lashperformingthescriptures

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Unformatted text preview: UBY ILL — Lending 736193 Pages: 37-46 ARIEL RLG:NJPG ILLiad TN: 736193 ILL Number: 229542 Fax: 609.258.0441 ' ' . 4 Article Author: Nicholas Lasch ? 329253-8112205 7 Article Title: Performing the Scriptures y - Call #- BR 118 .L29 1986 Lending String: RLGIUTBG "‘ Location' 2ND Patron: Willitts, Donna '5 . g Journal Title: Theology on the way to Emmaus/ Nicholas Borrower:lRL_G:N'J PG 8 Lash ISSN' Princeton UniverSIty Library g i I Firestone lnterlibrary Servnces - Borrow 2 ' ' One Washington Road N Volume. Issue. _ é Month/Year: / 1986 1986 Pages: 37-45 ARtEL Princeton, NJ 08544-2098 USA 5 10/11/2005 10:36 AM lnterlibrary Loan Copy Center For Ariel Receipt Problems: Phone: 801-422—8648 Fax: 801-422-0464 B RI G H A M Y O U N G Ariel: ariel—provo.lib.byu.edu or provoariel.lib.byu.edu U N I V E R S I T Y . Email: [email protected] Harold B. Lee Library Ariel Problem Report If you have experienced a problem in the delivery of the requested item, please contact us within Five Business Days with the following information: ILL#: Your OCLC Symbol: Date of Receipt: NOTICE: This material may be Please specify if: protected by copyright law Pages were Missing — pp. to Title 17 U.S. Code Edges were Cut Off — pp. to Illegible Copy — Resend entire item Wrong Article Sent Other (Explain): Hill 3 Performing the Scriptures Open a copy of the New Testament, leaf through its pages. What do we see? A letter from Paul to his friends in Corinth? Matthew’s account of the passion of Jesus? John’s reflections on the significance of this one man whose words and fate, whose particular flesh, ‘speak’ from beyond all time and circumstance? No, we don’t see anything of the kind. All that we see is a set of black marks on white paper. What does one do with a set of black marks on white paper? One could decide that they make so pleasing a pattern that their best use would be to frame them and hang them on the wall. (That is not a completely far-fetched suggestion: a friend of mine, an expert in Hebrew calligraphy, once wrote a letter in Hebrew to my wife; it hangs in the hall, not for its message, but for its appearance. Family Bibles are sometimes like that, decorative rather than functional.) But, confronted with a pattern of black marks that we recognize as a form of notation, what we usually do is to try to make sense of it, to read it, to interpret it. How does one ‘read’ or interpret a text? The activity is so familiar that the question may seem foolish. And yet a moment’s reflection suggests that, for different kinds of text, different kinds of activity count as what we might call the primary or fundamental form of their interpretation. Two random examples. A group of people tramping across the hills, bits of paper in one hand, compasses in the other. What are they doing? They are engaged in what the army calls a ‘map~reading exercise’. Another group, in a pub, one' 38 Theology on the Way to Emma: speaking, the others listening, are taking part in a poetry reading. (Notice that all of them, not just the speaker, are ‘taking part’ in the reading.) There are some texts the interpretation of which seems to be a matter of, first, ‘digging’ the meaning out of the text and thenasubsequently, putting the meaning to use, applying it in practice. That might be a plausible description of what someone was domg who, armed with a circuit diagram, tried to mend his television set. But it would be a most misleading description ofwhat a judge is doing when, in the particular case before him, he interprets the law. In this case, interpretation is a creative act that could not have been predicted by a computer because it Is the judge’s business to ‘make’ the law by his interpretation of precedent. What the law means is decided by his application ofit. What it means to read or interpret a text depends in part, then, on the kind of text that is being used. Different kinds of text call for different kinds of reading. And the reader must take responsibility for the reading, for deciding what kind of text it is With which he or she is dealing. This does not mean that it is Simply ‘up to me’ arbitrarily to decide what to do with a text. (It would be silly to sing railway timetables, rather than use them to catch trains.) What it does mean is that it is the reading of the text, rather than merely the text itself, the material object the black marks on white paper, which embodies decisions as to what kinds of reading are appropriate. And the richer the plex its relationship to the culture which 1 ‘ ers it, the more varied the range of more or ess appropriate readings which it evokes. Thus (briefly to anticipate the discussion of the New Testa- Kt‘which I shall get round to eventually) it is possible, at h . in some versions, to read the scriptures for the beauty of t err language; it IS possible to read them because they speak to our condition; it is possible to read them because they speak ofjesus; it is ossibl t mystery of Go: e 0 read them because they speak the decision to take them one ' ’ at each reading. We cann 3 0t pass the buck. It is, therefore, Performing the Scriptures 39 incumbent upon us to read as competently and responsibly as we can. This raises another set of problems, because not just anybody can read just any text. I am useless at reading circuit diagrams, and I can’t read Polish. Confronted by such texts, I have to pass the buck to the appropriate expert. Open a copy of the New Testament, leaf through its pages. If it happens to be a copy of the Greek text, most of us would be stuck from the start. We would need the help of the expert. But do we also need his help in the case of texts that were written in, or have been translated into, a language with which we are familiar? And, if the answer is ‘Yes’, what is the relationship between the expert’s contribution to the task of interpretation, and that of the ‘general reader’? At the time of the Reformation, the attempt was made to rescue the New Testament from the clutches of the ecclesiastical authorities, who claimed that they alone were competent to interpret the text, and to place it once again in the hands of those for whom it was written. But a lot has happened since the invention of the printing-press helped to bring about that particular revolution in the reading of the New Testament. We have become very conscious of the fact that there is no such thing as what any text ‘obviously’ means. What a text obviously seems to mean, at first sight, on examination may turn out to have little or nothing to do with what it meant to those who produced it or to those for whom it was originally produced. (What did they make of the story of Christmas, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the trial before Pilate? And how do we know, without trying to find out?) This is by no means only true of ancient texts, produced in cultural contexts whose patterns of thought and argument, illustration and imagery, memory and expectation, were very different from our own. But it undoubtedly is true of such texts. And so, between the New Testament and the ordinary Christian, who seeks so to read these texts as to hear in them the Word of Life, there seem to be set up thickets of expertise, insurmountable barriers of scholarship. And, as everybody knows, there is not a line in the New Testament concerning the interpretation of which the 40 Theology on the Way to Emma: experts are not deeply divided. If the New Testament once needed rescuing from the ecclesiastical authorities (some of whom have still perhaps too tight a grip on it) does it now need rescuing from the professors of theology? So far, I have only tried to make four simple points. In the first place, ‘reading’ is always a matter of interpreting a text, of putting 1t to appropriate use. In the second place, what counts as an appropriate strategy of use or interpretation will depend upon the kind of text with which we are dealing. In the third place, the reader cannot avoid taking personal responsibility for the interpretative strategy which he or she employs. In the fourth place, there are difficulties concerning the relationship between our use of the New Testament, as ordinary Christians, and the responsibilities of ‘authoritative’ interpreters, whether ecclesiastical authorities or academic experts. . I suggested earlier that, for different kinds of text, different kinds of activity count as the fundamental form of their interpretation. I would now like to illustrate this suggestion and to indicate, at the same time, something of the relationships that exist between such fundamental interpretative activity and the interpretative tasks of the scholar and critic. There is a set of black marks on white paper which are recognizable as the score of one of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Consider four people playing the quartet. What are they doing? They are interpreting the text. Even if the performance is technically faultless (and is, in that sense, a ‘correct’ interpretation) we might judge it to be lifeless, unimaginative. There is a creativity in interpretation which, far from being arbitrary (the players cannot do whatever they like with the score) is connected in some way with the fidelity the ‘truthfulness’ of their performance. 3 There is, undoubtedly, an expertise which the musicians need._Behind any great performance lie years of disciplined experience. But the particular expertise necessary for good performance is neither the same as, nor in competition with the academic skills of the textual critics who make the scord available through scholarly research and the critics and music- ologists who have their own contribution to make to the Perfinming the Scriptures 41 continuing history of Beethoven interpretation. The funda- mental form of the interpretation of Beethoven consists in the performance of his texts. The academics have an indispensable but subordinate part to play in contributing to the quality and appreciation of the performance. Since the differences between a Beethoven score and the text of the Gospel according to Matthew are more obvious than the similarities, consider another example: a company of actors and an audience performing King Lear. Once again, the activity upon which they are engaged is that of interpreting a text. And, once again, the quality of the interpretation depends partly upon an element of creativity that is essential to the interpret- ative task. We look to the actors and the producer to enable us in some measure freshly to experience and understand the play. But, at the end of an outstanding performance of King Lear, is it only the play that we feel ourselves newly to have understood? If we say, after the performance, ‘I’d never seen that before’, are we referring only to something which we had never previously seen in the text? Or are we also referring to an element of self- discovery which the performance had helped us to achieve? And what is the relationship between these two discoveries? Might it be that, in the performance of a great work of art, a ‘classic’, self-discovery and the discovery of fresh meaning in the text converge? Might it be that the ‘greatness’ of a text lies in its inexhaustible capacity to express, to dramatize, fundamental features of the human drama? Leaving such questions on one side for the time being, King Lear does seem to be another example of a text the fundamental form of the interpretation of which consists in its performance. As in the case of the musical analogy, the expertise required by actors and producer in order to perform well is of a different order from that required of the indispensable but subordinate academic interpreters: the textual critics, historians of Eliza- bethan drama, literary critics and philosophers. What both these examples suggest is that there are at least some texts that only begin to deliver their meaning in so far as they are ‘brought into play’ through interpretative perform— 42 Theology on tlze Way t0 Emmaus ance. This is also true, I suggest, of such other ‘works of art’ as the poem, the novel and the story. Now, at last, we are getting to the point. Not all the texts of the New Testament are stories but, taken together, they ‘tell the story’ of Jesus and the first Christian communities. I want to suggest, first, that, although the texts of the New Testament may be read, and read with profit, by anyone interested in Western culture and concerned for the human predicament, the fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity and organization of the believing community. Secondly, that Christian practice, as interpretative action, consists in the perfirmance of texts which are construed as ‘rendering’, bearing witness to, one whose words and deeds, discourse and suffering, ‘rendered’ the truth of God in human history. The performance of the New Testament enacts the conviction that these texts are most appropriately read as the story ofJesus, the story of everyone else, and the story of God. In comparison with some other ‘models’ of the relationship between interpretation and discipleship, Bible and theology, scripture and tradition, this suggestion does at least have the merit of reminding us that the poles of Christian interpretation are not, in the last analysis, written texts (the text of the New Testament on the one hand and, on the other, whatever appears today In manuals of theology and catechetics, papal encyclicals, pastoral letters, etc.) but patterns of human action: what was said and done and suffered, then, by Jesus and his disciples, and what is said and done and suffered, now, by those who seek to share his obedience and his hope. We talk of ‘holy’ scripture, and for good reason. And yet it is not, in fact, the rcrz'pt that is ‘holy’, but the people: the company who perform the script. . Moreover, as my musical and dramatic analogies were intended to indicate, the model has the further advantage of keeping the experts firmly in their place while acknowledging their skills to be indispensable. To say that the fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the per- formance of the biblical text affords no licence to that ‘funda- mentalism’ which is still a depressingly widespread feature of popular preaching and catechesis. In order to do the job Performing the Scriptures 43 properly, Christian discipleship, the performative interpret- ation of scripture, needs (just as much as does the interpretation of Beethoven and Shakespeare) the services of scholarship and critical reflection. I have been at pains to emphasize that those who engage in the activity of reading a text bear personal responsibility for their reading. But to say that the responsibility is personal is not to say that it is executed by isolated individuals. Personal responsibility is not the same thing as ‘private judgment’. Christian living, construed as the interpretative performance of scripture is, for two reasons, necessarily a collaborative enterprise. This is so, first, because (as I have pointed out already) the performers need the help of the ‘experts’. The second reason arises from the nature of the texts: it takes two to tango and rather more to perform King Lear. For even the most dedicated musician or actor, the interpret- ation of Beethoven or Shakespeare is a part—time activity. Oti- stage, the performers relax, go shopping, dig the garden. But there are some texts the fundamental form of the interpretation of which is a full-time affair because it consists in their enactment as the social existence of an entire human community. The scriptures, I suggest, are such texts. This is what is meant by saying that the fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity and organization of the believing community. The performance of scripture is the life of the church. It is no more possible for an isolated individual to perform these texts than it is for him to perform a Beethoven quartet or a Shakespeare tragedy. Another analogy may help. The fundamental form of the political interpretation of the American Constitution is the life, activity and organization of American society. That society exists (not without change, conflict and confusion) as the enactment of its Constitution. Similarly, we might say that the scriptures are the ‘constitution’ of the church. Even in the case of societies that have a written constitution, the interpretation of that constitution is an unending enterprise. Times change, circumstances change. The ‘meaning’ of the 44 Theology on the Way to Emmaus constitution is never definitively ‘captured’; it is, ever and again, sought and constructed. Similarly, each new performance of Beethoven or Shakespeare is a new event in the history of the meaning of the text. There is no such thing as an interpretation that is ‘final’ and ‘definitive’ in the sense of bringing that history to an end. But how can this be true of the New Testament? How can we square the recognition that the history of the meaning of the text continues indefinitely with the ascription of finality to God’s work of revelation in Jesus the Christ? This is a large question; all I can do is offer a couple of clues. In the first place, the range of appropriate interpretations of a dramatic or literary text is constrained by what the text ‘originally meant’. This is what keeps the historians and textual critics in business. Good Shakespearean production, for example, presupposes an effective and abiding interest in what was originally meant. The author retains his authority if it is his text, and not some other, that we seek to interpret. In the second place, in order to understand a text we have to understand the question to which it is an answer. We may give up the enterprise: there are texts that we no longer bother to read, or which we feel ourselves unable to make sense of. But so long as the enterprise continues, so long as we continue to seek to perform these texts, we are continuing to endorse that which we take the texts to have originally meant. And if the question to which the text sought originally to provide an answer was a question concerning the ultimate and definitive character, outcome and significance of human history: and if the answer (expressed in the text) consisted in the ascription of ultimate, unsurpassable, effective significance to the words and work and death of one man, then, to continue appropriately to perform this text is to continue to ascribe such significance to this man. To put it very simply: as the history of the meaning of the text continues, we can and must tell the story differently. But we do so under constraint: what we may not do, ifit is this text which we are to continue to perform, is to tell a different story. There is another objection to the model I am proposing which . .. Mama.“ WW“ Performing the Scriptures 4-5 needs briefly to be considered. King Lear is fiction; the Gospels are, in some sense, historical. They therefore carry a built-in reference to particular, completed past events which renders them resistant to the interpretative relativism to which fictional constructions are subject. Once again, all I can do here is to offer some clues to the resolution of the dilemma. In the first place, we would not bother to continue performing King Lear (except as a museum piece) if we no longer believed in it, if we no longer found it ‘true to life’. Some people, I think, give up the practice of Christianity for a similar reason. In the second place, however, the New Testament texts do not simply give symbolic, narrative expression to certain fundamental and pervasive features of the human drama (although Christians are apt to overlook the extent to which the fact that they do do this is part of their enduring power and attractiveness). They also express their authors’ confidence in one man in whom the mystery of divine action is seen to have been embodied and disclosed. We can...
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