Sunday 30 March 2014

Reflecting on “The Annunciation/Visitation,” How to Read the Bible

After my last post, I got this message from a friend and former colleague:
Now read a short passage from the gospels, which have a far greater claim on the consciences of Christians, the account of the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56), in any translation you choose. Clearly and unequivocally both the fetus of Mary (who was newly pregnant at the time of the incident described) and that of Elizabeth (who was six months along) are considered unreservedly to be human beings.”

(At the same time I got a warm, witty and encouraging message from one of my former students who, I think, was concerned that few people were responding to my blog.  Like all idle idealists I must confess to occasional naive daydreams about this blog somehow making me rich and famous--actually, I’d settle for rich or famous--but the reality is a blog is a public diary and I am content even if it remains no more than that.  After years in academia, I can’t tell you what a relief and pleasure it is to write what I think without having to find the exact quote with the right page number from the right authority, and to be constantly second-guessing myself about how my comments will play with the university, my colleagues, journal editors, peer reviewers and academic readers in general.  I should also mention that Google offers very cool stats-tracking telling me how many hits specific pages have received [yes I know “hits” don’t necessary mean very much, but I’m an optimist] and where my blog has been visited from.  As of today this blog has received 1,041 page views, mostly from Canada and the USA, but 49 from Russia and 3 each from Norway and Serbia.  [Eat your heart out, Lady Gaga!]  No doubt all quite meaningless but I thrive on self-deception.  My former student commented that for him the blog is like continuing our classes together, only for free.  Ultimately, same here.)

Back to “The Annunciation/Visitation.”  Reading over the passage from the Gospel of Luke, I was surprised by how familiar most of it was to me.  The passage supplies the text of the “Hail Mary” prayer which I recited some ten thousand times in my youth.  My friend/colleague’s claim that the passage “clearly and unequivocally” demonstrates that fetuses “are considered unreservedly to be human beings” overstates the case that could be made from the evidence which the text provides.  However, before I continue some fuller disclosure is in order on my part.

I am an agnostic.  I’ve heard it said that this is a cope-out position.  For me it is the only logical stance possible in relation to religion.  Unlike an atheist, I cannot find logical grounds for claiming that God does not exist, or that something equivalent to a supreme or divine force or forces in the universe do exist, although I might object to the specific beliefs or practices of a specific religion that I find unjustified, immoral, illogical, incoherent or impractical, especially if those beliefs or practices are played out and allowed to influence the political or judicial domains.  Even at the worst of times, I find the world to be a marvelous place, and nature itself to be miraculous.  I have no doubt that the universe far exceeds my human, intellectual powers of comprehension.  Therefore, it is logically impossible for me to claim that God (or gods) does (or do) not exist.  I just don’t know.  However, when I think of God, as he was presented to me as a child, an old white man with long hair and beard, I find no reason to believe or accept that God is (or must be) white or male.  When I think of the numerous images I have seen of Jesus Christ portrayed as a light-skinned man with light hair and eyes, I know those images are historically inaccurate.

As an agnostic my approach to religions and religious believers is to attempt to be respectful, to recognize that religious faith and a belief in God can be great psychological comforts, and that religious tenets can benefit and guide individuals, communities and societies positively.  I can’t know otherwise until I have seen evidence.  Of course, having witnessed the long history of Catholics and Protestants, Christians, Muslims and Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Buddhist all killing each other in the name of god and faith, I know that religions have a lot to answer for.  I understand the argument that the world has reached the point where it must overcome religious differences which only seems possible if we do away with religion altogether.  Would the world be a better place without religion?  These days it’s a real question.  I understand the argument for abolishing religion, but I’m not there yet (mostly because I don’t believe the world is there yet).

While I feel compelled to hold back on my critique of religion in general (and the less I know the less I have a right to speak), the exception for me is Catholicism.  I was raised as a Catholic, when being Catholic meant no meat on Fridays, fasting and confession before mass, which was in Latin, and mass was every Sunday, the first Friday of every month before classes started, and every major saint and holy day.  I also attended a Catholic high school where most of the classes were given by priests.  Catholicism is the one religion I have earned the right to criticize unreservedly.

Even as teenagers, my fellow young Catholics and I spotted parthenogenesis as being misogynistic and puritanical.  If you bracket belief in miracles for a moment and consider the historical facts recounted in the Bible, Mary was pregnant before marriage, but not by her fiancé Joseph.  She married Joseph and gave birth to at least five children, and the Catholic Church thinks we should celebrate her as a “Blessed Virgin.”  What’s wrong with being a non-virgin Blessed Mother?  Like all the other non-virgin mothers in the world only blessed?

“The Annunciation/Visitation” in the Gospel of Luke shows a very human touch and a unique awareness of women and pregnancy, as demonstrated by the description of how "the babe leaped in [Elizabeth's] womb" at the sound of Mary's voice.  Much as I like this passage, I don’t see that it in any way contradicts or overrules the Old Testament commandment concerning causing a miscarriage (as discussed in my last post).

As we reflect upon “The Annunciation/Visitation,” we shouldn’t lose track of the obvious.  Luke wasn’t there.  Luke was a Greek, writing in Greek some 30 to 70 years after Christ. Luke is the only evangelist to mention this meeting between Mary and Elizabeth.  John, Matthew and Mark all mention the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.  In some instances John and Jesus sound like competitors, and their differences were emphatic (John didn’t drink, and was an extreme acetic; Jesus turned water into wine and was criticized for his pleasures and hanging around with publicans and prostitutes) but obviously they reconciled when Jesus agreed to be baptized by John.  I haven’t found anything in the gospels (other than Luke) to indicate that Jesus and John were related or that their mothers knew each other.  Making Elizabeth and Mary cousins who consorted while pregnant, anticipating the later meetings of John and Jesus, is a nice narrative touch which only Luke records.

I agree that the New Testament is, in general terms, a better reference for modern Christians, but evangelicals seem ready to use whatever part of the Bible suits them in a particular argument.  For example, in condemning homosexuality, Leviticus is typically quoted.

While I was writing this post, my friend (by the way, I never use this term disingenuously as some people do; in the 30-plus years we have known each other this is our first exchange on these issues) . . . he sent me this message and a list of quotations from the Psalms where the writer speaks from the perspective of before birth. 

"Well, we are not going to agree on this matter. A very large number of men and women have made studying, researching, interpreting, and, yes, translating the Bible their lives' work, for going on two millennia now; I think I'll rely on the consensus of their opinion, as expressed in and through the teachings of the Church.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

(Psalm 139, New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition)"

As familiar as I was with “The Visitation” and “The Annunciation,” I can’t remember ever having read this Psalm before.  I find the writing quite beautiful.  Surfing online I was impressed by the number, extensive detail and precision of commentaries and interpretations available on this passage.  It is typically glossed as being about God’s omni-presence or more simply a reminder that we are God’s creations.  Nothing I have read in the Bible comes closer to animating the wonder and beauty of the fetus.  

My friend is right that “we are not going to agree on this matter,” but his message also brings our discussion back to order.  What I was presenting in the previous post was the duplicity of manipulating the translation of the Bible to suit a 1970s and 80s agenda.  One of the consequences of this manipulation is that the integrity of the Bible is brought into question.  Religious believers used to have to ask themselves why their religion, of all the many possible religions in the world, was the right one to believe in.  Now Christians have to ask the question King James attempted to resolve, which of the many versions of the Bible is the right one?  More overwhelming still, this post is a minor example of the ever expanding number of possible readings and interpretations of the Bible.  In brief, we are talking about the educational issue of how to read, in this case, how to read the Bible.

In his best known work of literary theory, The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye proposes four different approaches to reading a literary text, based on the three ways of reading the Bible outlined by Dante:  literally (the Bible as a historical document), allegorically (the Bible as symbols which must be interpreted), or anagogically (the Bible as a whole, as the word of God).  I have no trouble with the first two approaches but the third, the anagogic, troubles me.  Some readers are bound to be better than others--more knowledgable, dedicated, skilled and aware.  However, the idea that the 80 original books of the Bible, plus the Dead Sea Scrolls, or even just the 66 books of the canon, which were written by different people of varying cultures, in different languages, in different times and places, then repeatedly translated and edited, can now be read as a single work by a single author with one coherent theme, moral or message is . . . (and now I hesitate to give this procedure a name).  We accept the legitimacy of this approach because it has been done for thousands of years by thousands of people and accepted by millions more.  If it were done by an individual a diagnosis of insanity, more specifically, of schizophrenia would be likely.   The novelist, Jeffrey Moore, introduced me to a still more apt syndrome (in The Extinction Club) called “Pareidolia  [. . .] in which the brain interprets random patterns as recognizable images” (60).

As indicated in his message, my friend’s solution, which surprises me somewhat because he is obviously a skilled reader, is the Catholic solution, to rely on “the teachings of the Church.”  That is the last thing I would be ready to do.  As I’ve explained . . . been there, done that.  

I’ve been warned that making my postings so long is very un-blog-like.  If you are a determined enough reader to have reached this point, please accept my thanks and praise, but I have two more points that I consider important and would like to make.

If people, especially people with power and influence, are going to use the Bible to attempt to dictate modern morality, and even modern legality, then we are all compelled, if for no more than self defense and preservation (but let’s not forget the pleasure), to read the Bible along with them and where necessary against the grain of their interpretations and impositions. 

What was Jesus’s view of the fetus in the New Testament?  We don’t know, he never said.  Had he read the Psalms?  We don’t know.  Well then, what was his attitude toward the Old Testament?  Here we can have a partial answer in that the New Testament records Jesus going to great extents to avoid contradicting the Old Testament.  

Consider this sequence from Mark 12.  I’ve left in the opening line because it will be familiar and help provide context for many readers, but in general, the context is that the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been trying to trick Jesus into saying something blasphemous.

In this passage, the attempt is to trick Jesus into contradicting Leviticus.  You might remember from my first posting on the Bible that according to Leviticus if a man dies childless, his wife and his brother are required to marry and produce an offspring for him posthumously.  The Sadducees present Jesus with a trick hypothetical question:  what happens if a woman, following this law, has been married seven times;  when she gets to heaven and meets her seven husbands,  whose wife is she?  The obvious presumption is that a man might have several wives, but a woman with more than one husband is unthinkable--even in heaven.  From a modern reading, in the first place, one has to notice that Jesus does not speak against this law, and tacitly accepts that a widow must marry her brother-in-law and vice versa.  Second, impossible-not-to-notice claim (which should be great fodder for a stand-up comedian), there are no marriages in heaven (neither gay nor heterosexual nor lesbian, no monogamy, no polygamy and definitely no polyandry).  What would Jesus have answered if questioned about the law in Deuteronomy concerning the punishment for causing a miscarriage?  We can’t know, and therefore perhaps we should not ask the question.  I can accept this (in)conclusion as long as those evangelicals who oppose abortion also acknowledge that they cannot know the Christian, Biblical answer to this question either. 

My final point/addendum: for two overly-long postings I have been discussing the translation and reading of the Bible, in such a way as to no doubt give the impression that I am a supporter of abortion.  I’m not.  If the statistics I have seen (in the Times Almanac 2004) are anywhere near the truth, there has been a pandemic of abortions raging in America.   For pregnancies among American women, 49% are described as “unintended” and almost half of these unintended pregnancies terminated by abortion.  In 2000, 1.31 million abortions were performed in the USA; in 1996, 1.36 million.  Between 1973 and 2000 more than 39 million legal abortions were performed in the USA.  An abortion is nothing to celebrate.  I have to assume that the day of an abortion is never a happy day in any woman’s life.  Everyone should be interested in reducing the causes of abortion:  the poverty that typically accompanies single-motherhood, the lack of viable alternatives (day care, adoption, extended-family and community support),  and, of course, the lack of contraception, forethought and restraint which precede unwanted pregnancies.  I hope this impression is just my prejudice, but I do have the impression that the righteous attitudes of those people most stridently opposed to abortion cause rather than attenuate the number of abortions in the USA.   My intuition is that the rigid puritanism of the religious right has caused more abortions than it has prevented.  In any event, the Supreme Court of the USA decided in 1973 that it was a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester and nothing I have read in the Bible contradicts that right.

1 comment:

  1. This morning, after I published this post last night, an elderly Jehovah's Witness knocked at my door with a printed invitation to celebrate Jesus Christ's sacrifice. The invitation bore a large picture of Jesus. Yep, still light skinned and fair haired--but very well coiffed.


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