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The Fracture in Scripture


Old Testament Lesson: Jeremiah 8:8-9; Isaiah 29:13
New Testament Lesson: Revelation 22:18-19
Koran Lesson: Surah 17:74; 2:106
Texts: Revelation 10:1-4; Mark 7:1-8


In recent days you may have heard the news that Oxford University Press published an "Inclusive Language New Testament." I will read you a snippet of it. [Luke 10:22-23.] you can imagine the reactions this thing is generating. And you can probably predict mine too. I thought it might be worth a sermon, both for its own sake and for that of certain larger issues it raises. 

I saw a CNN report in which the reporter asked an editor from Oxford University Press if this were not simply a Politically Correct Bible, a euphemizing of the Bible to fit the newspeak of the times. The editor of course denied that it was just PC. Oh no, she protested, the differences just result from a more accurate translation. This gave me a sense of deja vu. And in a moment I realized it was because she was simply doing what all professional spin doctors for the Bible do. They lie like hell. She was just lying. There is no way that what I just read you has a thing to do with the underlying Greek text. 

There is a special irony here, in fact there is a whole mirror image series of ironies, each playing off the other. The first has to do with the supposed authority of the Bible, alias the Word of God. Why did God reveal the Bible, as the Bible's spin doctors like to claim? It was because we miserable humans couldn't be trusted to think for ourselves, to come up with the right answers. So God supplied the instruction manual. Thus the Bible has a unique kind of authority. It says it. You do it. It says it. You believe it. 

But what has happened in the case of the Inclusive Language Bible? In this Bible we plainly have human beings altering, emending, doctoring the inspired text because they seem to know better. Better than God? Oxford University Press is sending the Word of God to charm school, or really, I guess, to obedience school. When it is they who ought to be obeying the Word of God. Or at least that's the way it's supposed to be, right? 

Only it's never been that way. This PC Bible, the Newspeak Testament, is only an overt case of what is usually covert. Namely, the fact that Bible believers have always used the text as a ventriloquist dummy. Just as Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 has Jesus pushing a brand of toothpaste on TV in the future, preachers speak their own opinions in the echo chamber of the Bible so as to make their own beliefs pass for the word of god. Biblical authority is a complete fiction and it always has been. What authority the Bible may possess comes from its wisdom, where it is wise. 

Now, if the Newspeak Testament defies and exposes the old priestcraft ploy of Biblical authority, it may be that it is not so unbiblical in another, more genuine way, after all. Dewey Beegle in his book The Inspiration of Scripture showed how the traditional dictation model of inspiration was ruled out by the fact that all the biblical books are compilations of traditions that have been reshaped, retold, reinterpreted many times over both before and after being written down. If there is any inspiration, it would have to be located somewhere in that long, apparently fortuitous evolutionary process. 

Years later Paul Achtemaier took up where Beegle left off. He said that since the biblical text grew in such a gradual and piecemeal fashion, then a responsible, biblical use of the Bible today would mean treating it as the Bible writers themselves treated as much of the Bible as was already available to them. And what did they do with it? They radically reinterpreted it. And this they did even when they had the same frozen model of biblical authority fundamentalists have today. Let me give you a couple of examples. 

Gerry read the Book of Revelation's warning to readers not to go editing and rewriting the text. It tells you not to do precisely what Matthew and Luke did to Mark, what Chronicles did to Samuel and Kings. The author wants to safeguard the integrity of his text, and he knows that's not easy. In fact it seems that he himself, or maybe some early scribe, has already disobeyed the warning! Someone after all has deleted the mysterious revelation of the seven thunders. 

Or the text from Mark 7. I find it deliciously ironic that in it Jesus condemns the scribes for tampering with God's word so as to make room for their own traditions. The irony is double. In the first place, the quote from Isaiah is not from the Hebrew original, but from the Greek Septuagint, and the translation is quite a bit different from the original. So the very scripture citation aimed against tinkering with the scripture is itself a tinkered scripture! 

And not only that: to have Jesus saying this to Palestinian Jewish scribes is out of the question, since he would never quote the Greek text! Even the Jewish washing customs Mark refers to did not exist in Palestine! So someone has concocted the story, claiming the divine authority of Jesus for his own opinion! In short, exactly what it condemns the scribes for doing! As Deconstructionists say, the text is self-subverting. 

Is the Newspeak Testament really doing anything different? No, I think we have to admit that it is simply continuing the old biblical process of rejuvenating the tradition by changing it, reinterpreting--even rewriting it. Fine. Good for them. 

But even here there is an irony, and more of a tragic one. The main tendency of the Newspeak Testament is to make it look like the Bible is not a male-centered, male-biased document. But it is. The Bible is getting a face lift. Again, I admit the goal is to rehabilitate scripture so it can still be a scripture at all. But even if that is what you're doing, think again. The changes in the Bible that we find here are so superficial as to be comical. Because, I submit, the problems go much, much deeper than calling God Father and not Mother. 

Mary Daly once said that for someone to seek equality for women in the Catholic Church is like seeking equality for blacks in the Ku Klux Klan! Huston Smith changed his famous book "The Religions of Man" to "The World's Religions." Why? Of course, to eliminate the sexism. Hey, Huston, I've got news for you: why don't you wait to change the title till the religions themselves have changed? That's what they are, all right: the religions of Man. Women are strictly second class citizens. 

And in the case of the biblical religions, I think this stems from the pervasive "phallogocentrism" of biblical monotheism. The very idea that the Truth must be One and must be Ultimate and unchallenged seems to stem from the instinct of the bull ape to rule the roost, to play King of the Hill, to combat one's competitors so as to have all the females for oneself. 

The Christian preoccupation with True doctrine, with Christ being "of one substance with the Father" comes from paternity anxiety. When asked what each would do should they find out after a couple of months that their baby had been switched with another in the maternity ward, most women say they'd keep the baby they'd bonded with. Most men say they want their own offspring, their own genetic extension. They want the one who is homoousias with themselves. Thus the Nicene Creed. 

When God is a male, a Father, and the Logos through which the whole world was made is a male, a Son, then you are saying the whole of reality must be understood from a male perspective. I don't see how you're going to correct this all-determining bias in the Bible with the silly etiquette-editing of the Inclusive Language New Testament. What you will need is a largely new Bible. Or maybe no Bible at all, since even the authority trip itself is male chauvinism. 

But here's the issue that interests me. Let me go back to the idea of the danger, indeed the inevitability, of the text of the Bible eventually being changed, rewritten, corrupted. This says something very important about textuality in general. 

In his book "Limited, Inc.," Jacques Derrida shows how all language contains a hidden fault-line, a fracture undermining the existence of any fixed or definitive meaning. He uses the image of a postcard. When you send someone a note on a postcard, it is open to all eyes that meet it in transit. Once it gets to the intended recipient, he or she probably will know exactly what your words mean. But no one else will. Others may miss certain in-jokes, pet names, tacit assumptions. Imagine for a moment a postal worker sorting the mail and happening to notice what you wrote on a card. It intrigues and puzzles him. Out of context it may sound sinister, suspicious, salacious. It is the stuff sitcoms are made of. 

Can you imagine that postal worker copying down your return address, calling up directory assistance, getting your number, and calling to ask what you really meant? That's the only way he could possibly arrive at the author's meaning. But this is never going to happen. So if he reads the card, that's the text, the beginning and the end of it, right there. It's never going to mean any more than that unaided text is going to tell you by itself. 

So the text itself can not be said to communicate a definitive message. If you know the author and can surmise what the author meant to tell you, the postcard has become something like a smoke signal yielding a message to you alone. But otherwise, its just a peculiar puff of smoke. An enigma more than a message. 

This built-in possibility of a text's being eaves-dropped on, listened in on, is a potential included in the text as a text. And that potential is actualized in every reading. Even the intended recipient may read the card a second time some days later and come to see implications he did not see at first. As on "Mash" when Henry rejoices over a letter from his wife telling him she understands if he winds up having sex with other women over in Korea. Only later does he realize what she is really telling him is that she is having an affair with the neighborhood dentist. 

The structural possibility of being misunderstood, understood in many ways, means that language does not lend itself to the conveying of a definitive meaning. It is not so precise an instrument as that. 

Well, I think that in the same way we can see a fracture in scripture, a built-in possibility of corruptibility that makes the whole notion of a pure text impossible and absurd. The text, any text, is made of certain elements and not others, but these elements function as a kind of DNA, a fund of genetic potential which, though unique, can be combined and recombined, can mutate into a limitless variety of new forms. That, in fact, is what it means for a text to be a living word, not a dead letter. The text is not written in stone, Moses to the contrary, but is malleable. 

The Inclusive Language Bible is an example of this evolutionary mutation. So is "The Last Temptation of Christ" And so is "Jesus Christ Superstar." 

We have really only returned in a roundabout way to the point made by Beegle and Achtemaier: the Bible cannot be either inspired or authoritative as a frozen, definitive text. Because no text is such a text. What usefulness the Biblical text has is as a flowing stream of new and renewed insights, of new theological and exegetical possibilities. Of new light breaking forth. And, as Heraclitus said, you can't step into the same river twice. It will have changed already. 

Let me end with what I believe is a perfect theological symbol for the fracture in scripture both as an inevitable condition of textuality and as a hope for theological and religious renewal as scriptures are read in new ways. 

In one of his books on the Jewish Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem tells of the theological dilemma of the kabbalistic mystics. They believed that the provisions of the Torah, being mostly prohibitions, were specific to this fallen age of sin. In the coming age of Redemption, sin would be eradicated. Thus the old commandments would no longer be of any use. And yet it was blasphemy even to suggest that the Word of God might become superfluous--and equally sacrilegious to say that it might change to meet the needs of the new age. How can the eternal Word of God change, even for the better? It could not. 

So their solution was that it would not change. That is, the sacred text of the Torah would not change. But its aspect would change. Its appearance would change. It would wear a new and benevolent face in the Messianic age. What would make the difference? The secret presence, hitherto unguessed, of a hidden signifier, an invisible letter running through the whole extent of the text. If you could see that letter, all would read differently, as when paleographers expose an old scroll to infrared light and letters thy could not read before, because the ancient ink had worn away, suddenly leap into visibility. What had for thousands of years read one way as a commandment against sin, would for the first time be revealed as saying something else, something positive pertaining to the great age of Redemption. 

There was a hidden but integral fold at the heart of the text which made it impossible for the text to mean one definite thing for all time. And so it is with every text, with textuality in general, and thus with the text of the Bible. It is, as the Writer to the Hebrews says (at least in the text as we now read it!) alive and powerful. It is powerful only insofar as it is alive, and it lives only if it changes.

Robert M. Price

September 16, 1995





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