The Letter Kills

I was reminded of Paul’s words about the letter killing but the Spirit giving life when I read a quote from Plato’s Phaedrus today. In it Socrates says:

You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; It doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.

In a very real sense, the problem with religious fundamentalism is that it wants clear-cut answers from God to every issue we face today, and it turns for answers to a text that only directly answers questions people were asking in the distant past. No matter how many times it is asked about stem cells, for instance, the Bible will only reply with the same words it already contains and has always contained. And this is a more serious problem for fundamentalists since they tend to be unwilling to look elsewhere than in texts for answers.

On the other hand, the act of wrestling with a text, trying to get it to say more than it does, has a long history, particularly within Rabbinic Judaism, and this is a tradition worth continuing. Indeed, Peter Rollins suggests that we should go so far as to refuse a divine intervention to settle a question about the text’s meaning, in this wonderful parable (HT Progression of Faith):

And so reading the Bible is valuable not because it gives us all the answers, but because it allows those who talk about it to engage in meaningful, interesting, helpful conversations.

Moreover, to be fair, ancient texts of all sorts can at times seem particular relevant to some issue or other today. The passage from Plato’s Phaedrus quoted above is a case in point. Ancient texts can be fascinating and helpful dialogue partners in all sorts of ways. The only problem is in expecting them to behave as though they were living things, able to do more than repeat what they have always said. The letter kills, but the Spirit can breathe life into living, personal interactions and conversations, even ones about those dead letters, in ways that inspire and invigorate and refresh us today.

To end on a lighter note, if you’re trying to figure out what translation of the Bible to read, there’s a song explaining why it’s better in Koine.

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