Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Language versus literature" in the pulpit

I have nearly finished my degree in English Language and Literature. I have enjoyed pretty much all of it (though writing about the Benin Bronzes was pretty painful), and it is proving to be the jump-off point for lots of different reflections.

One is in relation to what happens in preaching, and Bible teaching. Frequently, teaching from the Bible can sound like literary analysis. The teacher takes a text, links it (apparently arbitrarily) with other texts, makes connections (apparently arbitrarily) with some of his own ideas and perspectives, makes (apparently arbitrary) assumptions about different aspects and shades of meaning, and draws (apparently arbitrary) conclusions. This is highly consonant with where we are culturally. From a literary point of view, there's a strong strand which says that meaning is not inherent in the text itself: it is imposed on the text by the listener/reader - hence, we can have black, or gay, or Marxist, or green readings of texts that apparently have little otherwise to do with those perspectives. But if one person derives a specific meaning from a text, it is quite possible that another person might derive a meaning which completely contradicts this. The effect of this understanding of the nature of the text and meaning is that any sense of authority of the text is completely undermined. The teacher explains a text - but this interpretation is just one amongst many; it only has force if you share his or her perspective; and if you don't, then you are free to ignore it. It raises the question of what exactly would be the point of Bible teaching - perhaps it's considered to be some shared existential experience which makes us part of the Christian community, but is not considered to have any real force.

However, this degree highlighted the fact that, in addition to the literature perspective to studying a text, there is also a language perspective. This was very interesting to come across - at various stages in the course, it became clear that the language approach was different. Writers on the language approach were reluctant to criticise their faculty co-members, but the divergence was clear. Firstly, they said, if you lose the idea of context, then you lose most of the meaning of a text. They talked in a Hallidayan way about register variables - field, tenor, mode. All of these have a bearing in understanding a text. And they said, with some deference to their colleagues, whilst different interpretations were possible, some were definitely preferable to others. In effect, whereas the literature approach puts the focus on the reader, the language approach places it back on the text and its purpose as originally written.

This will come as no surprise to Bible teachers from certain backgrounds. One of the thrusts in the Proclamation Trust approach, for example is to "take the listeners to Corinth". The literature approach takes words from 1 Corinthians, for example, disregards the context, and tries to go straight to understanding what it means to us. Proc Trust argue that to understand what it means to us, you need to understand what it meant to the people who heard it originally. Similarly, if a text was written as poetry (for example) then you don't try and interpret it as though it is a scientific treatise.

Or take the use of concordancing. This was introduced to us in E303, Grammar in Context. The idea is, if you want to understand the meaning and significance of a word, then look at how it is used elsewhere in the corpus. But this would be no surprise to those of us who have done Bible teaching. We are used to looking at how words are used throughout the corpus - so when we use the word "faith", for example, we know that we aren't using it in the modern, culturally-conditioned sense of "a leap in the dark". We don't only do this using one translation or version of the Bible, but refer to concordances in the original languages - Greek, Hebrew - to try and get closer to the actual meaning of the word. If we are using words in a way that is different from the way in which they were intended, then we are distorting the meaning.

What is the importance of all this? For Christians, we need to understand what the nature of Bible teaching is. It's not a subjective, literature approach, where meaning is all down to the reader/listener's interpretation. It's a language approach, where whilst we may not be able to fully unpack the meaning, we do accept that some meanings are more accurate than others. This further means that the message of the Bible is an objective matter - it's not something for people to take or leave, on the basis that someone else might interpret it differently. You may reject what a Bible teacher says - but if it has been faithfully explained, you are rejecting not an interpretation of the Bible, but the Bible itself.

Don Carson, in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, set about challenging what I have called "the literature perspective" and other ways in which postmodernism has altered our thought forms when it comes to understanding Christianity. But as far as I remember, he did not make reference to the fact that the language part of English faculties already assumes a greater role for objective meaning. It's not a simple question of "us against the world" - we have co-belligerents when it comes to epistemology.

The Liberals in this election

It goes without saying that the Liberal Democrats are going to be wiped out in this election, and probably in the general election next year. That's a depressing thought. There's a saying attributed to G.K.Chesterton: "The Christian Ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried." This still applies to Christianity - but it also applies to the Liberals. I'm not a Liberal; however, my values come closer to those of the Liberal party than they do of anybody else I would be likely to vote for. So here are my reasons for sticking with them.

  • They have demonstrated themselves to be competent, pragmatic and practical at all levels of government for many years. This is why I won't vote for the Greens - the one council they have run has turned into a shambles.
  • They aren't in the pocket of vested interests - either unions, businesses, or buddies they went to private school with. This is the reason that I continue not to vote for Labour or the Conservative Party.
  • They aren't systemically corrupt, hypocritical, xenophobic, misogynistic, lazy, exploitative, self-serving and opportunistic. These are a few of the reasons that I will not vote for UKIP.
What about their track record in government? They are described as having made a power grab; of getting into bed with the devil; of compromising their principles. Is this the case? I genuinely don't believe so. Let's talk about some details.
  • Tuition fees - the big one. They were forced, in coalition, to go against their manifesto promise. That was, undoubtedly bad. But how bad is the tuition fee settlement? Money Saving Expert does not present the new settlement as a disaster. Nothing is repayable until you earn over £21,000 per year (national average wage). What this means is, for the low paid, university access is, in effect free. The new student fee structure has actually improved access to higher education for the low paid. And it means that the higher paid will repay an amount which more closely corresponds to the cost of their education. Is that a bad outcome?
  • By being a part of the government, the Liberals have had the effect of seriously diluting many of the Conservative policies. Is that a bad thing?
  • They have also managed to introduce many of their own policies - for example, major increases in tax allowances. Make no mistake, these are not Conservative policies. And yet, they are government policies.
  • They managed to secure a referendum on a form of proportional representation. The fact that they lost was due to the opposing camp having the support of large groups who had most to gain from the existing system being preserved, despite it not being suitable for a system with more than two parties.
But should they have gone into the coalition at all? Well, what were the alternatives? 
  • The Conservatives could have formed a minority government. This would have given the Liberals less influence - would they have been less compromised? Arguably. Would they have had as much influence in the direction of the country? Almost definitely not. So more Conservative policies - would that have been better? I don't think so.
  • The Liberals could have formed a coalition with Labour. But Labour did not have a mandate to form a government. And furthermore, although there's a degree of revisionism now, I continue to be very disillusioned with the years of Labour government, and simply don't want them in power.
For many years, I protested at elections by submitting a spoilt ballot paper. I am still very frustrated by a political system which (on a national level) blatantly favours two large parties neither of which has the support of close to half of the population. For the first time in this government in my memory, we saw a government that represented the votes of a majority of the electorate. And although it didn't do everything right, it did actually work. I find it profoundly bleak that this one successful experiment with coalition government is likely to result in a return to a government which represents a minority of the electorate, introducing policies that have little to do with the will of the populus.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Hobbit as prequel

First in other news ... since Google deleted my Adsense account (see here) I have had more visits to this blog than ever before. April comfortably saw the largest number of visitors in any month since I started the blog. So thanks for visiting.

Watching The Desolation of Smaug (The Hobbit, part 2), I was interested in how strongly the theme of the returning king was brought out in the context of Thorin. The Lord of the Rings is an interesting book in many ways. The most memorable part of the story is arguably what happens to Frodo and Sam, as they travel to Mount Doom with the one ring. And yet there are several other big stories taking place. One is the return of Aragorn. He is the descendant of the great king Isildur, who failed to do what he was supposed to do at a key moment in his story. Aragorn has to battle with temptation to take power for the sake of power, and also to turn away from power for fear of failure. As a teenager reading the books, I don't remember picking this up. But it is a theme that Peter Jackson et al. fairly strongly brought out in the film - from Boromir's first comments on meeting Aragorn ("There is no king in Gondor", or words to that effect), through the journey along the Paths of the Dead, when Aragorn as the heir of Isildur has the power to offer the ghosts in the mountain the opportunity to fulfil their oaths, to the coronation scene near the end of the final film.

I guess fairly deliberately, Jackson chose to echo this in the film of the Hobbit. In the same way that Aragorn is being encouraged to take up his role as the heir of Isildur, Gandalf strongly urges Thorin to return to rule in Erebor. Although Thorin has just twelve motley companions, he travels towards his destiny in his ancestral home, and is recognised as the king by the forces of good (Gandalf), the crowds (the inhabitants of Laketown) and the forces of evil (the orcs, and the Necromancer by proxy).

Unlike Aragorn, however, we know from reading The Hobbit that Thorin fails under temptation. I shan't go into more detail. But Thorin doesn't become the king under the mountain - a role which, it seems, Gandalf had hoped he would to provide another layer of defence against the oncoming onslaught from the powers of evil. It's possible to imagine that Gandalf's idea was almost that the dwarves would be able to provide a strong barrier to the rise of Sauron - and indeed, reading The Lord of the Rings, we do find that the dwarves of the North do provide a defence against the Dark Lord. But they never have the strength that they might have hoped to have - they aren't able to permanently reclaim Moria, for example. How much of this is ultimately down to the failure of Thorin to become the ruler he was supposed to is not clear. But there are striking contrasts between the role of Thorin in the films of The Hobbit and that of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.