Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Christmas Reprise

This brief essay is a reprise in three ways: it looks back a few days ago to Christmas 2014; it is a revision of an essay I published in the Springfield News-Leader on December 24th 1986; and it also appeared in 2009 in a collection of my editorials, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest (Wipf and Stock).  Here it is again somewhat revised:
            The Christmas story has endured for slightly under 2,000 years; it has survived translation from ancient into modern culture, the attacks of hostile rationalists, the naiveté of biblical literalists, its crass commercialism in the marketplace, the self-serving interests of overzealous pietists, the secularizing of western society, and its amalgamation with other competitive non-Christian holiday traditions through the centuries.
            The story of the birth of Jesus continues to capture the imagination of the most creative and able talent of western culture. Under its influence artists have produced many of the masterpieces of our Judeo-Christian heritage in art, music, and literature.  And today in the early twenty-first century, we are still influenced by the message we find in the Christmas story. Motivated by that ancient story, we moderns have been led to acts of altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity that surprise even us upon looking back at our behavior.  When we are bombarded with so much Christmas "magic" during the festive season, it is difficult for the Scrooges of the world to react with a "bah! Humbug." There is a grandeur, a nobility, associated with Christmas that stirs the slumbering chords of the highest human ideals. For that reason, the Christmas story is authentic in a way that historical criticism cannot confirm, or even investigate.
            Why should these narratives describing the birth of Jesus still speak to modern human beings educated in a secularized west?  It is not because of their unity, philosophical sophistication, or technical excellence.  For example, there are in the New Testament actually two completely different stories describing how the first "Christmas" happened, one by Matthew (1:18-23) and the better known story by Luke (2:1-21).  Mark either did not know a narrative of the birth of Jesus, or simply did not think it important enough to report. John did not need a birth story, since Jesus was not actually "born" in the Gospel of John (1:1-18).  The many miraculous elements in the birth narratives—virgin birth, angels, star leading the "wise men," etc., are simply no longer credible to twenty-first century human beings (except the "true believers"), and constitute serious obstacles to the religious faith of many of us.  The "true believer," on the other hand, makes believing the miraculous the test of what it means to have "true faith."  Such miraculous elements are common in the literature of antiquity, where they are used to validate the careers of great men by ascribing to them the trappings of divinity; compare, for example, the birth stories about Asclepius, Hercules, and Alexander the Great. It seems to me, however, that the real "miracle" of Christmas does not lie in the miraculous features of the stories; the miracle lies in the existential influence of the story upon those of us who celebrate Christmas; that is, it lies in what the season does to us and in how it inspires us to treat one another.
            The Christmas narratives still remain surprisingly relevant in our day, in spite of their legendary and mythical character.  Behind each of the birth narratives lies a deep longing and noble aspiration of the human spirit.  The vision afforded by the narratives rises above the horizon of those ultimately insignificant narrow borders separating religions and the different versions of Christianity.  The narratives address a basic issue that concerns our common humanity regardless of heritage or creed; they speak to our consciousness of human finitude—our terrible dread of the infinite, however we label it (death, eternity, a divine infinite, inability to control destiny, etc.); and they address a very deep desire for peace in the world at all levels of human existence.
            Matthew and Luke proclaim that in the humanity of a particular Jewish lad, born in a remote village of the Roman Empire, in a naive and pre-scientific age—that in this lad, in some way, a divine infinity has intersected the finite human (Matt 1:20-23; Luke 1:35): that is to say, the message of both stories is that infinity need not be feared, but rather embraced!  Luke holds forth the birth of this child as a promise of "peace on earth" (Luke 1:76-79; 2:11-14). The possibility of being free from the terror of our own finitude and of finding peace in a turbulent and frequently brutal world is "good news" indeed.  Such hope holds forth a promise of comfort for every human heart, and is worthy of celebration by all of us.
            And so I still think today.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Reference: Robert J. Miller, Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003).

Friday, December 12, 2014

Do Texts “Mean” What the Author Intended?

This essay ran in a shorter version as a letter to the editor in the Springfield News-Leader.  
In the Springfield News-Leader (MO) November 30, 2014 Tom Krause gently chides a young woman who (unknowingly) gave an interpretation of one of his poems in a speech tournament at which he was one of the judges.  It seems that she offered a reading of the poem "describing what the author had meant," and it was "not even close to [his own] real intent."
            This is a perfect example of the poem (or creative essay) as an artistic object.  Once an author has written and published a poem, he (or she) no longer controls it.  The issue is not what authors intend to do, but what they actually did.  In other words the published poem/essay is autonomous and has an existence totally apart from the creative artist's intentions.  The author becomes only one more interpreter, and not the authoritative interpreter. It really doesn't matter what the author intended; what matters is what the essay is.  The creative piece exists apart from the author's intentions; it draws attention to itself and "speaks" to the reader, or the viewer in the case of objects of art like painting and sculpture.  Thus authors may learn something new from others about what they have actually accomplished in the essay or poem.  The poet Wallace Stevens, who has been described as "the necessary angel of earth," once wrote in a letter:
It is not a question of what an author meant to say but of what he has said.  In the case of a competent critic the author may well have a great deal to find out about himself and his work. (Letters, #396)
            In short, language is ambiguous on the best of days, as any poet well knows.  For example, Miguel de Cervantes in his 17th century novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, described an insane man who fancied himself a knight errant on a quest to restore chivalry and bring justice to the world  He jousted (tilted) and fought with imaginary foes (windmills and giants), which were real to him in his insanity.  Cervantes' novel inspired a book (by Dale Wasserman) and Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha.  In the musical the signature song, "The Impossible Dream," describes a man on a quest fighting "unbeatable foes," righting "unrightable wrongs," fighting "for the right," and walking "through hell on a heavenly cause."  The protagonist of the musical is certainly inspired by Cervantes' mad hero Don Quixote de La Mancha, but in his interpretation by the musical lyricist (Joe Darion) Don Quixote has become a symbol of the idealistic person who dares to dream impossible dreams including a just social order.  What, do you suppose, Cervantes would have thought of that?
            The situation is similar with respect to biblical texts, which were written by human beings.  They are not God's words, as Mr. Krause says, but human words written in behalf of a particular understanding of God.  Krause's affirmation of faith completely ignores the human authors of these ancient writings, who themselves were conditioned by their situations in life; they crafted what they wrote from vastly different perspectives with different intentions and opinions.  Letting God interpret these words, as Mr. Krause advises, is only Krause's faith speaking again.  Readers, not God, interpret texts, in the nexus between how they read the text and the life experiences they bring to the text.  God has nothing to do with it.
            If you doubt the ambiguity of language, just ask a Baptist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic about their understanding of the Eucharist.  They come to very different understandings using the same Bible.  The classic example of reading the same biblical text and arriving at different conclusions is found in how differently Paul (Galatians 3:6-14) and James (2:18-26) understand the biblical story of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-18): Paul's view was that God requires faith alone (Galatians 3:8-11); James' view was that God required both faith and works (2:24).
            Galatians 2:16 provides another example of the slippery nature of language, and how the personal life experience we bring to our reading of biblical texts influences what we read in the text.  Paul writes "a person is not justified by works of the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ"; that is through a confidence in God like that of Jesus.  And so the passage was translated in the English Bibles of the 16th and 17th centuries.  At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th the translation was changed, and became: "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (see The Authentic Letters of Paul, 65-66).  Alas, not even the Gods, if Gods there be, can control a reader's interpretation of the divine pronouncements of the Gods.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University