Literature, History, and Rorschach Blots

In Mark 3:21 and 31-35 Jesus’ family is presented in a very negative light (in typically Markan “sandwich” fashion, 3:22-30 is a digression; Mark often begins a story, then relates a different story, then returns to finish the story he started earlier).

And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is beside himself.” … And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

It is interesting to see the interpretive legerdemain some commentators get into as they try to read this as though it was actually not meant to reflect negatively on Jesus’ family. One I read recently tries to argue that the Greek phrase hoi par autou in 3:21 should not be translated “family” — although that is a common meaning of the phrase and is clearly the appropriate one since Jesus’ “mother and brothers” are the people who actually show up after hoi par autou “go out” to seize Jesus. The translators of some English versions get into this act as well, translating elegon gar (“for they were saying”) as “for people were saying” to try to make it sound as though it was someone other than Jesus’ family who thought Jesus was out of his mind.

This is the sort of thing that Spinoza had in mind when he criticized biblical scholars’ common practice of distorting meaning “in order to make it conform with some truth already entertained.” That quote appears in Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy in a discussion where Kermode criticizes biblical scholars for what he sees as futile efforts at historicizing. He argues that biblical scholars go astray when they “ignore what is written in favor of what it is written about.” (119) Or to use the terminology of Spinoza, they try to focus on the truth of texts rather than what they mean.

Clearly in one respect he is right and the text from Mark ch.3 is a great example of that. These interpreters are so focused on what the text is apparently about and linking it to what they think they know about Mary in particular (after all, Luke says she knew all about Jesus, right?) that it becomes impossible for them to accept the plain meaning of what the text actually says. To solve this problem Kermode says we must read the texts as literature and not as history; we must focus on what they mean, not on whether or not they are true. We must give up entirely on trying to ascertain the historical basis behind the texts or finding the truth of the matter:

Insofar as we can treat a text as not referring to what is outside or beyond it, we more easily understand that it has internal relationships independent of the coding procedures by which we may find it transparent upon a known world. We see why it has latent mysteries, intermittent radiances. But in acquiring this privilege, the interpreters lose the possibility of consensus, and of access to a single truth at the heart of the thing.

However, Kermode, and with him many modern scholars of literature (that is his specialty; he’s not a biblical scholar himself), are throwing the baby out with the bath water. They treat literary texts as elaborate Rorschach blots – i.e., for them a text has no intrinsic or intended meaning, or if it did have an intended meaning, that meaning is so inaccessible as to not be worth even trying to ascertain. In effect, a text is an elaborate ink blot into which people read their own personality or desires, and they are perfectly justified in doing so. Anything anyone finds in a text is just as valid as whatever anyone else finds in it.

The “possibility of consensus” is something that people I’ll call non-historians take for granted about history in general. Non-historians assume that not only is consensus possible, but when consensus is achieved you have certainty about the “single truth at the heart of the thing.” Not so. When I taught introductory world history one of the hardest tasks I had to accomplish was to instill even the vaguest appreciation for just how uncertain are the historical reconstructions that students find in their history books. I tried to foster a realization of this by comparing history to a criminal trial.

In a trial, the jury tries to decide a simple matter of fact to which the answer is little more complicated than “yes” or “no.” The jury itself is a panel of people carefully chosen for their lack of bias. They listen to a long train of witnesses who live in their culture and speak their language. They look at evidence which is readily understandable because it is drawn from their own culture. The events they are learning about occur within their own lifetimes. The circumstances are absolutely ideal for attainment of consensus and ascertainment of truth. And yet trials sometimes end in hung juries and all too often it is discovered years later that the jury convicted John when Jane did the murder.

If the nearly perfect setup fails and consensus even there is no guarantee of truth, what about when the deck is stacked against an accurate determination of “what actually happened?” And what about when the attempt is not to determine simply what happened but the far more difficult and complex question of why it happened, which is what historians are always trying to do? With history no living eyewitnesses who can be cross-examined and we are typically dealing with texts that were written from only the winning side of some of historical struggle. Our evidence comes from a foreign hard-to-understand culture from halfway across the globe and from texts written hundreds to thousands of years old written in a dead language. We often don’t even have the original manuscripts of these texts because we only have handwritten copies of copies of copies with thousands of errors deliberate and accidental in them. Add to that the fact that historians themselves are not exactly a massive worldwide jury chosen specifically for lack of bias. This last point is especially an issue in biblical studies because many or most of these scholars desperately want the text to mean something that confirms their own religious persuasions. In this situation, consensus is bound to be elusive, and even if you could get to consensus, that would be no guarantee of truth.

So is Kermode right, then? Are texts, especially biblical tests, best treated as elaborate Rorschach blots? Should we use a text as a fun-house mirror that reflects back to us bits and pieces of our own personality and desires? Should we forget about whatever historical reality might be behind it? Certainly it’s true that consensus is elusive and any understanding anyone reaches about human history is not objectively verifiable and is thus uncertain. History is not an objectively verifiable science; it’s more like a belief-based religion such as Christianity is commonly assumed to be. Historians are like religionists who are attempting to win over converts to their “faith.” Some are more successful than others because they can put together their arguments more effectively, and some more than others because they tell people what they want to hear. But in the end it’s all a belief game.

Belief games are not just games, however. The course of every human being’s life is determined at every moment by his or her conception of the past. Every action I take today is based on my understanding of who I am. That is determined not only by what I remember about my own past but also by what I know about the human culture and human society in which I live. And that in turn is determined by what I understand about the history of my culture and my society. No matter how much we try to live in the present, we are who we are and we do what we do based on our understanding of the past. It behooves us to try to correctly understand that past, lest we make choices that take our lives on a course that some day, looking back, we might wish had been otherwise.

For many people, religion is a key determinant of their actions, so religious history is especially important in determining life choices. So for example, if today at age 25 I treat the texts of my religion as Rorschach blots that confirm my current belief system, what will I think if at age 75 after I have gradually learned to see them as historical texts that actually show some of my earlier beliefs to have been mistaken? Will I at age 75 look back over my actions over the past 50 years as being ill-considered? On the other hand, what if at age 25 I listen to a historical analysis of biblical texts that makes me rethink some of my beliefs and change some life choices as a result – will I not at age 75 look back and have a better chance of concluding that I made the right choices?

Real people wrote the biblical texts. Real people with human motivations and emotions and intentions. An attempt to understand those real human beings may have no guarantee of success but it’s a worthwhile effort. Certainly more worthwhile than analyzing texts as Rorschach blots. Both approaches may well be no-win games, but one of the two games has a better chance of helping us make choices that we won’t have to regret later.


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