The Place in the Text
Old Testament Reading: Ecclesiastes
New Testament Reading: Luke 4:16-21
Text: John 21:25
Last Sunday night I was talking to Tony DeLorenzo who mentioned a story by Borges called "The Library of Babel."
In it we read of a reclusive order of scholars inhabiting a vast
repository of books, indeed containing, if possible, every book ever
printed. Thus ensconced, these imaginary archivists feel no need at all to
exit their athenaeum to visit the outside world. Nay, what they have
indoors is better than the outside world. It is the distillation
and the analysis, the essence of the outside world, a knowledge of it better
than the knowledge it has of itself.
The scene is similar to one in a film
called Slacker in which we visit the adytum of a video-addict who
shuns any light but that of the Cathode ray tube. He has flickering
screens gazing at him from every point in the room, like neon bricks,
between them the black mortar of stacked videocassettes.
For him video is more real, in a Platonic sort of a way, than the world
outside his cramped sanctuary.
Once, on one of his rare trips outside
the hive, he chanced to be walking past the entrance of a downtown saloon.
Through the door sailed the limp form of a drunken man who lay across his
path for a moment until another burst through the same door to knife the
prone man in the back! Our video man had seen it all up close. And yet it
was less real to him than something on TV, since he didn't have the image
on tape. It would fade from his memory and could not be rewound and
In both Slacker and "The Library
of Babel" we have, I think, a satire on those who think they are so smart
that they reveal their foolishness by letting life and the world go by
while they remained fixated on some poor substitute for life. Isaac Asimov
makes the same point in Foundation when he has a character rebuke a
wealthy armchair archaeologist for remaining content with the rival
theories of published scholars rather than going to the relevant site and
doing some digging for himself.
Simon and Garfunkel sang, "I have my
books and my poetry to protect me." To that these writers reply, "Get a
life!" This is a satire, I realize, aimed at me. You have seen my office.
You have seen my home. You have noticed there an oddity of interior
decoration: the wallpaper is not parallel to the wall but rather
perpendicular to it. That is, the walls are practically everywhere lined
and laden with books.
I am content to let much of the outside
world go by. I am more interested in knowing what authors of texts ancient
and modern have said, ancient scribes and modern theoreticians. My motto
is that of the Beatles' Nowhere Man: "Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo. So
little time, so much to know!"
Have I and have the monastic custodians
of Borges' Library of Babel taken up residence in the false
imitation-world of books and escaped the real world outside the stacks?
This morning I want to follow up a remark I made in last week's sermon
about the Bible being a wide world in itself. I think I can show that in a
crucial sense the situation is precisely the opposite of that described by
Borges. The book is not a microcosm of the world; the world is rather a
microcosm of the book, or at least contained within it.
Here again is the closing of the gospel
of John: "There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one
of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain
the books that would be written." In a book so filled with metaphor ("I am
the door, the bread of life, the resurrection."), here is a surprising
case of simple hyperbole linked to an unprecedented use of the
first-person singular. Neither is Johannine idiom.
In fact the whole of chapter 21 of the
gospel is surely an appendix. Note that the book had already concluded in
the last verse of chapter 20: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the
presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these
are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that believing, you may have life in his name."
But some early editor decided to append
chapter 21 with its rationalizing explanation of the embarrassing death of
the last disciple, he who should have survived to the Second Coming but
did not. And once he is done, he adds a paraphrase of the original
conclusion. The point seems to be, "What you have just read is already one
more of those Jesus-events the original author left out, and you might
want me to add still more, but then that is a process that might never
end. Where would one stop? Might as well stop now. We wouldn't want to
flood the world with books."
Yet precisely such a scenario is
envisioned in the Book of Isaiah when the Prophet sees a future age in
which "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters
cover the sea" (11:9b). The world will come to be contained within the
book, within the text of divine revelation.
In fact it is already contained
within the text. Roland Barthes (I find myself quoting him more often than
Karl Barth these days) has said "All is text." Derrida has said "There
is nothing outside the text," by which he means simply that we never view
the world, we never see a single bit of reality, apart from some context
of meaning. There is no perception apart from interpretation.
We are socially and religiously and
culturally coached in advance as to what what we see will mean. Reality is
pre-inscribed as soon as you open your eyes. Zen Buddhists realize this.
Their whole endeavor, as Don Cupitt has shown, consists in trying to
abstract the world from the text in which it is pre-inscribed.
How ironic! Borges accuses the
bibliomaniac of abstracting from the true reality of the outside world the
shadow world of the book. And in fact the real futility would be to try
and abstract a "real" world from the meaning-grids which alone allow it to
make any sense to us!
It is obvious that a paper map is a
tiny object within the confines of the gigantic space of the world. Yet it
is true that the world is contained within the text of the map. Insofar as
our planet is an arena or theatre of meaning, of meaningful places, places
to go for a particular reason, places to avoid, or to target, it is
because the world has been contained in the text of the map. It has been
supplemented with coordinates, points of interest, latitude and longitude,
without which we are nowhere in particular. The world lies within the
text, or it has no meaning.
That means, strictly speaking, that it
is just impossible to be objective in our perception of the world. By
definition we cannot look at it from any other perspective than that of an
observer--otherwise we would not be looking at it at all!
And that is why one must devote oneself
to a considerable amount of reading: the only way to broaden your
perspective is to adopt different perspectives, at least on a trial basis.
I can step out of my shoes, at least out of one of them, and put on yours
and see things as you see them. But I cannot go entirely barefoot.
If I want to approach a God's eye-view,
I cannot do the one thing necessary, to see with the all-seeing eye of
God. I can only do the next best thing by adopting as many different
slanted, biased, skewed and partial perspectives as I can. No one can view
the text from outside the text, but we can assume different vantage points
within the text--by reading books of different viewpoints.
And we have to do this for another
reason as well. Ecclesiastes tells us that "of the making of books there
is no end." That is, no particular book ever really comes to an end. There
is no definitive boundary to any individual book. They all refer to each
other even if only by implication.
When I read Borges's "The Library of
Babel" I cannot help but seeing it as somehow linked to Ligotti's "The
Library of Byzantium." I cannot help seeing the different points made by
each story as being in dialogue, even though neither makes reference to
When it comes to the Bible the very
phenomenon of the canon itself is a paramount case of intertextuality.
Most of these books make no reference to one another. Many of them were
written on the assumption that you would not be reading any others. And
yet once you know the others exist it is quite impossible not to condition
your reading of any one of them by the knowledge you have of the others.
You cannot help reading Paul in the light of James and vice versa.
The world is contained within a text,
and within a library of texts, which together form one super-text, a
megatext. You cannot understand the world of your experience aright if you
do not read that part of the world text, the world map of meaning, that is
the Bible. But equally, you cannot understand the world if the Bible is
the only piece of the megatext you read. This is the problem of fanatics
and zealots: they imagine that the text ends with the back cover of the
one book they read.
What should you look for when you read
the megatext of the book that envelopes the world? What part of the world
are you trying to plot out as you read the map? Of course, you are
primarily interested in the role of one particular character. A minor one,
admittedly, yet not without interest: yourself.
James Fowler suggests that the
much-asked question of the meaning of life is really the question of just
which story you are living out. Abstractions leave us cold. An idea, a
formula, a concept is not the meaning of your life, and you know it. The
meaning of your life is the story of your life, the story you are
in fact living, whether a tragedy or a comedy, or perhaps another
story you would rather live out, that you dream of
The more you read, the more options,
the more roles, the more possible stories there are to choose from. Are
you looking to act the role of a starlet on a soap opera? Many young women
are. Are you looking to repeat the story of Albert Schweitzer? I know some
people who are doing that. I know people who have modeled their lives
after that of Soren Kierkegaard, or of characters in a Bergman film. Some
choose fairy tales, some choose tragedies, some epics.
And you can live the story out in your
own way, to the extent circumstances allow you, on your own modest level.
The great epics of antiquity may make the stories of our lives seem
modest, even pitiful by comparison. Yet their grandeur is simply our small
life-story written large so everyone can see. They are lines shouted by
the actors on a stage so everyone in the theatre can hear. They are larger
than life only in the sense of Platonic forms, prototypes.
Listen to the Lukan Jesus, proclaiming
his messianic role in the Nazareth synagogue. He finds the place in the
text where the career of the liberating Servant of Jehovah is set forth.
He reads this text and reads himself into it. "Today this scripture is
fulfilled in your hearing." What does this mean?
That centuries earlier some clairvoyant
had envisioned Jesus' own career and written it down in advance? Nonsense.
What has happened is that Jesus reads a story in scripture, the story of
one anointed with the Spirit of liberation, one who will spend his life
setting the captives free, and he has decided that this is the story he
will live. This, and no longer the splitting of boards and the selling of
chairs, will be the meaning of life for him.
But you are not living the story of the
Liberator. You are perhaps living the life of one of the oppressed, one of
the captives who awaits the coming of liberation. What binds you? What is
the nature of the prison you are in? I wonder if your life frustrates you
because you are playing out a script for a role you are not by nature
suited to play. You are stuck with a story your parents chose for you, or
that society dictated, or that your fears have forced you to accept because you do not
believe you are capable of a happy ending.
Does society tell you you cannot chose
this or that life story because of your color or your gender? All right.
You cannot change that. That is bitter gall. But there is still a choice
of stories. Will you play the contemptible victim who makes a phantom
motion of resisting by merely resenting? Or will you craft another
version of the tale? There are, you know, endless variations on a theme.
Aren't there other ways of doing what you want to do or of utilizing your
It may be that your new take on an old
theme will prove to be better than the original. Shakespeare's Hamlet is
a reworking of an already hackneyed theme, but it was such a work of
genius that it altogether supplanted those earlier versions that it
What is the story you are born to live?
What is the epic for you? Young Werther? Faust? Gilgamesh? Joan of Arc?
Semiramis? Van Gogh? Mine, I will tell you, comes partly out of the
biographies of Harnack and Baur, partly out of M.R. James. Maybe yours
will be something nobler. I congratulate
you. But whatever it is, read. Discover more of the options. Let no one
else decide. And sit down and plan how you may live your story, even if
you have to do it in your spare time.
The world exists in the text. The text
is endless, encompassing all books. And somewhere in that limitless volume
you will find your story. Your life is a place in the text which alone
lends it meaning. Read and mark and let it be fulfilled in you.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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