The Definitive Version

Today I rewatched the J. J. Abrams Star Trek movie, this time with my son (and I have to note that the movie is on sale on for $4.29!).

I appreciated it even more than the first time I saw it. The extent to which the actors who play the roles are believable as the same people on the original series, only younger, continues to impress me.

But I was struck by my son’s comment. He had previously seen episodes from the original series, several of the motion pictures, and other bits and pieces. But now, after watching this version for the first time, he said he has become a Star Trek fan.

My mind turned back to this as I found myself smiling about a detail in the program of an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert I attended this evening. It described the version of Bruckner’s Symphony No.4 being performed as the “definitive version” from 1880.

anyone who knows anything about Bruckner’s penchant for revising his compisitions over and over again will now just how hard it is to talk about a “definitive version.” Some revisions were definite improvements, but others seem to reflect self-doubt or other motivations that led to changes which few from our perspective deem to have been wise.

So what makes for the “definitive version” of something? It can’t simply be the original. Sometimes a remake ruins things, but sometimes it makes things better, and sometimes it is hard to say.

Which is the definitive Superman? Batman? Battlestar Galactica? Who is the definitive Doctor in the history of Doctor Who?

What about Star Wars? George Lucas’ edits are an interesting parallel to Bruckner’s. Although debates about the symphonic equivalent of whether Han shot first do not translate as naturally into T-shirts.

What about the Bible? Is there any such thing as a “definitive version”, to say nothing of a definitive translation of that version of the texts and contents?

What about portraits of Jesus, whether in literature or other genres? The multiple Gospels suggest that the very authors of our earliest portraits balked at the notion of a “definitive portrait” – and that those who came after them felt the same way.

It is challenging to find the balance between fixity and stability on the one hand, and flexibility and change on the other. Many people prefer the extremes – the simplicity of saying that the old is good, or that there is no such thing as a text.

But reality gravitates towards somewhere in between. Even if we cut out all the parts that underwent revisions, we would still be able to recognize a piece of music that is Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, or whichever other. Even if we omitted all spots where the original reading is truly uncertain, we would still have something recognizable as Paul’s letter to this or that church.

But there is a sense in which certain kinds of texts are never definitive, because they are supposed to point beyond themselves. Bruckner’s “Romantic” symphony in any edition is not definitive if never performed. And for me, tonight’s performance marks something of a definitive version for me, since, as much as I love the piece, I had never had the opportunity to hear it performed live until now.

I think that Paul the apostle would have echoed that sentiment. Nothing he put on paper was the definitive edition. What he wanted to see was the Spirit giving life to people who became living epistles.

And perhaps he would even have said that the definitive “body of Christ” is not one about which it makes sense to debate whether it rotted in a grave or ascended into the sky, but rather a community of people who live in radical communion, love, and forgiveness.

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  • arcseconds

    We, i.e. Western Civilization, have a bit of a hangup about ‘definitiveness’, ‘authenticity’, and — I don’t know what else to call it — monophony, don’t we? 

    It seems that Jewish culture (while pretty Western itself in many respects) tends to preserve alternative viewpoints more, and there’s some evidence that this has been going on for millennia: the two creation stories in Genesis being a case in point.

    This also seems to be the case with Indian culture, where even less effort has been made to keep the story straight in say the Rg Veda, where we can see more than two creation stories, and the same story gets attributed to at least three different gods.


  • arcseconds

    I realise your post isn’t really about Star Trek, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

    One thing that really struck me about it is the Future is portrayed fundamentally differently than it is in the original series.

    Earth society is not really investigated much in classic Trek, but we’re led to believe it’s a utopia.  There’s no poverty or disease, everyone’s at peace, and it seems that everyone gets to live a fulfilling life.  There are hints that there’s no money any more.

    But in the new movie, the future looks suspiciously like now. Kirk appears to be wasting his life in the boondocks, showing that there are still boondocks and still disaffected teenagers; and the boondocks still have drunken deadbeats frequenting bars and starting fights; and Bones is joining Star Fleet not out of noble fulfilling-life type motives but because he’s divorced and need s the money to meet his alimony payments, showing money, money difficulties, life ‘choices’ being forced on people, and also hinting that the society is perhaps not completely egalitarian when it comes to gender.

    Now, I think the filmmakers made the correct call on this.  Modern audiences probably wouldn’t swallow a utopia, whereas in the 60s there was a lot of hope and expectation that the future would continually get better.

    Of course, we can look back and say the 60s were marked by naivety as well as optimism.  And perhaps cynicism is better than naivety, after all the first step is to admit you have a problem.

    But I think it’s a bit sad that we, as a society, apparently can no longer look forward to a society that’s better than ours is even to the extent of accepting it in a work of fiction. 

  • Sabio Lantz

    You said,

    The multiple Gospels suggest that the very authors of our earliest portraits balked at the notion of a “definitive portrait” – and that those who came after them felt the same way.

    But when writing fiction, no one is committed to a definitive portrait — isn’t that the take home message? — Not that the gospel writers had some philosophical view about writing biographies.

    • Well, even when we write history, that doesn’t change. There is no definitive treatment of history that will necessarily remain such irrespective of the passing of time.