Monday, November 26, 2012

It Looks As If the Pope and I Aren't Going to Be Friends After All

I don't think I'm going to be reading Benedict XVI's new book about the birth and infancy of Jesus. On the Amazon page for that book, there is an excerpt from Chapter 1.That excerpt was enough for me. As some wise man has said frequently, you don't need to drink the whole ocean to know that it's salty. (Oh yeah, that's right -- it's me! I'm the wise man who came up with that one.) You don't need to read an entire book to know that it's silly.

In the excerpt, as you can see, Benedict comments upon the meeting of Jesus and Pilate in John, chapters 18 and 19, with reference to some other passages from the Bible. And as you can also see if you read chapters 18 and 19 in John, Benedict gets a lot out of those passages which wasn't in them to begin with. For example, three sentences from Benedict say: "All this must have seemed like madness to the Roman judge. And yet he could not shake off the mysterious impres­sion left by this man, so different from those he had met before who resisted Roman domination and fought for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The Roman judge asks where Jesus is from in order to understand who he really is and what he wants."

It's good that we have Benedict to "interpret" things for us. Because the Bible actually doesn't say that it all must have seemed like madness to Pilate, nor that Jesus gave him a mysterious impression, nor that Pilate could not shake off this impression, nor that Jesus was different from others Pilate had met, nor why Pilate asked where Jesus was from.

Of course, this sort of thing is familiar to anyone who's heard a certain type of Christian sermon, where the pastor or priest first reads a passage from the Bible somewhere between one and ten verses long, and then proceeds to comment upon that passage for half an hour or longer. Assuming you're not speaking to an audience composed of linguists, historians or textual critics, and sometimes even then, it's very hard, maybe impossible, to go on for so long about a passage so short without straight-up making stuff up. Now, I have no problem with this as long as you are clear that what you are presenting is historical fiction, as I was clear when I called the book I wrote about Pilate and Jesus what it is: a novel.

When theologians do it they call it exegesis. The Methodist theologian Ben Witherington calls it exegesis. Here Witherington describes some of his adventures preceeding the publication in 2011 of the Pope's book about Jesus during the Holy Week. To his obvious great excitement, he was chosen by someone connected in some way with the Pope to participate in a discussion of the Pope's new book: 4 Catholic scholars, 1 Jew, and just 1 Protestant. Witherington doesn't make clear whether he was asked to take part in this discussion or just told that he would do so. I assume it's the former, but he doesn't actually say. (See what I did there, kiddies? I could have indulged in exegesis, but I didn't, I actually confined myself to the information contained in Witherington's written account.) Witherington says that he had to read and digest the book in a great hurry in order to be ready to participate in this discussion. He doesn't say whether there was such a hurry because he was the Vatican's 12th choice to be the token Protestant. Poor puppy, I wonder whether such a thing even occurred to him. He just says, "I considered this an honor. Somebody out there must trust me as an exegete and a theologian."

And he considers the Pope to be a very great exegete indeed, and happy happy joy joy bla bla bla. Not only do these people believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, disturbed in this belief neither by modern scholarship nor common sense, they applaud each other for embellishing greatly upon the Bible, they dress up their common wish not to want to know with academic jargon, they praise each other to the skies as great theologians, and insist that a great theologian, a great Student of He Who Is Not, is a great intellectual, just as much as Nietzsche or Russell or Sartre is, the better, I think, to drown out the derisive laughter of those few brighter people who have troubled to look in upon their little academic fiefdom.

In that excerpt from his new book Benedict refers to Pilate as "The 'enlight­ened' Roman judge, who had already expressed skepticism regarding the question of truth (cf. Jn 18:38)" To me, that one question of Pilate's, "What is truth?" alone makes him the most interesting character in the entire Bible, the only one who might actually be thinking about things in a challenging and deep way. (Not that I assume that Pilate ever actually posed such a question, simply because the Bible states that he did.) To Benedict it makes him worthy of derision, of being called "enlightened" only with that word in quotation marks. So, for all his elegant prose and imposing jargon, Benedict is anti-intellectual. Like a snake-handling televangelist, but better-spoken. What a shame. He and I can't be friends, it's just not in the cards. Each of our raisons d'etre is to oppose the other and what he stands for.

And "exegesis," at least when it refers to Bible interpretation, is Greek for "pulling stuff out of your butt."

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