one of these six feeding stories. At the end of it he asked, which is actually the greater miracle: for Jesus to radically change those few loaves into an abundance of loaves, or for Jesus to change the hearts of the people who were there to teach them how to share? What’s the greater miracle for us? For Jesus to do all of the work for us, or for Jesus to change us to enable us to do it.
There is a different appreciation of miracle here. The miracle is not in the impossible multiplication of loaves, but in the changing of human imagination and perception from one of scarcity, hostility, and fear, to an imagination of abundance, trust, and compassion.
Significantly, for those who are bound to literal interpretations, the typical answer to Stan’s camp sponsor, is that in suggesting this is what happened he is denying the miracle, if not disbelieving the bible. It is a classical defensive world-view ploy, which defends against engaging with a transformational opportunity, by misrepresenting it. Or, perhaps, failing to see it at all.
This ploy takes the greater miracle, human transformation, and calls it lesser, or no miracle at all. Or, perhaps, simply fails to understand how radical and transformational the actions of Jesus were. Another possibility is that some who deny the miracle is the transformation of people (instead of the transformation of loaves) perhaps understand, unconsciously, that what Jesus is doing is offering such a radical transformation, that it will change everything, and so his offer is fearfully refused… but under the guise of faithfully defending his miraculous powers.
The emphasis on miracles is important. To quote my colleague,
Do we really believe that the historical Jesus would have even been a blip on the radar without his miracle-working activities? As I have argued before, the stories about Jesus in the Gospels do not “work” without the miracles. The dramatic movement they give to the story disappears when they are taken away. It is not that the miracles remove credibility; it is rather what their absence does to the tale.
He is correct. But, where, or in what, is the miracle? What makes people remember? And, even more importantly, what transforms people, and leads them to attribute this transformation of themselves to Jesus?
As I have suggested, we are often captured by the idea that the truth of stories lies in them retelling what actually, literally, physically, happened. But the culture from which these stories comes seems to me to be much more interested in saying something like this:
Here is a unique individual who did something quite radically different. How can we tell a story about him which expresses what he showed to us? Well, we can use the fear in our culture of what lurks beneath the water, that place that we suspect God has not still fully brought under control. We can do that because we now realise that God has brought it under control; in fact, we realise God owns it, and Jesus walks all over it. Even we can begin to traverse what once seemed impossible!
And, since we've been talking about what heaven is like, we can draw a parallel between that amazing experience where he utterly transformed our suspicions and fears of strangers, and it turned out that we had enough food, and that we can be one people, not tribal, suspicious, fearful, and clannish— we can communicate this by comparing our experience to the great feast of heaven which we expect on the last day— that will be even greater than the feeding and provision than we knew from God during the Exodus. We can retell our experience as a foretaste of the great feast on the last day.
Now we don't tell stories in this way. We find truth in the literal rather than in the expression of the meaning of a story. Of course, we do interpret events and we do point out meaning, but not with stories which sound, to us, like a literal narrative. If we do use such narratives, we call them fiction, not true.
So of course, when we come to such stories with our modern perceptions, it means we fundamentally misinterpret the stories as "true or false" on the basis of their literal detail, rather than on the basis of their intended meaning.
It requires a tremendous act of imagination to be able to change the way we read story. It does not come easily to us, because everything about our cultural imagining says Jesus' people's use of a story is actually lying— it’s not— but it's how it seems to us. And as all clergy know, disturbing this understanding of story can spark violent hysteria that exceeds even that caused by the shifting of the church pews. I'm not being entirely facetious here; the shifting of pews upsets a certain mentality because it shifts the place in life where we sit. It unsettles us. Changing the way we hear story is even more profoundly upsetting. It challenges our whole foundation for life. We live or die on our definition of truth and reality.
It has always seemed to me, based on observation within my congregations, and also of my younger fundamentalist self*, that the hysteria caused by the abandonment of literal true / false categories is about deep fear. Something in us knows the whole landscape is being changed.
This requires deeper investigation, otherwise any attempts to invite people to a new interpretative method, and what it means—otherwise known as a new way of imaging life, , will be severely compromised. As will such efforts for ourselves!
In my essay Imagining Resurrection, I summed up the poisonous nexus described by Terror Management Theory and by Rene Girard's insights into violence, and the scapegoat. I say in one place that
We forget we are stained, shaped, influenced from the very depths of our being by a culture at once terrified of dying, and yet using expulsion and murderous death of the scapegoat to maintain order so that we do not have to face death.
In fact, we often don't realise this at all. The whole point of the scapegoating and murder upon which culture is constructed, and the point of our denial of death, is to avoid facing death for as long as possible. We view death as a disaster, as the end of us. This contaminates everything. It means that all our interpretive principles, all our world views, are at some level designed not to allow us to see ourselves clearly; the cost is too great, and too fearsome. What I called "transcendent humanity," at the beginning of this essay; that is, humanity that gets beyond survival at any cost, beyond tribalism, nationalism, and living by the myth of redemptive violence— all this requires us to face our fear of death begin to be free of it.
The miracle upon which my colleague and I both insist is, at base, the miracle of being free of the fear of death. I quote James Alison in my Imagining Resurrection essay as saying that
Jesus was able to conduct his life in a way not moved by death. And this not because he was fleeing from death, or running toward it in a self-destructive way, which tend to be our problems. It was because it was not a reality which marked his imagination, since his imagination was entirely fixed on the creative and living presence of God who knows not death. What can be perceived by someone who is not marked by death is the way in which the rest of us live, without being aware of it, in the shadow of death. (Raising Abel pp59 my emphasis)
When we perceive this, when we are infected with such an imagination because we have experienced him as surviving death, (in a resurrection which is much more profound than mere resuscitation) then we are free to change. We are free to read scripture more and more as a path to transformation and transcendence, and less as a world-view protective. Faith becomes a path to new life rather than what it sometimes seems to be: a denial of death. (As it was for me.)
Moving slowly out of the shadow of death, we are able to see that there is nothing miraculous in the multiplication of loaves out of nothing— such interpretation is banal and misses the point, and we are able to see that the overcoming of all our human separations is utterly transforming. So transforming that it is in fact the beginning of what we call Heaven. To steal more words from James Alison in his exegesis of John,
Heaven is a dwelling in the Father which is possible only for those for whom death has come to be a non-definitive, non-toxic part of their story. (Raising Abel pp63)
There is no hurrying this transformation. We cannot engineer it, or force it, or dictate it. It is a gift. But it seems to me that one way we can invite people stand in a place more exposed to the Spirit might be to get beyond the rather mundane idea that the feeding miracle was a primarily physical event. The crux of it seems, instead, to be in transcending our animal humanity. How we do this inviting will be greatly affected by the place in which we preach or teach. I have been in places where the mere suggestion of a new interpretation has led to explosive outrage, and the immediate seeking out of clergy who will support the traditional view. But I mostly find something else. There are always people who are seeking something more. Billy Graham apparently said, in another context, that people "know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have." That was me. And I find that when I honour that incoherent knowledge there is always an audience.
Andrew Prior (2017)
* I remember reading a history text supplied by my minister. Fully signed up to biblical inerrancy, I read the historical evidence that neither Luther nor Calvin had such a belief, contrary to everything my milieu had told me. I was shaken by a vision and dark roaring which had me thinking I was losing my sanity.
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