Eating Your Words. Literally.

Eating Your Words. Literally. March 14, 2024

Truth isn’t sympathetic to our need for certainty or stability.

Jared Enns, “The Bible for Normal People”

There is a self-described atheist who regularly comments on this blog, usually to express  his strong disagreement with suggestions that a conception of God might be something more than a myth or fairy tale. His most recent comment was in response to an essay I posted around Christmas titled “Why the Details of Jesus’ Birth Don’t Matter.” He observed that

So, at least we can agree that the notion that the Bible is literally true and inerrant is simply not true. Matthew and Luke present two completely contradictory accounts of Jesus’ birth.

My less-than-congenial response was along these lines:

Thanks for your comment, Captain Obvious. You’ve read enough essays on this blog to have realized this a long time ago.

I was not in a particularly Christian mood that morning.

The belief that the Bible is both inerrant and literally true was a central part of the religious world in which I was raised and which I left a long time ago. But for a professed Christian such as I am, the question remains: What is the Bible? How is one to approach this library of texts if one both rejects the idea that it is literally true and inerrant but also believes that in some sense it is the “Word of God”?

As I implied to the commenter, I have explored this territory on this blog a number of times. A recent episode of the podcast “The Bible for Normal People” provided me with a different angle on questions related to the Bible that intersected with what I do professionally in ways I had not previously considered.

I say “Deconstruction” and you think what? Probably nothing. Or perhaps, as Jared Byas, the host of the BBFNP podcast episode titled “Misconceptions About Deconstruction and the Bible” fromseveral months ago puts it, the word deconstruction “might conjure images of an obscure philosophical concept that only dorks in tweed jackets talk about.” Despite the fact that I actually am one of those philosopher dorks in a tweed jacket, don’t worry—I’m not going to geek out on you in this essay (much). Suffice it to say that deconstruction is a concept that, having leaked out of the ivory towers of academe in the past sixty or seventy years, has had a significant influence on how we understand words and texts—including the Bible. And for many, this influence has been both problematic and destructive. Bear with me.

For our purposes, I’ll use Jared Byas’ simple description of deconstruction as our working definition.

Deconstruction is a set of practices that seeks to answer the two questions “What do words mean?” and “How do words mean?”

With that definition in mind, here are a few points about words, languages, and texts that deconstructionists frequently emphasize:

  • Words always mean more than we intend. The meaning of a text is never simply what the author intends. Words don’t work that way.
  • Words are not as stable as we think. They aren not standalone entities that represent just one objective reality.
  • Deconstruction argues that texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you chose to consider do not have definable meanings and determinable missions. They are always more than any mission would impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy.

Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who is generally considered to be the father of deconstruction, noted that when we look at words, they seem very solid and stable. But when he looked closely using the right tools, what we later called deconstruction, he saw that at a deep level, words operate differently than we thought. They are more chaotic than we had imagined. They’re less solid and less stable than we might wish they were. Words always mean more than we intend them to mean. There are no law-givers that tell us what a word or a phrase or a sentence has to mean. All of which guarantees that the certainty we might seek from texts is unavailable.

It is important to realize that, despite the fears of many of its critics, deconstruction does not open the door to an “anything goes” type of relativism. On the contrary, deconstruction tells us that there’s always more meaning to something than one thing. Truth is always bigger than our personal and cultural conceptions can grasp. No one group of people gets to decide what meaning or truth is. Differences and diversity are actually the path to seeing the fullness of truth. We need all the contexts, all the experiences to weigh in.

What does any of this have to do with the Bible? Jared Byas provides an entertaining but illuminating analogy in his podcast that illustrates the difference between believing that the Bible is written in a language of unchanging certainty and recognizing that it, just as all texts, is subject to deconstruction because it is written in human language. In the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie starring Johnny Depp, the story is told of an Indian prince who asked Willie Wonka to build him a palace made of chocolate. Willie Wonka proceeds to build such a palace to the prince’s specifications, but upon completion warns the prince that “it won’t last long—you’d better start eating it right now.”

And Prince Pondicherry says dismissively, “Oh, nonsense. I will not eat my palace, I intend to live in it.” Of course, a hot day comes and melts the palace. The Bible is perfect, as long as we realize it’s made of chocolate, and we start eating it, rather than preserve it and try to live in it forever.

Just as anything constructed out of words and language, the Bible is not intended to be a permanent, unchanging habitation. Rather it is something to be consumed, nourishment for succeeding generations in ways uniquely framed by their own experiences, circumstances, hopes, dreams, and conceptions of faith. As Byas notes,

For many of us, it’s our close reading of the Bible that has led us to the conclusion that it’s made of chocolate. It’s constantly melting and hardening over and over again. It takes different shapes and means different things to the centuries and generations. We aren’t against the Bible; we’re learning to accept it for what it is. Deconstruction isn’t something we do to the Bible. The Bible is subject to deconstruction because it’s written in human language.

I love likening the activity of reading and studying to eating and, as it turns out, it’s an image that frequently shows up in the Bible. For instance, the prophet Jeremiah writes that “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy words were unto me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart,” while Ezekiel tells an interesting story toward the beginning of his prophecy:

He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find: eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. 

As Simone Weil writes in her notebooks, “I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat.” When it comes to the Bible, that’s a good idea—because the Bible is made of chocolate, after all.

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