[For more, check out a previous post – click: Religulous Atheism]
The books of the bible have left an indelible mark on humanity’s cultural idiom, moreover because they are themselves already important, somewhat reinterpreted, summaries of different ancient strands. Throughout the ages, storytellers, novelists, directors, painters, sculptors, architects and musicians have consciously and unconsciously transmitted basic biblical sayings, motives, symbols and archetypes (René Girard is among those who reveals this, time and again, in his work on western literature). This continued tradition makes clear that “man does not live by bread alone…”
Up to this day, we create images and tales to gain insight and different perspectives on our lives. Stories aren’t just a way of entertaining ourselves to escape reality. On the contrary, they allow us to get in touch with and reflect upon questions which are part of our everyday existence as human beings. Beyond scientific questions and concerns, we are confronted with layers of meaning in our everyday experience which broaden our assessment of reality. To reduce the experience of sexual intercourse, for instance, to what can be said of it on a purely scientific level, is to mistakenly consider a partial description of the experience as the experience itself. That’s why we naturally develop a language to express and cultivate other aspects of the same experience, aspects which transcend the purely scientifically describable domain.
Biblical stories have always been part of the language of the soul, and they still are. Songwriters like Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen – to name but two – very often use biblical motives to express their life experiences. For example, just recently, Springsteen recaptured the story of the prophet Jonah and the big fish – in his song Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale). [Click here for Springsteen’s interpretation of Christ’s Passion].
Although literalist interpretations of biblical stories are on the rise since the fundamentalist movement started in the 19th century, and since some atheists took over this approach only to come to opposing conclusions, a majority of Christians still engages in a creative dialogue with the stories as stories (meaning that they are viewed as attempts to also symbolically and metaphorically convey real and profound human experiences).
It’s a shame that some people dismiss the anthropological and cultural potential of the bible because they “don’t believe in a burning bush that can talk”. As if that is expected! It’s like thinking we should believe Prince made love to a car in the song Little Red Corvette. Maybe it’s wise to remember how people approached the biblical stories during Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The important Christian thinker Geert Groote, for example, writes the following around 1383 A.D.:
“No child believes that the trees or the animals in the fables could speak. After all, the literal meaning of the poems or of the epic writings precisely is their figurative sense, and not the sense the bare words seem to hold at first glance. Who would actually believe that, as the book of Judges tells it, the trees would choose a king and that the fig tree, the vine, the olive tree and the bush would have responded to that choice in that way or another? Christ uses all kinds of images in his teaching. Matthew the evangelist even says that Christ never spoke without images. And even though it is Christ who uses these images, I do not think that those things actually (literally) took place.”
Nevertheless, some people today think they can approach the biblical stories as attempts to answer questions of the natural sciences like we know them today – apparently not realizing modern science didn’t exist in a, well, pre-modernist era. Reading a book of natural sciences to know what the bible is all about (or vice versa) is like reading a cookbook to assemble a piece of furniture.
Biblical stories should be approached from the point of view of storytelling and what this entails on a cultural level in general. Throughout history biblical stories have always been open to different interpretations, generating different (layers of) meaning. They were considered highly symbolical stories, used to highlight the depths and transcending nature of any authentic human experience.
CLICK HERE TO GET A BASIC UNDERSTANDING
OF THE PRINCIPLES OF ANCIENT AND MODERN (HISTORICAL-CRITICAL) BIBLE INTERPRETATION
Sometimes people ask: “How do you know what is to be considered symbolical?” Regarding ancient or literary texts in general, that’s a wrong question. For even historical events were only told when they were considered as transmitting a significance beyond a certain place and time (a “trans-historical” meaning). Once you get to know the basics of the biblical “idiom”, it’s not very hard to engage in a creative and personal dialogue with biblical texts, “knowing” how to read and interpret them (without expecting one, “final” interpretation).
Maybe we get a better picture of what I’m writing here if we compare this kind of dialogue with the way we keep on developing and interpreting particular images, stories and myths up to the present. That’s why I assembled some pop and rock songs using the modern mythology of the road and the car. Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) really instigated this mythology with his famous novel On the Road. Although inspired by autobiographical events, the story remains an allegory for every person’s “life journey”. In Kerouac’s own words: “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.” (Leland, John (2007). Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think) – New York: Viking. pp. 17).
So, take a look and a listen at the (excerpts of) songs I assembled in seven sections, and ask yourself if it’s really that hard to “understand” that they’re also about an inward journey (moving from alienation of self and other towards following the – divine? – dynamic of a love which saves and which allows, obeying its call, to rediscover oneself and other). Modern cultural archetypes (“highway” and “car”) stand side by side with religious and Christian ones (“highway… to hell”, indeed).
Maybe you’ll also understand what the general idea of these seven sections is all about? “Loss and redemption” would be a fine interpretative starting point. Never mind the Catholic imagination of Bruce Springsteen, among others… Enjoy artists like Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Joshua Kadison, Toto, Metallica, The Killers, Green Day, Hanoi Rocks, Prince, John Lennon and Tracy Chapman – and many more!
CLICK TO READ THE SONG LYRICS (PDF)
CLICK TO LISTEN TO THE SONGS:
Nice article Eric. It gave me some food for thought.
It occurred to me that, of course the best stories are symbolic, because that’s what makes us able to relate to them. Otherwise, a story is no more interesting than somebody else’s vacation pictures –after a bit it gets boring.
Thanks, Skylar. You’re right, I guess, but the real challenge is to discover how we’re also connected to what seems to be of no importance to us. Those boring pictures as well?
This is fascinating. I was raised a fundamentalist, and I’m trying to get my head around how the Bible was intended to be interpreted, and how the early cultures viewed it, as well as non-literal modern interpretations. This is a great start. Thank you.
Your story is very interesting. I think we can learn a lot from it, as fundamentalist readings of the Bible are thriving, especially on the internet. The best of luck on your quest!
Just a short commentary on your interesting article: René Girard seems to take a road somewhere in between – or better beyond – the fundamentalist position which wants to take everything written in the bible literally and the “liberal” position which sees only metaphors that have to be aligned with the zeitgeist. For me the most exciting part of Girard’s enterprise is when he takes passages in the bible literally that are usually understood in a metaphorical sense, which makes them even more powerful.
One of them is Jesus asking to forgive his torturers – “for they do not know what they do” which in Girard’s theory complies with the blindness of the scapegoaters as a prerequisite for the scapegoat mechanism to work “successfully”. Girard is perhaps the first to take this passage literally and therefore seriously.
Another one is Jesus’ announcement not to bring peace to the earth, but the sword. In Girard’s thinking this is in accordance with the apocalyptic aspect of the Gospels, so unpopular with the theological zeitgeist and now only endorsed by fundamentalists. By revealing the hidden mechanisms of violence to mankind the Gospels take away the “safety rails of archaic religions”, as Girard says in his recent book “Battling to the End”. Bringing the sword means making mankind more vulnerable to its own violence. The revelation of the truth will turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” etc., i.e. instigate a mimetic crisis. Such a literal reading in the words of Raymund Schwager really makes us look into the abyss of human relationships.
This is not to contradict anything you said. I find your articles very thoughtful and entertaining at the same time – something which is so hard to achieve.
You add some really valuable points to this article. So thank you.
As human beings we are prone to display certain behaviors because of the way we’re ‘built’, biologically as well as ‘culturally’. It’s no surprise then that we are able to write our own history in the history of others, and vice versa, that the gradually emerged historical traditions of humankind allow individuals to develop a sense of identity and meaning. In short, our lives reflect (and are reflected in) patterns of the lives of others, whether we want it or not.
Life of an individual human being always refers to something other than itself – ‘others’, sociological and historical -, which makes human life meaningful and allows us to characterize it as self-transcending.
Following René Girard and your remarks, I’d like to stress that human life in general could be called allegorical, as it is intrinsically ‘referential’. From the point of view of a Catholic theology I would speak of the sacramentality of life and history. In the introduction to Battling to the End, Girard writes: “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning…” So the question whether a story – be it in the Gospels, the Hebrew Bible or elsewhere – should be interpreted metaphorically or historically may not be the right question. Better would be to read history ‘allegorically’, as history itself is often expressed, experienced and interpreted with deeply ingrained cultural metaphors. Singer-songwriters understand this very well.
The reality of what happens in Jesus words and deeds, for example, therefore cannot be reduced to the question whether those words and deeds actually took place at some particular place and time. I’m convinced that Jesus of Nazareth made his life a ‘sacrament’ by deliberately performing certain deeds and speaking certain words, that his disciples and the evangelists continued to focus on the sacramentality of his life, and that the continued traditions of the Church up to this day allow us to participate in the thus conceived ‘Reality’ of ‘the Christ Life’.
History is more than an overview of data to be used in an entertaining quiz. Indeed, “history has meaning”, and that’s what makes it ‘real’.
Thanks again for your remarks. They certainly were food for thought!
Thank you for your detailed reply. Regarding the question of how the Bible should be interpreted: I like Girard’s idea that it is rather the Scriptures interpreting us than us interpreting them. They say something we do not want to hear, in that they confront us with the inconvenient truth of our own violence and our inclination to project it on others.
However, we obstinately refuse to be interpreted, which is expressed in the biblical saying that we have eyes that do not want to see and ears that do not want to here. Thus, the Bible itself anticipates the willful misunderstanding of its message, for which the reaction to the story of the burning bush you cite is a good example.
“To engage in a creative and personal dialogue with biblical texts” as you write would then be to engage in a dialogue with one’s own deficiencies. Girard seems to be somewhat skeptical that this can be done to have a lasting effect. Your quotation from Battling to the End “More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning…” continues “…and that its meaning is terrifying”. Girard predicts that mankind will finally destroy itself, which does not seem completely unlikely considering the proliferation of global conflicts and the nuclear arsenal we go on piling up.
Looking forward to reading more on this blog…
I couldn’t agree with you more!
More and more blogs on René Girard and mimetic theory are popping up. This seems to result in a fruitful dialogue. Anyway, I’m happy to explore your blog as well.
Eric, can you elaborate? This is of particular interest to me because I’m only recently finding meaning in so many stories that were not so meaningful in my past. If there is a way to connect to more meaning, I’d like to know about it.
Well, I don’t know really if there’s a ‘method’. As some mystics would say: “Amor ipse notitia est” – “Love itself is a way of knowing”.
From my own experience I know that the more you’re open to learn, the more you discover unexpected links and relationships, the more you discover that ‘everything’s connected’ – so it becomes all the more difficult to ‘exclude’ something (or someone). It reminds me of the saying: “Unknown is unloved”. Knowledge allows you to love, and the more you love something (or someone), the more you want to know it. That’s how this dynamic spiral ‘works’, I guess. Our lives receive and give meaning because of it…
I hope you can relate to what I’m saying here, one way or another…