The letter killeth

“Here’s the thing,” he said, and proceeded to outline an abstract situation. The vernacular always insists upon concreteness.


As my grandfather aged, his memory for the names of things and of people grew poorer and poorer. “Take the, the thingyou know – and give it to that woman!” would be a typical communication. His speech grew as cryptic and open to interpretation as the utterances of an oracle. The thing, that woman: though the particulars escaped him, he held tight to the facticity of life. He clung to life, too, because the whole notion of an afterlife always seemed suspiciously mystical to him, religious (and otherwise orthodox) as he was.


“It’s raining cats and dogs!” It’s interesting how a purely formal “it” that doesn’t even rise to the level of an abstraction can be presumed responsible for such outrageous acts of violence against household pets.


“Literally”: figuratively, as in “The stream was literally alive with fish,” or “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” These examples are courtesy of Ambrose Bierce,Write it Right. It’s easy to understand why a linguistic prescriptivist like Bierce would be so outraged by this all-too-common subversion of the meaning of literal meaning. “Write it right”: there’s only one way to do things. But vernacular speech will readily abandon semantic precision in favor of maximal playfulness and color.


“Biblical inerrancy”: a doctrine that imputes to the Christian Bible the unique property of lending itself only to one kind of interpretation – my own. These interpretations are said to be literal, operating on the assumption that whatever words and phrases mean to me is exactly the same as what they have meant to all people throughout history. For this to be possible despite the vagaries of linguistic change and the necessity of translation, the device of divine inspiration is trotted out. But if such inspiration is available to all sincere believers, why do we need to insist on doctrinal rigidity in the first place? Biblical inerrancy thus constitutes a hermeneutics of suspicion, even paranoia, predicated on a complete lack of trust in one’s fellow human beings. Can anyone so lacking in trust really be considered a person of faith? I can’t help thinking that the advocates of Biblical inerrancy and other forms of fundamentalism are the enemies of true religion. For such people, belief is a simple matter of unthinking obedience. Revelation is confused with the unfolding of power, a making so rather than a making whole.* They love Big Brother.


To the authors of the Bible, believing in superficialities and placing one’s trust in mere words are the primary attributes of the fool:

Lying lips cover over hatred, and a fool utters slander.
Proverbs 10:18

The heart of the righteous meditates on its answer, and the mouth of fools babbles forth evil.
Proverbs 15:28

The heart of the wise seeks out knowledge, the mouth of fools pursues foolishness.
Proverbs 15:14

(Translations by James Kugel, from The Great Poems of the Bible, The Free Press, 1999.)

But though believers have an obligation to seek out wisdom, the inner meanings of some things are inaccessible.

There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:
The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Proverbs 30:18-19 (KJV)


I can’t help wondering what a Biblical literalist would make of the preceding passage. Three or four, which is it? Are we to presume that only the first three of the four “things” listed are “too wonderful”? And if so, are we meant to suppose that “the way of a man with a maid” is just wonderful enough?

(Well, it’s enough for me!)

*This is a slight modification of something I wrote here in a recent comments thread.

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