The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Alas, Poor Creon: A Digression Upon a Sermon

So, here's a thought I have had after re-reading my Transfiguration Sunday Sermon to post it.

Here's the passage from Inherit the Wind I used in the sermon:

You can see that I wrenched it a bit out of context, making a point different from that the authors intended. But not, I think, disrespectfully, or unfaithful to what they wrote. Lawrence and Lee are pretty clear in the play that progress comes at a price, but is resoundingly worth it. I have tried to draw out the cost a little bit more, and, in the sermon, pout out that the cost includes losing the ability to relate to the ancient world, and some of our foundational texts, including the Bible.

But I don't associate myself with a simplistic view attributed to "Col. Drummond" that " we must abandon faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis." Yes, yes--they're right that we can't take it as a history text--but as early as the Third Century, Origen knew that. So, what is genesis, and its creation story, and what does it have to tell us? The answer isn't, nothing, any more than it is a documentary history. It's some of the oldest stories a people who started a journey that we are still on, all these years on, told themselves about that journey. It's a window in to their world.

So my point was not to devalue the book of Genesis. Rather, my point is that you have to enter into the world of the biblical text sympathetically, with an effort to understand what exactly it is, and what it isn't. We have to make the imaginative leap to try to learn what the work in its essence is, and what its authors were tearing to communicate to its readers. Sometimes that means needing to restore and explore the cultural milieu of the text. (A friend recently gave me a copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament that has proven a fertile place to learn about Jesus's and Paul's own setting.)

It's not easy. Proof-texting is a lot easier, but it is, in its own way, disrespectful to ancient texts; it assumes that nothing has changed, that the rise and fall of empires, cultures, and the passage of the texts themselves from one language to another is irrelevant. It assumes that we've got a simple job ahead of us, a science, not an art. It's crude.

And, most of all, it leads us astray, into missing the kerygma because we stay on the surface level.

Let's take a simple example--a non-biblical one to make it easy. If you read Antigone solely through modern eyes, it's easy to see it as a story about a purely noble resistance to tyranny. But fact, Martha Nussbaum has persuasively argued that both Antigone and Creon are right, and wrong. Werner Jaeger came to a similar conclusion. By simply reading post-Enlightenment values into Sophocles, we could miss much of the nuance in the ply. We don't have to, though; through imaginatively engaging with the play from the perspective of its time, not our time, we can read it more richly. Certainly, Jean Anouilh's WW II-era adaptation gives Creon a perspective that, while not as morally attractive as Antigone's, is not without salience, due in part to such an imaginative engagement and finding a modern parallel to the Occupation of his own country.

None of this means we can't have any certainty, of course. But it means that a little epistemic humility is in order, on all our parts.

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