Church shouldn't be a middle school English class
There is pedagogical value in breaking texts down into simple universal "meanings". But it shouldn't be the primary way we engage with scripture.
Like everyone who enjoys reading, I regularly found myself frustrated and bored in middle and high school English classes.
This had nothing to do with my teachers (some of whom were the best teachers I’ve ever had), and everything to do with the general way we as a society have decided children should learn about literature.
The joy of a powerful story is not a single thing — there are characters to love and to hate, themes to explore, questions to confront, beauty to appreciate. It is complicated and fascinating and doesn’t come with “correct answers”.
But the joy of English class is to write “the gray sky symbolizes sadness” or “Tolkien’s goal in writing the Lord of the Rings series is to argue that too much power is a bad thing” and turn a wonderfully transformative experience into a list of empty, meaningless “facts”. (Or, in what has inexplicably become my most read post, to claim that “the itsy-bitsy spider is about existentialism.”)
And I worry that we do the same thing when we approach the Bible — reducing messy, beautiful, terrifying stories into a list of (usually three) simplistic bullet points that we can woodenly (but comfortably) apply to our lives.
I recently started Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea, which opens on a tragic scene in the middle of the Spanish Civil War: a teenage boy, “called up when there were no more men, young or old” to fight, lies dying as medic Victor Dalmau reaches into his chest to jump-start the boy’s heart with nothing more than his quivering fist.
If I were writing an essay for class, I might note that “the boy’s heart symbolizes his life, which Dalmau is literally holding in his hands,” or that “Allende uses this boy to argue against the practice of children fighting in wars”. And, to be fair, I would not be completely wrong in saying so.
But since I was reading for myself, I got to let my mind wander: how frightening it must have been to live in a time when they ran out of men! Could I have had this boy’s courage? Especially so young? Why do they send children in before women? I got to experience the story: the fear, the sadness, those anxious tense moments as you wait to discover whether he survived. And I learned things about the boy and the main character — not just qualities to be summarized as “brave” or “witty” or “strong”, but as people. I learned the ways that they spoke, caught glimpses of their secret hopes and fears, and watched them struggle to react under pressure.
In short, I had an experience. And the reason we love good literature more than a list of bullet points about the author’s views is that the experience isn’t the same as a list of facts about the experience.
When Allende writes that “[t]he moment he came out, with three days’ growth of beard and his white coat spattered with blood, she gave him a folded piece of paper with a message from the telephone operators”, I see an unruly beard. I feel his exhaustion after days and days without rest. I experience the tension, the fear, the anxiety as he first has to unfold the note, waiting to see if it contains terrible news.
It would not be the same if she had written “he was tired and she gave him a note.”
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that middle-to-high school English is pointless. The heart moment stuck out because I recognized its symbolism, and I only felt Dalmau’s weariness because I knew how to interpret his beard growth. My reading experience has been genuinely enhanced by my understandings of narrative structure, of characterization, of tone, and perhaps the crude “write down the climax and six symbols you found in the story” process is a step in getting there.
But I do wish it had been made more clear to me that it was a step, and not the goal of reading itself.
I’ve been noticing recently that I have a tendency to read the bible in the way I just complained about reading books! I read to notice narrative structure, to find “meanings”, to extract timeless, universal facts from the narrative. And these can certainly be steps towards engaging with a story. But they are not the story itself!
In St. John’s Revelation, he doesn’t write “then the Roman empire collapsed” or even “God defeated the Roman empire”. He writes:
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:
“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
Certainly he has the Roman empire in mind, just as modern readers might have the American empire in mind. And certainly the literary parallels to Isaiah 47 are an important step towards understanding what John is trying to do.
But if we reduce the passage to “St. John adapts Isaiah’s critique of Babylon to apply to the Roman Empire,” we’ve somehow missed the entire thing. The whole point of the passage is to see the empire, desolate and haunted by the demons and the despised. We don’t just know that the Roman Empire was economically unjust, we watch “the kings of the earth” have sex with it and the fattening merchants grow rich off its excess.
When we really enter the narrative, we find a seemingly endless supply of ways to engage. We can mourn with the merchants (baring an uncomfortable similarity to ourselves) as they weep and cry “woe” to the city that once supported their affluence. We can watch the demons and the unclean spirits as they make their way to the city — or were they already there? What did they look like? What would we do if we saw one? We can hear the great authority of the angel, the one who speaks for God. What would he say today? What does a collapsing civilization look like? What does it sound like? How does it feel now that we are there?
This sort of narrative engagement is possible throughout the Bible, which like any good work of literature includes everything from deep pathos to humor. We can hang out with the author of Ecclesiastes as he works through his depression and struggle to find meaning. We can laugh with Mark at the disciples who never seem to remember to bring bread and always seem surprised that Jesus can make his own. We can cheer on Esther and Mordecai as they defend the Jewish people from slaughter and find ourselves confused and uncomfortable when they use their newfound power to pull off what certainly looks like a genocide of their own. We can watch Jesus’ path to crucifixion and look on mournfully before trying to put it into a tidy theological box.
I’m not sure how we get to this point. Part of the problem, at least in myself, is the tendency to approach the bible as a “sacred” book with all the attendant baggage, where every sentence must be treated with reverence. This is great for pulling meaning from deep theological passages, but we can miss the humor and the silliness and the hyperbole that make for good storytelling. Appreciating Mark’s sense of humor isn’t sacrilegious, nor is it “missing the point.” Whatever we think the bible is, this is part of it.
We need to have room for readings that respect bible stories as stories — either through dramatized readings like Max McLean’s or by imagining some of the narratives as campfire stories (particularly the Old Testament, most of whose basic elements probably were passed down that way.) Let’s have different voices for different characters, chances to laugh at the silly events, space to question and space to breath before jumping into what we insist the text must “mean”.
There is room for deciphering meaning and original intent and repetition, just as (I now grudgingly admit) there was room for finding eleven symbols and three metaphors in The Red Pony. But we shouldn’t pretend these are the main goal. Let’s engage with narratives instead of insisting that stories have one true meaning and a bunch of false ones.
We can fear this sort of approach because there are no “right answers” on how to engage with a story. There are no perfect standards by which we can assure ourselves that we are right and everyone else is wrong.
But if we’re being honest, there never were.
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