If we are not fluent, we are illiterate.
The last post left us with the nearly helpless idea that when we are illiterate (which we mostly are), we must rely on authority to enlighten us. Simultaneously, we must also be weary of authority, because whether in science or religion, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
A major source of power comes from being fluent in an system in which others are not.
Our resolution was to become literate, so that we may not be reliant on authorities, but instead, authors in our own right. This can be a daunting task that goes in a few directions; we will follow what we can.
Christian Authorship Among Mixed Means
Unlike the meaning embedded in Medieval stained glass imagery, the equations of theoretical physics cannot be fully fleshed-out to us by reading aloud from the author/authority’s work. Although some see math as the truly catholic, ahem, universal language, the fact is that most are ignorant of its higher forms – calculus, non-Euclidean geometry, etc. For many, an advanced mathematical model is codified in a foreign language. Therefore, whether written or spoken, it may not be comprehended by one who is unlearned in such mathematics. In this case, fluency and literacy are one and the same.
Wait! Can’t something similar be said of Christianity? I would posit that one could be taught all the words in the New Testament, but not really know what it means to be Christian – to inhabit the being of one who follows Christ – because the epistemology and the ontology of the Christian rest in praxis 👀👀👀. More plainly, the foundational truth of Christian-being can only be arrived at through action. I know many a Pauline disciple are shouting, “You just need faith to be Christian!” Sure, but how do we know one has faith? Through their actions. As the apostle James famously puts it, faith without works is dead. Or, as Deitrich Bonhoeffer puts it in chapter two of Discipleship, faith and obedience arise and act simultaneously; “Faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”
Of course, to know how to act like Christ, we must learn about Him. This is one place where the verbally illiterate has the advantage over the mathematically illiterate – the former can listen to the Bible being read in his/her language of fluency and begin to grasp its message. Conversely, advanced math is equally opaque whether spoken or written. (I will not address translation concerns here, instead only deal with interpretation, as translation is a type of interpretation.) Ultimately, and with reference to the first Pentacost after the resurrection (Acts 2:1-13) where the language barrier was miraculously dissolved in the dissemination of the Gospel, I believe that the Holy Spirit is expected to translate to the faithful reader/listener. I’m not sure the same can be said for calculus. Is there a holy spirit of calculus?
The fact remains: there are many different interpretations of every Bible verse. So, we should take a minute to examine hermeneutics – the task of interpreting.
Contemporary hermeneutics is often overlayed onto literary semiotics (the study of the basic elements of language/writing). Without getting stuck in the weeds too much, we will quickly look at the ideas of a philosopher from the 20th century, Roland Barthes.
One of Barthes’ most famous ideas is presented in his essay “The Death of the Author.” Jumping right to the punchline, Barthes asserts that every time a text is read, it is (re)authored by the reader. In his view, through the act of interpreting the meaning of a text, it is authored as much by the reader as its writer. The essay includes a criticism of dogmatic interpretation of texts, including the Bible. Barthes claims one of his purposes as being the liberation of the activity of interpretation, noting that to do so might be considered counter-theological because “to refuse to arrest¹ meaning is finally to refuse God…” The implications appear counter to religion, but can also be utilized in understanding the democratization of Biblical authority.
For Barthes, authorship (thus authority) is decentralized.
In arguing this, he accidentally gives proof to the Pentacostal activation of the text. As we read the Bible, we interpret it. Thus, it is revealed to us. When I say read, I mean READ the Bible – not just eyeballing the words, wondering if it’s been long enough since we’ve last checked our social media, or scanning for something that we already know and that agrees with our agenda – I mean when we read-read; when we look up the words we don’t know, check the concordances, read and reread until we inhabit the words the way The Word desires to inhabit us. When we read this way, we can expect the Holy Spirit to reveal what the tongues on fire are saying to us. When we read on this level, in a sense, we are (re)+authoring the text. We are becoming an authority on it.
Here, we find ourselves in the greatest danger.
It is at this point, when we begin to feel like we are gaining authority on the Bible, we should take a step back and learn a lesson from Science.
Of all the stages of contemporary scientific endeavor, possibly the most critical phase for confirming a finding is peer review. Peer review means that when a new discovery is made, other scientists in the same field, with the same or higher credentials, check the work for soundness and validity.
Returning to our look at Christianity amongst the low literacy rates in the Middle Ages, we can see how important peer review is in keeping (Biblical) authority in check. Namely, when no one could put review the church, the church made it’s own rules of the Biblical texts.
In the centuries following Roman Emperor Constantine’s appropriation of Christianity, (making it the official religion of the western world,) the Church expanded greatly in every way. Across this time, we see a direct correlation between the church’s temporal distance from the resurrection of Christ, and the theologically-promoted physical distance between Heaven and Earth, as evinced by a change in the locus of authority. In this process, as the church became more powerful, the source of its authority shifted. This movement could be described as going from the Word of God to the word of Rome vis-a-vis the Papacy. More concisely, the Church’s authority transformed into power. We will now look at how early Christian peer-review was lost, and how that translated into power becoming centralized.
Authority vs. Power
The Epistles of the New Testament are letters written to churches, presumably passed between local congregations and read aloud to each. Based on my reading of the Epistles, when I think of the first and second century churches, they seem like places where people learned about Christ and how God had already forgiven their sins through Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Church’s mission seemed to be letting people know this good news and asking them to turn from their flesh-ly ways to build a more heavenly community of forgiveness here, on Earth, in preparation for the new Heaven and Earth to come.
It was the responsibility of the hearers to live out, in their communities, the gospel they heard described, therefore, taking part in the authorship of the good news to their community. I would call this benevolent authoring, or as a noun, benevolent authority. Benevolent authoring has no relationship to literacy, because it’s goal is irrelevant to language, it’s aim is action.
Jesus, himself the Benevolent Authority, re+authored the Bible of his time by living out it’s truths. In His own words, He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. He fulfilled it by putting all of its teaching into meaningful action. By contrast, the Pharisees lived by the Law, they did not live out the Law; they lived beside the Law, not through it; they may have best memorized and obeyed the Law, but did not know how to Live, because of the Law.
We are called to be Christ-like, to re+author the word daily, not only by reading it or memorizing it, not just by living in it, but also by living it out. Here’s a quick scriptural example from Matthew:
In Matthew 3:2 (ESV), we see John the Baptist preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” After His baptism by John, and testing in the wilderness, Jesus begins his ministry by preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). Christ does such a good job of this that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:28-29 ESV) It was as if Jesus had not simply read the Law and the Prophets, but written it himself! He subsequently “called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” and instructed them to “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 10:1 and 7 ESV).
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It’s almost like John the Baptist wrote it, Jesus lived it, and the disciples copied it. But because of the way each participated in it, they all shared in its authorship. They each had authority.¹
This next point is crucially important:
To author a text is to give birth to it; to re+author a text it’s to give it new life. Jesus was the word made flesh – the living word – he was the meaningful activation of the text. His murder was an attempt by power-seeking authorities to fix the meaning of the Word¹, but his resurrection was a radical re+authoring of the Word. Likewise, if we live out – re+author – Christ’s example, we will be re-born (born again), and share in His resurrection. This is a call to action, not to speaking. We are to re+author, not re-write.
To continually re+author the gospel in this way is to continually re-surrect (rise again) the Christ. In the same way Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, we are involved in the resurrection of Him when we live as he lived. But, we can only know how to live because Jesus first lived. This is how we keep the Kingdom of heaven at hand!
… … …
In contrast, I understand the Church of the Middle Ages as promoting a Heaven that was NOT at hand. The church acted like an earthly kingdom whose mission was to constantly remind people that they needed God’s forgiveness and let them know where and how to earn it. The responsibility of the people was to rid themselves of sin, and because the logic was that Heaven (and God and Jesus) was far away from Earth, the responsibility of the clergy was to act as intermediaries between man and God. In order to perpetuate its power, the Church had to regulate the maintenance of the salvation of its parishioners. In turn, in order to ensure one’s own salvation, the status quo of papal hegemony had to be maintained.
This positioning gave the papal hierarchy absolute power, including authority to interpret, to re-write the Law as they saw fit. I call this power authoring. Power authoring has a direct relationship to literacy in that the powerful need those who are overpowered to be illiterate in the language of the Law so that the rules always work in the powerful’s favor. In contrast to the benevolence of re+authoring, power authoring is malevolent re-writing.
So, where does peer review come in for either of these situations?
In the early church, there were many disciples/apostles and followers who had first-hand encounters with Jesus. Therefore, the news being spread could always be fact-checked. I have heard contemporary apologists claim that the obligation to factual accuracy in the story of Jesus and His teaching was critical in the foundation and growth of the early church. So much so, that we can see evidence of this in the disputes between Paul, Peter, and others over theology in the Epistles.
Alternately, by the middle ages, the Bible, prayer, and liturgy were the only available re-sources for learning about Jesus. There were no verifiable first-hand encounters with Jesus. As discussed, Bibles were scarcely available, so instruction on how to pray, source material for liturgy – anything found in the Bible – was restricted to those who had access to a Bible and were fluent in it’s language. More often than not, the people in such position were also under the influence of power, and the Empire.
But toward the end of the Medieval Period, there was a rise in literacy. In fact, many would argue that literacy is one of the main things that ushered in its end.
Where did the end of the church’s power come from? Within.
Inside the Church was the humble, devout, monastic order. These copiers of the Biblical text were often highly literate. But, apparently, reading the same Book repeatedly was a little boring to some of them, and there began a bit of an underground book exchange. According to Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve, the desired texts were often the old Greek classics, as well as other pagan or secular texts. These same texts were also sought after by the growing wealthy, literate class outside of the clergy. Here we see the rise in the literacy (fluency) of ideas that were outside that “arrested meaning” found in the orthodox ideology which was sanctioned by (papal) authority.
By the turn of the 16th century, the ideas of the Ancient Greeks and Romans had worked their way back into the minds of the literate world. Paired with an ever growing and ever more apparent corruption within the church, the Humanist idea of individual agency likely helped open the mind (and heart) of Reformation hero, Martin Luther. His critical (re)reading of the Bible and his courageous peer review of Papal procedure led him to see – to re+authorize, if you will – the Biblical truth that the relationship one has to God through faith in Christ is constitutional to salvation, not payment of indulgences or other such works.
Already in full use by Luther’s time, the invention of the Guttenberg press also helped catapult literacy by lowering the production time and cost of printed materials, increasing their availability for private consumption.
I noted in the previous post that very few fully literate adults have the ability to read the Bible and fully comprehend it. Escaping the question of whether anyone fully understands it, I wholly believe that it was not meant to be understood in isolation, but that reading the text together in a group gets us closer to comprehension than any individual exegesis could. If this is true, then an increase in literate individuals could have strengthened, and been strengthened by, a kind of collective fluency.
Clearly though, Luther accelerated the democratization of literacy by translating the Bible from Latin to the common German language. The ‘Luther Bible’ more readily allowed the laity to read for themselves the promise of the gospel.
Quite literally, Luther’s re+authoring of the Bible helped suture the wound between the medieval church and the resurrection, in a sense narrowing the gap between Heaven and Earth. Once again, the Kingdom was near.
To be continued…
It seems to be our nature to want fixed, unchanging meaning; a God we could pinpoint would seem to help us grasp our present reality. But the Bible itself reminds us that life cannot be grasped, it is like smoke or vapor. To attempt to hold it is vanity. Its meaning always escapes, we are told by the teacher in Ecclesiastes. Keeping this in mind, for a text, any text, to ‘live’ it must continually be read anew, re+authored. Like the spirit, or breath, of God hovering over Creation in Genesis, it should always posses a vaporous quality. To lock down the message leads to litigiousness, and to overemphasize the Law makes us miss the One who came to fulfill it.
Read the Bible. Study it. Read it with others. But don’t choke the Life out of it! Re+authorize the Word by faithfully acting on peer-reviewed understanding. Perhaps in this way, we can stay mindful that the Kingdom is, indeed, at hand.
1. According to Mark 1:14, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”