Smart people saying smart things

Smart people saying smart things October 6, 2012

Chris Heard: “Interpreting Genesis 1 ‘literally'”

This is, rather, a plea that we follow Augustine and divest ourselves of the notion that interpreting a text literally means taking it as an historically accurate account of things that happened in time and space. If the text isn’t an historical narrative, then treating it as an historical narrative is not properly a literal interpretation. Now, I realize that discerning an author’s intention in this regard can be tricky — but not as tricky as you might think, if you attend to ancient genre conventions.

Amy Sullivan: “You Say Subsidiarity, I Say Bullshit—Why Paul Ryan and his Bishop Defenders are Wrong”

Ryan and his defenders rely heavily on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which Morlino defines as: “the problem at hand should be addressed at the lowest level possible — that is, the level closest to the people in need.” The federal government is so far removed from people on the ground, they argue, that it cannot possibly be responsible for addressing problems associated with poverty. That’s only true, however, if institutions at lower levels actually have the capacity to meet those needs. And that’s far from the case. As we discussed earlier this summer, each and every religious congregation in America would have to spend an additional $50,000 annually just to cover the proposed cuts in one federal nutrition program.

Lawrence Pintak: “Journalistic firebombs in the Middle East”

It’s likely the same reason most Western news organizations haven’t republished the topless Kate Middleton pix. Or why most US newspapers do not show dead soldiers. Or why, as I write this, I have told the head of my college’s NPR network that we will not publish the name of an underage rape victim, even though state law gives us the legal right. Such restraint does not damage our journalism.

Gary Longsine & Peter Boghossian: “Indignation Is Not Righteous”

Those who engage in these fallacies believe that becoming indignant, or refusing to question a particular belief, are virtues. In other words, one should become indignant, and not becoming indignant indicates a moral flaw in one’s character; one should refuse to question privileged beliefs, and persistence in questioning represents a character defect.

… Righteous indignation undermines civil discourse and often corrodes efforts aimed at reasonable compromise. When righteous indignation is invoked, conversation stops and violence may begin. For the indignant party, reason may be suspended. Righteous indignation muddles thinking, elevates emotional reactions to primacy in the discourse, and displaces its alternative: impassioned, reasoned, thoughtful analysis.

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  • Gotchaye

    I don’t really understand Chris Heard’s argument that “literally” doesn’t (shouldn’t?) mean “literally”.  Augustine didn’t speak English, so he’s not much of an authority on what English words mean.  If the Bible actually means a cycle of creation and spiritual knowledge when it talks about day and night, then that is exactly “a kind of figurative and allegorical understanding of day and evening and morning”.  If someone’s translating Augustine as arguing otherwise, then either Augustine was just being silly or something’s lost in translation.

    “Literally” does not mean “as the author intended”. Nor do we need it to mean that. We have perfectly good words like “meaning” and “intent” for that sort of thing.

  • Peregrinus

    I think Heard’s point is that the bible texts should be read [i]as literature[/i]; i.e. we should read it taking account of the conventions of the literary genre which it represents.  For some reason “literally” has come to mean that we should read all the bible texts as though they were an example of the genre of fact-checked journalism in a newspaper of record.  Heard’s point is that they are [i]not[/i] an example of this genre; the genre didn’t even exist when they were written.  And he doesn’t think it’s helpful to call a reading which [i]ignores[/i] their literary nature a “literal” reading. 

  • Ken

    Augustine made a distinction between the scripture in verbis and in facto.  What we would now call the literal reading would be in verbis, the story on the page.  In facto would be what the story is actually meant to tell us, and Augustine (along with most medieval scholars) thought that was the far more important reading.  Readings, actually, because they thought any passage must have an allegorical meaning, a moral meaning, and an anagogical meaning.

    Dante discusses the medieval view of allegory in the Convivio and makes a useful distinction between the “allegory of theologians” and the “allegory of poets”.  Basically this is that theologians do believe the scriptural stories in verbis are historical, although that is the least important of its meanings. Poets are not so limited, and can speak of the allegorical or moral lessons of fiction.

    When I read that, I was rather surprised to realize that I read much of scripture using the allegory of poets. I have no need to believe in the literal truth of Genesis 1 to draw lessons from the story. I also can find lessons in fiction – in Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum, Granny Weatherwax’s story of why it’s best she doesn’t believe in a god is one of the most moving passages on a faithful life I’ve ever read.

  • Sereg

    pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature: literary history.
    pertaining to authorship: literary style.
    versed in or acquainted with literature;  well-read.
    engaged in or having the profession of literature  or writing: a literary man.
    characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.

       [lit-er-uhl] S
    in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.
    following the words of the original very closely and exactly: a literal translation of Goethe.
    true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.
    being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy: the literal extermination of a city.
    (of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic. 

  • Carstonio

    Part of the issue with literalism is that the OT switches between stories and things like genealogies and reference information, and the work as authoritative. In our era, the latter information would probably have been put into appendices.

  • Michael Pullmann

     And then Peter Jackson would stick it all in the movie version, anyway.

  • Subsidiary as people like Paul Ryan use it means one of two things:

    A: Screw poor people, let someone else deal with them.

    B. If poor people are to get help, I want to make sure that I control who gets my money. No poor person I disapprove of deserves it.  

  • Republicans have been famous for misusing the term “devolution” for similar reasons. They’ve not hesitated to bring things under federal authority if it means more effectively putting the screws to people they don’t think deserve a break.

  • Amaryllis

    Since I appear to be on another poetry kick, that reminded me of Billy Collins and “Introduction to Poetry.”

     I ask them to take a poem   
    and hold it up to the light   
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem   
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room   
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski   
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose   
    to find out what it really means.

    Most of the Bible seems to be better read as hold it up to the light and  feel the walls for a light switch,  and waving at the author’s name, than as “fact-checked journalism.”

  • MikeJ

    Of course the biggest problem with Heard’s argument is that for many of the people it is aimed at,  invoking Augustine is worse than making the same case yourself.  In a sola scriptura world it’s wrong to have people think about issue.  The anti-intellectualism of that subset of Christians makes it impossible to learn from anybody who has come before, and the more respected a thinker is, the worse.

  • I at first read “attend to ancient genre conventions” as “attend ancient genre conventions,” and wondered where and when the next ancient genre convention would be. 

    We have a really nice convention center here in San Antonio.  We could probably rent it out, if we could get enough attendees.

  • Lori

    Republicans want what they want. If they think local control is the best way to get it then they’re for local control. If the most effective strategy is  “states’ rights” then they’ll scream for states’ rights—until one of the states does something they don’t like, such as treating GLBTQ folks like actual human beings, and then it’s all about federal law and Constitutional amendments. That second one being especially rich coming from folks who worship at the alter of Constitutional originalism. That only holds until they want to make a new rule and then, as the ever-brilliant and charming Justice Scallia recently informed us, amending the Constitution should be easier.

    I could actually live with all that if they’d at least own it instead of claiming to adhere to some set of sacred principles that supposedly goes beyond “Republicans should be in charge of everything, everywhere, all the time”.

  •  This is obvious.  If “literally” means “as the author intended,” the question, “Do you mean that literally?” would be nonsensical.

  • States should be allowed to nullify the Civil Rights Act and Roe v Wade because laboratories of democracy.

    States should not be allowed to legalize gay marriage because something something unnatural

  • AnonymousSam

    So we should interpret the text literally as metaphor, allegory, and outright fiction if need be? Kay!

  • The group of people who now call themselves Republicans have always acted like that. Slavery gave them lots of practice. They were all “states’ rights!” when anyone questioned the so-called right of  rich white men to own (which means rape) slaves, but perfectly happy to send Alabamian marshals into New Jersey to kidnap black people. 

  • AnonaMiss

    On the third link:

    Firebombs are for the faint-hearted. A real journalist would infect themselves with a cocktail of particularly nasty contagions, put on their stompin’ boots, and join the riots.

    More seriously, I wonder if there isn’t some way we could introduce “U mad bro?” into international culture. The idea that if you show anything more than mild irritation it’s shameful, weak, ridiculous. I’m not a fan of C.S. Lewis in general, but he was right about one thing: the devil cannot stand to be laughed at.