Monday, July 7, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/7 Post

OK, I think we've taken this far enough. Let's get back to our text.

No, wait. I just can't let it go without one more comment, albeit one that is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

You mentioned that Luke's version of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is called the Sermon on the Plain. Even if we were to allow that people hear what they want to hear, and that this explains the differences between Matthew and Luke (something I cannot fully accept), still it strikes me as odd that the people listening to Jesus couldn't remember if they were standing on a mountain or a plain. Talk about not paying attention!

All right. Enough. Please lead us to the next Beatitude before I start babbling on about how Paul wrote long before any of the Gospel writers and that since he mentions almost nothing of the Jesus narrative (Virgin Birth, parables, Sermon on the Something, etc.) there is a case to be made that these were all narrative flourishes of great writers.

I love the Bible— the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament— and one of the reasons I love it is because it is great fiction, and like all great fiction it is at times deeply and powerfully true. I have no more problem with the differences between biblical texts than I do with differences among Shakespeare's plays. And just as the truth found in Shakespeare has nothing to do with the historicity of his plays, so the truth of the Bible has, for me, nothing to do with historicity of the stories. The story's the thing. Let's get back to it.


AaronHerschel said...

Hmm. This may sound like a quible, but I want to problematize this idea that "the truth in Shakespeare has nothing to do with the historicity of his plays." As heirs to Plato, the Romantics, the transcendentalists, and New Criticism, we are more or less conditioned to accept this premise. Truth is eternal, transcending time, place, and indentity to resonate in (take your pick) elysium, the oversoul, individual consciousness, etc.

But many of the more recent schools of criticism (notably post-structuralism, Feminist and Queer theory, post-modernism, New Historicism, and post-colonialism) challenge this assumption. These schools suggest that to take the "truth" of a text ex-nihilo, as it were, which is to say out of its socio-historical context, is to miss the point entirely.

Truth, or anyway human truth, is not a universal absolute. Rather, it is a function of context, of historicity. The context of a particular story, however, is not limited to the historical period in which it was authored. Instead, it extends to every moment in which the story is encountered. This is why reinterpretation is an essential act. We come to understand what the story means to us, now.

Our interpretation is only enriched when we acknowedge the varied history of interpretation in which our readings rest. Note how, in your own criticism, the first century Jewish context plays a key role in interperating Jesus' message, and adapting it to our contemporary moment.

As readers and critics we must acknoweldge the centrality of history in every text. In doing so, we justify our own acts of re-interpretation, and more importantly, we escape the claim to universal truth that undergirds fundamentalism, enabling conflicting, heterogenous readings to emerge and co-exist.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Rami. While I understand what Aaron Herschel is saying, I am not sure we disagree.

First, I admit that to understand Shakespeare deeply we have understand his context, but is that also true when it comes to the wisdom found in his poetry and plays?

Does Prince Hamlet have to be an historical figure for the play Hamlet to convey truth? Does there have to be an actual Romeo and Juliet for their story to be true?

There has to be some middle ground where sound scholarship and equally sound wisdom come together.

AaronHerschel said...

I would never suggest that Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet have to be historical figures for their stories to contain truth. I too believe in the power of story to convey truth in the absence of fact.

What I am suggesting, however, is that the text of Shakespeare's plays, and of the Bible, was produced in a historical moment whose impact on the meaning of these texts must be recognized.

To use an example from this blog, in the absence of a first century context, Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek sounds like pure humility. Only by understanding the Roman context, can we see turning the other cheek as a defiant act of civil disobedience and a demand for equality.

To subtract the historical context here is to distort, even destroy, the meaning. But as you said--and this blog proves--we don't really disagree on this issue. What may have happened here is simply a semantic misunderstanding. You wrote: " the truth in Shakespeare has nothing to do with the historicity of his plays." I read "historicity" as "socio-historical context," where it seems you meant "factuality."