4 February, 2009
Postmodernism is often taken a little too far. One idea that springs up a lot from the university campus is that since we cannot have any concrete foundation on which to place our knowledge, all knowledge is relative and interchangable, a cultural imposition rather than anything ‘real’. Of course such people live their lives as if there is knowledge (they don’t try to walk out of third floor windows since they ‘know’ that’s a bad idea), so it can get a little annoying to hear postmodern ideas in the face of genuine inquiry. Nonetheless there is one aspect of postmodern literary criticism that I find can come in useful. This is the idea that what a text means is not necessarily what the author intended it to mean. Or rather, that a text can have more than one meaning based on what the audience brings to it. Personally I always like to find out what the author intended (to me that’s a pretty good ‘true’ meaning), but what happens when that’s not possible?
The bible has been read in many different ways. Christians looked at the Hebrew Bible and turned it into the Old Testament. It was the same words, but now they viewed it as a prophecy, a prediction of their saviour. Only someone with this idea in their head could possibly see this, but see it they did. The advent of christianity has changed many peoples view of what some ancient stories meant, but then so has the Enlightenment and the advancement of human knowledge, and not in the way that might be expected.
As an example, the first chapter of Genesis (the seven day creation) is not mythology. The second chapter story of Adam and Eve most certainly is, but when it come to finding a genre for the seven day creation it is more like that of the natural philosophers of the Ionian School. The ancient warring serpents have been toned down and removed – God is seen as acting at a distance, well beyond the anthropomorphic deity of the next chapter. This is the Hebrew equivalent of Empedocles or Thales naturalistic explanations. If any ‘message’ is to be taken from Genesis 1 it is that the world is God’s creation and that it is good. Quite a lot of time is spent on that point alone. This idea of the world being a good place stands in contrast to the Gnostics or Encratites or those Hindus who saw this world of Maya (illusion) as being an evil place. For them the world was to be denied, earthly delights were but temptations and the true world could be experienced by escaping from this world (through fasting and celibacy). The Genesis story stands starkly opposed to that idea, instead it instructs people to enjoy the fruits of your labours in this world.
A few thousand years later we discovered that Thales, Empedocles and Genesis were wrong. The world is not made up of four elements, the Earth does not float on water and the cosmos was not created in seven days. Can the message of Genesis survive this revelation? Well, not if you take it (as some do today) as the literal way that the world came into being. The author of Genesis may well have imagined that his was the best theory for the creation of the world, but would he have written the same if he had more knowledge? What would the author change if he knew of fossils, or saw a picture of the Earth from space?
The story of Jonah (a fun and somewhat odd book) has a message that can be fairly easily understood. Jonah is sent to Nineveh to warn the evil Assyrians that if they don’t repent of their wicked ways then Yahweh will destroy them. Jonah doesn’t want to risk going to Nineveh so he tries to run away, but Yahweh sends a fish to swallow him. After three days Jonah relents and promises to preach to the Assyrians. The King of the Assyrians hears Jonah and what do you know, he repents! So does the entire city! Jonah goes off in a huff since he was looking forward to these wicked people getting their comeuppance. In the hot sun he finds shade under a bush which Yahweh then destroys. Jonah gets all upset and Yahweh reprimands him for being more concerned over a bush than he was about millions of human beings. Who are we to judge that people are beyond salvation? That would be one message from this story. And yet this story pops up most with apologists arguing that someone could survive inside a fish for three days, as if that were important to the story. Does it matter whether any of the story ever happened? Could the same be said of the book of Job? Or even about the gospels of the New Testament?
We bring our own ideas and opinions to any text we read, in this the postmodernists are correct. The literalist has made an idol of the bible and will read the words as truer than reality itself. The liberal christian will seek positive meaning from tales that may well be allegorical. And the anthropologist will try to read the text as the author intended, requiring knowledge of the cultural milieu, the sitz im leben. My own bias shows now, as though I agree that the text means different things to different people, I do feel there is one meaning which is closer to ‘truth’ and here I must part with the postmodernists who might indeed have taken things a little too far.