Wayne Meeks on the Myth of the Self-Interpreting Text

Acclaimed New Testament scholar Wayne A. Meeks , formerly of Yale University, has joined the Smith College faculty for this academic year. Local residents have the great opportunity to attend his three-lecture series, “Through the Glass Darkly: Reading the New Testament in a Postmodern World” (schedule here). Earlier this week, I went to the first installment, “The Myth of the Self-Interpreting Text”. It was like oxygen to my starved brain. Since self-ejecting from the evangelical community, I’ve been looking for conversation partners who are serious about Scripture, but also willing to acknowledge the text’s inescapable entanglement with human biases.

Meeks’ first lecture deconstructed the popular phrase “The Bible says…” First of all, which Bible? Christians rearranged the order of books in the Hebrew Scriptures to turn the open-ended story of the people of Israel into a story that led toward a single fulfillment in Christ. The Bibles used by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox include “apocryphal” books (and not even the same ones) that the Protestant version leaves out. The ancient manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 contain still other non-canonical books, such as the Gospel of Thomas, that were probably in use among early Christian worship communities before the canon was settled in the 4th Century.

Meeks concluded: To talk about “the Bible” is to talk about a community and a tradition that acknowledges it as authoritative. No book is a Bible unless some community uses it as such.

What this means, in practical terms, is that “the Bible” is a contextual and evolving thing. There always have been, and probably always will be, different Bibles coexisting simultaneously, as communities grow and change, merge and split.

As used in today’s shrill political debates, the phrase “the Bible says…” commits what Meeks called the fallacy of textual agency. A text doesn’t say anything. Communities that use the Bible say this or that. (Shades of the NRA slogan: “Guns don’t kill people…people with guns kill people!”) It’s a metaphor–a necessary one, but also one that can be manipulated to conceal human agency, with all its less-than-holy motivations. Meeks said the fundamental mistake is to locate meaning in the text rather than in an appropriate interaction between text and reader. (He promised to offer guidance for non-arbitrary interpretation in a future lecture.) Interpretation has a history, or rather, histories.

So…relativism? Not necessarily. Meeks cited the philosopher Hilary Putnam as saying that what we have to give up is not objectivity but absolutism. We proceed in humility and hope. According to Putnam, once we give up on the Platonic “single meaning” that all interpreters are supposedly trying to snag, and instead see interpretation as an interaction between people, the open-endedness of it is a good thing, not a flaw.

During the Q&A, an audience member observed that the breakdown of interpretive communities is a big part of our current political problem. Our liberal-individualist culture likes to treat religion as personal, but most of the time, it is experienced first as communal, as Meeks’ analysis bears out. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our community and tradition fill in the blanks in the text. Think of all the background knowledge you need in order to understand any book, let alone one that was written by multiple authors over thousands of years! But nowadays, our old denominational communities are dissolving, or losing their authority, and new ones are forming along lines that are more political than religious (“progressive Christians”–look at which word takes priority).

This excellent lecture did not resolve my current spiritual struggles, so much as clarify them and thereby make them more distressing.

I suspect Meeks is more of a liberal than a thoroughgoing postmodernist. He placed more faith in “dialogue” between liberals and fundamentalists than I would. (Yes, these terms are loaded and imprecise. You know what I mean, though.) For what is dialogue, really, but the liberal version of evangelism–not about the contents of the text, but the interpretive method? Dialogue depends on the idea that there are multiple perspectives that each contain some legitimacy–the very premise that fundamentalists reject.

Both liberals and fundamentalists have to admit that there are diverse interpretive communities claiming a relationship to the Bible, but they choose to draw different conclusions from this situation. People who prioritize equality and freedom become liberals, while people who prioritize order and justice become fundamentalists.

A liberal looks at the multiplicity of viewpoints and life experiences, and says, “God would not be so unfair and arbitrary as to give the truth to only a few people and condemn the rest, especially when the truth of spiritual matters is so often opaque.” Therefore, she considers it a moral duty to recognize the contingency and partiality of her own viewpoint, and to be sensitive to the ways that political inequality affects interpretive authority. Her compassion takes the form of respecting others’ freedom to seek God for themselves, based on their unique situations.

A fundamentalist looks at the same picture, and says, “Since God is Truth, He would not leave people without a clear and undeniable truth to follow. Since God is righteous, He doesn’t give us the benefit of the doubt for good intentions. Since God is in charge and we are not, He’s within His rights to save only a few.” Therefore, she is comfortable with the idea that one group could be right and all the others wrong. The contingent historical origins of her viewpoint don’t trouble her, because she’s already accepted the premise that God would have to provide some source of revelation that floats above the uncertainties of the human mind, and she believes she knows what it is. Her compassion takes the form of evangelizing in order to save others from condemnation.

I personally feel that the approach I’ve termed “liberal” is closer to the spirit of Jesus in the Gospels. The Jesus I find there valued people more than texts, constantly challenged social and cultic hierarchies of access to God’s love, and was willing to break out the new wineskins to hold the heady brew that the old forms couldn’t contain.

But of course I would feel that way, since I come from a liberal intellectual Protestant tradition! And if that wasn’t the Jesus I found in the Bible…I wouldn’t be a Christian.

So are my evangelical friends right that I am putting politics ahead of faith–elevating my own preferences over God’s word?

Is it possible to do anything else?

Mark Hart: “Holy Communion”

Mark Hart is a Buddhist meditation teacher in Western Massachusetts. We’ll be giving a poetry reading together this February in Northampton. The poem below was first published in the Summer 2008 issue of Rock & Sling, a journal of faith and literature (sadly no longer publishing). Listen to an audio recording on the Bodhisara website.

Holy Communion

He spent one June head bowed
staring down from a timbered bridge
into still water mirroring blue.
From under the slender arching grass,
the wet, brown stone
of a muskrat’s head
arrowed grooves in that glass
and buckled a bladed sky.

Here was a quiet kingdom,
well-contained, a heaven on earth
of succulent roots and silken mud
where the brushed grass quaked
of her broad behind
and she preached her silent sermon
of simple grace, a creature in her place
gliding from bank to tufted bank.

She was his secret life
in the clutter of rooms,
the clatter of his kind,
and he knew the spot
where she entered
her cottage beneath the sod,
he knew the two that followed her
to their nest in that womb of earth.

The meek shall inherit
cool water, green fields
stroked by the breeze—
On a pew of creosote boards he sat
dangling his bare feet down
and partook of her holy communion
where air and earth come together
with a rippling flow between.

Regie O’Hare Gibson: Slam Poetry Videos

This weekend, at the Florence Poetry Festival , I had the great pleasure of hearing champion slam poet Regie O’Hare Gibson. We were both Massachusetts Cultural Council grant winners this year, and I am just honored that the panel thought I was in the same league as this guy. Enjoy these videos from his appearance at Hampshire College in 2008.

“When They Speak of Our Time”

“Greek Tragedy for the Ig’nant”

Northampton Trans Pride 2010: Photos and Videos

Known as the lesbian capital of the universe, Northampton is also home to a sizeable and politically active transgender community. Last weekend, we hosted the third annual New England Transgender Pride march and rally. The event was semi-officially named “Northampton Trans Pride” (there was a last-minute change of sponsors) but was designed to be a community gathering for transpeople across the region. See coverage on p.8 of the Sept. 16, 2010 issue of The Rainbow Times .

A complete video of the march and 2-hour rally on the steps of City Hall, recorded by Adam Cohen, can be viewed on our North Street Neighborhood Association blog. Among the highlights: FTM trans elder and activist Bet Power, curator of the Sexual Minorities Archive, gave an impassioned speech calling for an end to transpeople’s status as third-class citizens. To commemorate the 9th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 2010 Miss Trans New England beauty queen Toni Olin-Mignosa gave a sweet and reverent performance of the Star-Spangled Banner. In the crisp early-fall sunshine (so disturbingly reminiscent of that day in 2001), with the flag waving above her, the song was a quietly powerful statement that transpeople were claiming the ground of full inclusion in America.

Here are just a few of the hundreds of photos we took. Pictures of the march are mine, those of the rally are Adam’s.

2010 Miss Trans New England pageant winner Toni Olin-Mignosa (center) and fellow contestants Jasmina Andino (L), an activist for HIV+ and homeless youth, and Faye Coon (R), a spoken-word artist.

Representing the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.

Pageant contestant Ava Cordero, who did a quick change into an equally fab outfit for the rally.

Translation, a transgender youth group. Check out the proud mom at left: “I love my trans son”.

“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple…”

Our charismatic emcee and last year’s pageant queen, Lorelei Erisis.

Hard-rockin’ LezleeAnne Rios and her band. She won the People’s Choice Award at the pageant.

The obligatory photo of me in sunglasses. At left, the golden-voiced Arjuna Greist, a “folk n’ word” artist whose rendition of “O Tranny Boy” had us in stitches.

The event organizers. And a little old lady for peace!

A Stockholm Syndrome in Women’s Poetics?

Gently Read Literature is a monthly web journal of essays on contemporary poetry and literary fiction. In “The Myth of Women’s Masochism”, her essay in the September issue, Stephanie Cleveland takes aim at the eroticizing of violence by successful female poets. Her argument echoes the radical feminist critique of so-called Third Wave feminism, namely that young women today have bought into the rebranding of sexual exploitation as avant-garde and liberating, because it seems too hard to fight the patriarchy. See, for example, Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press, 2005).

Cleveland’s article begins thus (boldface emphasis mine):

A few years ago, I read an essay in Boston Review on sex education in the U.S. public school system. In that essay, poet and Harvard lecturer Maureen N. McLane praised self-proclaimed “sex-radical” Pat (now Patrick) Califa as a sexual revolutionary. McLane identified Califa’s “infernal trinity—family, conventional sexuality, and gender,” as the fundamental institutions “sexual conservatives wish to defend” (30). She then assured her readers that, although, “From one angle, Califa’s work [] feature[s] defenses of man-boy love, [her] sex-positive embrace of critical sexual thinking, wherever it might lead, remains, if not a model an incitement” (30). My question at the time of reading McLane’s essay remains my question for those who identify as sex radical while simultaneously claiming an allegiance to feminism to date—namely, what exactly is a defense of “man boy love” an incitement to? Put another way, if feminism involves a commitment to social justice, equality, and respect of persons, and if it also involves a commitment to the emancipation of women and children grounded in a rejection of sexual abuse and patriarchal sex (Bar On 76), how then could any incitement toward acceptance of child rape be consistent with a feminist approach to sex?

Far from radical, I would argue that the practice of sexualizing the bodies of children for adult men is actually fairly conventional, as old as patriarchy. Feminism, conversely, affirms the radical (and comparatively new) idea that all practices which violate the rights of women and girls to determine what can be done to our bodies are morally and ethically unacceptable (Bar On 76).

I bring up McLane’s essay here because I think it highlights the ways in which, in recent decades, feminism has been co-opted by a school of neoliberal individualism which aims at preserving—or at least making peace with—the sexual status quo. When pondered thoughtfully however, the fact of child sex abuse throws a pretty big wrench into the liberal argument that the right to individual expression in one’s sexual conduct needs to be upheld at all costs, as does the fact of rape. Our sexual relationships take place within a given social context, one under which all people do not have the same access to power. In order to deny a rapist the ability to “express” his sexuality on or in her body, a woman needs political, social, and economic equality with men; we currently have none of these. This means that a refusal to make judgments about sexual choices and sexual ethics, whether consciously intended or no, is a tacit endorsement of male-supremacy and a boon to those with the most power in contemporary culture—that is, white men.

Perhaps more importantly, abdicating the right to make ethical judgments about sex translates to an abandonment of the vulnerable and comparatively weaker; it is an extremely effective way of silencing victims of child rape. Critical sexual thinking on the other hand involves maintaining an awareness of the material context within which our relationships take place. It means choosing which versions of sex fit with the world we would like to create as feminists. This cannot be reduced down to simply following wherever sexual thoughts might lead—particularly not if they lead to acts of violation on or in another person’s body. That sort of following has more to do with cruelty, privileged laziness and irresponsibility than it does with revolution.

Sadly, I write at a time when postmodern ethical relativism has all but silenced critical thinking about sex in the academy. Many women working within the university system seem reluctant to challenge male-supremist ideology on sex directly; at a time when the predominant philosophical mode holds that nothing really means anything apart from the way we choose to interpret it, overt questioning of social inequity and misogyny do not win a female author any popularity points. But, if as Erik Anderson optimistically writes, “postmodernism as a loose set of aesthetic principles (or loosely principled aesthetic, or principally loose aesthetic) [may have already] ended or is ending” (1), I would argue that women’s poetry ought to be used as a weapon to help hasten that decline.

Instead of defiance however, in my reading of contemporary women’s poems I frequently find male dominance eroticized, masculinity deified, and the sexual subordination of women and children embraced or symbolically “played with,” but seldom challenged. The conventional notion of women’s supposedly innate sexual submissiveness seems to have saturated much contemporary poetic work as well, especially among women. We write as though we are afraid of creating anything that might dampen the erection of a male colleague. Men after all—even the sensitive, literary ones—have frequently laughed at our gentler, more egalitarian versions of sex; they’ve explained to us repeatedly that making love is dishonest, while fucking is truth. And we believe this, groomed to doubt ourselves, determined to prove we can succeed in the male dominated upper echelons of the poetry community….

Read the whole article here.

Book Notes: Carol Smallwood, “Lily’s Odyssey”

In Carol Smallwood’s novel Lily’s Odyssey (All Things That Matter Press, 2010), a retired scholar in a working-class Midwestern town struggles to process her memories of childhood incest and unravel its effects on her psyche.

This book’s strengths are its sharp characterization of people and cultural settings, and the connections it draws between domestic abuse and sexist institutions that conspire to keep it secret. On her long journey to claim her truth, the narrator must rethink not only her family’s official storyline of virtue and vice, but the messages from religious authorities and psychologists who dismiss a woman’s perspective. Metaphors from her scientific research give her a creative way to resist. This book shows how trauma can give birth to an artist’s intellect that notices and questions human behavior.

While I understand that the nonchronological structure is meant to show how traumatic memories bleed into the present, I personally wished Smallwood had thrown in a few more clues to indicate where we are on the timeline when a new scene begins. By the time I finished the book, I had figured out all the essential information, but orienting myself was sometimes distracting. On the other hand, perhaps that’s the effect she was going for. Being inside Lily’s head is the experience of an incisive mind condemned to spend most of its energy flailing around in a fog.

This review by Jan Siebold shares some more of the book’s highlights. Jan Siebold, a school library media specialist in East Aurora, New York since 1977, received her MLS from the University of Buffalo. Jan has served as NYLA Secretary, and received the NYLA/SLMS Cultural Media Award in 1992. She is the author of Rope Burn (Albert Whitman, 1998), Doing Time Online (Albert Whitman, 2002) and My Nights at the Improv (Albert Whitman, 2005), three middle grade novels on numerous award lists.

Some authors use the word “odyssey” to simply represent a journey or a passage of time. In Lily’s Odyssey author Carol Smallwood takes a more literal approach. Just as Odysseus spends years making his way home after the Trojan War, Lily struggles to find her true home in the world.

She has encountered her share of cannibals, lotus-eaters, sirens and monsters along the way, but it is her abusive Uncle Walt and his Cyclopic wife Hester (who turned her one good eye away from the incestuous situation years ago) that have haunted Lily’s thoughts and dreams since childhood.

Smallwood’s Homer-like use of a nonlinear plot is well-suited to the story since Lily’s journey is rather like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle. With intelligence and humor Lily navigates the passages of her life which include marriage, motherhood, psychotherapy and education. She even spends time in Ithaca while working on a Master’s Degree in Geology. In fact, geological references are abundant as Lily explores her lifelong fascination with the formation of the earth and her place on it. Readers can feel Lily’s sense of frustration at the ever-shifting underground plates that prevent her from finding solid footing.

Orphaned at an early age and sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Lily later explores her obsession about abandoned animals and plants, and eventually discovers its root in her childhood. What may seem obvious to the reader is not as easily seen by Lily,
whose vision of the past has been obscured by the trauma of abuse, insensitivity and denial.

The book begins with the death of Uncle Walt and Lily’s return to the house where she had spent her childhood. It is there that Lily begins to think about reinventing herself without the existence of Uncle Walt in her life.

The author’s use of imagery is at times stunning. “I heard the train whistle. I saw myself as a bird following the train as it wound its way through the landscape, leaving only smoke as evidence that it had passed.” Referring to her aunt, Lily thinks about “Tulips closed as tightly as Aunt Hester’s lips.”

Smallwood’s many cultural, historical, scientific and religious references are a nod to her readers’ awareness, intelligence and curiosity. They elevate the story and allow us to discover more about Lily’s world and our own.

On a basic level the reader can relate to Lily’s awkward attempts at relationships, and to her wickedly funny observations about people. We cheer for Lily as she leaves behind her dismissive husband Cal, the lecherous Dr. Schackmann and other toxic people whom she encounters. We understand as she questions the tenets that were instilled during her strict Catholic upbringing, including “the duties and sufferings of women as wives.” We yearn for Lily to find the illumination and peace of mind that she seeks.

In a particularly vulnerable moment Lily pens a letter to God. In the letter she writes, “Women need new paths. To find our way out of the old labyrinths requires more than one lifetime.”

Through Lily’s Odyssey, Carol Smallwood gives us hope that one lifetime might be enough for Lily and others to find their way.

Find out more about Carol Smallwood’s other writing and editing projects here. She is the editor of numerous anthologies about librarians, library science, and women’s writing careers.

Tara Bray: “Once”

Despite an email backlog in the triple digits, I kept returning to reread this poem this week because of its delicious language, and its dissection of the human-made distinction between sublime and “ordinary” time. Reprinted by permission of American Life in Poetry, a project of the Poetry Foundation.

American Life in Poetry: Column 285


In our busy times, the briefest pause to express a little interest in the natural world is praiseworthy. Most of us spend our time thinking about other people, and scarcely any time thinking about other creatures. I recently co-edited an anthology of poems about birds, and we looked through lots of books and magazines, but here is a fine poem we missed, by Tara Bray, who lives in Richmond, Virginia.


I climbed the roll of hay to watch the heron
in the pond. He waded a few steps out,
then back, thrusting his beak under water,
pulling it up empty, but only once.
Later I walked the roads for miles, certain
he’d be there when I returned. How is it for him,
day after day, his brittle legs rising
from warm green scum, his graceful neck curled,
damp in the bright heat? It’s a dull world.
Every day, the same roads, the sky,
the dust, the barn caving into itself,
the tin roof twisted and scattered in the yard.
Again, the bank covered with oxeye daisy
that turns to spiderwort, to chicory,
and at last to goldenrod. Each year, the birds—
thick in the air and darting in wild numbers—
grow quiet, the grasses thin, the light leaves
earlier each day. The heron stood
stone-still on my spot when I returned.
And then, his wings burst open, lifting the steel-
blue rhythm of his body into flight.
I touched the warm hay. Hoping for a trace
of his wild smell, I cupped my hands over
my face: nothing but the heat of fields
and skin. It wasn’t long before the world
began to breathe the beat of ordinary hours,
stretching out again beneath the sky.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2006 by Tara Bray, and reprinted from her most recent book of poems, Mistaken for Song, Persea Books, Inc., 2009, by permission of the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.