I saw this cartoon on Facebook this morning and found it stimulating.
First thought: Who are the people in the picture? Reading left to right, as we do in English, we see five people who are dressed in modern western garb. There is a mix of men and women. We can see that at least four of the five are holding an objected labeled “Holy Bible” in their hands. None of them look very happy.
Standing over against the five is a bearded man in what we stereotypically take to be ancient middle eastern garb. He’s wearing what appears to be a crown of thorns, something we associate with Jesus. We associate wearing a crown of thorns with Jesus because of what we read in the Bible and what we’ve seen in almost two millennia of Christian art. Jesus looks like he could be happy. As far as we can see he is not hold a Bible or anything else in his hands.
Second thought: Only one person in this panel is speaking. Well, only Jesus is shown speaking words. His audience is exuding grumpiness or disappointment.
Third thought: By his stance, facial expression, and words, Jesus is setting himself over against the other five. He says there’s a difference and the body language exhibits that difference.
Fourth thought: There is a movement in the church that’s been characterized as “Red Letter Christians.” Printing the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels in red ink is a convention that began just over a hundred years ago. The practice of creating a canon within the canon, a section of scripture that is more central or more authoritative or more primary than other parts is not so recent, however.
Fifth thought: If we take the red letters, the words of Jesus himself, as more authoritative than the rest of scripture, then we have clear reason to relativize the rest of what we read in the Bible. Whatever Jesus says trumps whatever we see elsewhere.
Sixth thought: Why would we value the words of Jesus over the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul (just to mention other major New Testament writers)? If we’re Christians, we might think that’s a dumb question. After all, those guys were all just humans – just disciples of Jesus. They were, by their own desire, under the authority of Jesus. If they saw themselves as subject to Jesus, we ought to see whatever they wrote as also subject to Jesus.
Seventh thought: We ascribe authority to Jesus because of who we confess that he is: “The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” If this is who Jesus is, we are justified in taking his word as the authority in our lives.
Eighth thought: How have we come to confess this identity of Jesus? Is it through our direct experience of his words and actions? To what degree is our knowledge and experience of Jesus mediated by what those other guys (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, et al.) have written? To what degree do we have access to the words of Jesus apart from them – apart from the words of scripture?
Ninth thought: When it comes to the word “love,” it’s obvious that scripture has much to say about it. It’s also obvious that what scripture, especially the New Testament, has to say about love is centered around the actions and words of Jesus. We might consider 1 John 3:16 – “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Scripture says that we can know what love is. We know what love is by looking at the fact that Jesus laid down his life for us. We can go a step farther and infer form this that Jesus did this knowing what love was and seeking to express love. We might also consider Romans 5:8 – “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In Romans Paul has claimed that all people are sinners. Whether Jew or Gentile (not Jewish), people are sinners. God loved sinners, people like us, enough to do something about it. He demonstrated his love for us by Christ dying for us. Whatever else we say about Jesus, we can take his death as being a demonstration of God’s love for us. According to Paul, then, Jesus is demonstrating the nature of love.
Tenth thought: How do we know about this death of Jesus? How do we know it was not just a tragic end to the life of a wise and good itinerant Jewish holy man? How do we know it wasn’t “divine child abuse?” How do we know it wasn’t God’s just judgment on a false prophet who would lead the people astray? We claim to know these things by what we read in the Bible, in the writings of people like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, et al.
Eleventh thought: How does language work? Where does it come from and how do we learn it? When we’re learning to speak, does someone give us a book to study (or to absorb through osmosis)? We learn language be being immersed in it and included in it from day one. From the moment of birth we are addressed and spoken to. Over time we come to understand what is being said and to make ourselves understood. We do this in fits and starts, in trial and error. Our communicative efforts take place in particular linguistic communities. My communicative efforts may or may not work in any other linguistic community. They are certainly likely to work better in my own linguistic community and others nearby than in more distant ones.
Twelfth thought: How do words work? Do we use the dictionaries handed to us in infancy to figure out the meaning of words directed at us and words we wish to direct outward? Or maybe we have an authoritative person (mom? dad?) who provides us with definitions. Maybe our parents give us a new word each day. “Ok, Junior, today’s word is ‘monosyllabicism.’ It means ‘the propensity to use words of a single syllable.'” Now that our parents have authoritatively defined the word for us, we can go about using it. But this isn’t the normal way words work. We encounter most words not in the form of definitions (in dictionaries or from authoritative persons) but from their use in our linguistic communities.
Thirteenth thought: Word meanings change. Sometimes change happens slowly, as other changes occur in our linguistic communities. Sometimes change happens quickly, either because of a precipitating event or because a significant person in our linguistic community uses the word in a different way and that usage captures our attention and imagination. We come to believe that through that usage the word has taken on at least new shades of meaning. When we consider the incarnation of the Son, his life, teaching, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, we surely have good reason to take his reported usages of words as authoritative and generative of new ways of usage on our part.
Fourteenth thought: The Bible is composed of words. We cannot understand anything in the Bible (or any other book) apart from our participation in a linguistic community. Several years ago we had friends who translated the New Testament into one of the languages of Vanuatu. Since we had been financial supporters of their work, they gave us a copy of their finished product – an actual New Testament in this language. As one who has read the New Testament in English (the language of my broad linguistic community), I have a basic understanding of the New Testament. I have no understanding of the New Testament written in this language of Vanuatu, however. I am not and have never been part of that linguistic community. I think back to something my teacher Nancey Murphy wrote: “If the texts’ ability to perform a definite speech act depends on the existence of a community with shared conventions and proper dispositions, then textual stability is in large measure a function not of theories of interpretation but of how interpretive communities choose to live.” My understanding of the Bible is made possible by my participation in a particular linguistic community. Though the Bible I normally read is in English, the linguistic community that most helps me understand the Bible is not just the broad community of “English speakers,” but the linguistic community known as “church.” My understanding of the Bible is not just a mental exercise, something like decoding a secret message. Understanding comes from living in and being formed by the practices of Christian community. Because language is a communal phenomenon, understanding language is never a purely individual act.
Fifteenth thought: Going back to the cartoon, the five people who are being confronted by Jesus are holding Bibles. To the extent that they take themselves to understand and use the Bible, they do as members of some linguistic community. The single panel cartoon doesn’t tell us whether they have been formed by life in the church or perhaps might just find congenial utterances there that they’ve abstracted from the whole.
Sixteenth thought: In the Upper Room Discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus promises the disciples that he will not leave them orphans, that he will send the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth. We read in Matthew’s version of the Great Commission that Jesus promises to be with the disciples “to the very end of the age.” From these and other texts, we can learn that our life in the Christian community (a particular linguistic community) is not just with other people like us. In the Christian community we encounter Jesus himself. We are part of the Body of Christ, united by the Holy Spirit. Our life together includes submission to Jesus and to his interpretive authority.
Seventeenth thought: It takes work to read and understand and live the Bible. Since we English speakers primarily encounter it in English, it is possible for us to interpret it more in the context of the broader linguistic community we call “English speakers” than in the context of the specifically Christian linguistic community. The broader English speaking linguistic community uses words we find in the Bible: Love, freedom, righteousness, etc. It requires work on our part to discern whether we are reading our the Bible and understanding its words and concepts primarily in terms offered by our broader English speaking linguistic communities or in terms of the narrower Christian linguistic community. This would also be true for our understanding of what we take to be utterances of Jesus that are not mediated by the Bible. We always encounter them in some linguistic community that gives us guidance on how to understand them.
Eighteenth thought: When Jesus “determines the meaning” of something, whether that something be an individual word or a larger text composed of words (like the Bible), how does he do so? From what linguistic community does he do this work? We might think that as the “Second Person of the Trinity,” his linguistic community is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even if we don’t think a social trinitarianism is the best approach, this would be a way to ascribe ultimate authority to Jesus and his linguistic usages.
Some might think that with all these thoughts (and others that might arise) that I’m missing the obvious point of the cartoon. Perhaps the obvious point of the cartoon is that “love is love and Jesus is for it.” Or, “what we say the Bible says should be subservient to what we KNOW love is.” It could be that I’m simply defective in my ability to discern what is obvious. Whatever my defects, I can affirm a few things.
Jesus is Lord and I want to submit to him.
I learn of Jesus and encounter him in worship, prayer, community, and the Bible.
I learn what words mean and how to use them in community.
It is easy for me to impose my own or my culture’s own understanding on the utterances of Jesus or the words of the Bible. It is only over time and through mutual accountability in our life together as Christians that I come to appropriate understanding.
I am not willing to go the way of Schleiermacher and the theological tradition stemming from him that interprets Christian language as using religious words to say important things that the general culture also says. The cultured despisers of the faith do not inhabit the linguistic community that gives us the best understanding of Jesus or the Bible.