Did they really mean that? The use of quotes in Religious Education (and life) part 2

inconceivableAs a follow up to ‘Did they really say that?’ I have titled this post ‘Did they really mean that?’ This is an extension to the discussion but is slightly more subjective and contentious. There are three references to pop culture and literature that will help frame this discussion.

  1. I remember in an episode of X-Files Fox Mulder arguing against someone with the line ‘Even the devil can quote scripture.’
  2. A part from The Princess Bride where in response to the repetition of the word ‘inconceivable’ the line is said: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
  3. Lewis Carroll: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all’” (1963: 269).

In exploring student responses to questions about religion it is possible to see scripture or the words of religious leaders being “wrested.” Essentially, they seem to know a small number of quotes and strive to include them in every answer they can. All of a sudden the Golden Rule becomes not just a scripture to use to reject bullying but also one to support its use- ‘If you like the idea of being mistreated then its ok to mistreat others.’ How on earth can this be justified? Well, it can’t and is blatantly at odds with the message of Christianity (and every religion that accepts the Golden Rule).

The problem is that we live in a society and culture that loves sound bites and cherry picks the things that are said to support our views. One of my favourite sit-coms is The Goldbergs; in this the mum is often shouted at by one of her children ‘Don’t do that!’ and all she hears is ‘do that’. Do we do the same? As a Latter-day Saint Christian I accept further scripture alongside the Bible- The Book of Mormon. One of the first scriptural arguments that was ever thrown at me was the reference to 2 Timothy 3: 16- “All scripture is given…” It sounds pretty convincing until you contextualise it and actually continue reading it, it is not a comment on the closed canon but on how scripture is inspired: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” In using this scripture I found it hard to take any other argument that was being made by my friend serious. He had cherry picked a short passage of scripture to justify his position.

A further problem is the question of who has the right to interpret scripture or the sayings of others. Interpretation lies at the heart of inter and intra- religious differences and dialogue. The way that we feel that scripture is interpreted guides the beliefs that we may or may not hold. A Catholic’s view of ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church’ is perhaps different to other denominations of Christianity. Within Islam the Hadith of the Pond of Khumms has significantly different meanings to Sunni and Shi’a Muslims- so much so that it could be seen to be at the heart of the differences between the religions. Within each religious group there are potentially traditions and authorities that rule on the use of sayings- but even then, the individuals are free to disagree.

It is here that we may need to encourage our students to engage in a meta-analysis of the use of religious quotes. People far more able than I have suggested how scripture should be interpreted. From a faith perspective it is possible to suggest, from a Christian viewpoint, that the Holy Spirit will guide a person how to interpret as the scripture was given under the inspiration of such. However no-one reads (or writes) scripture outside of their own experiences. This laid the basis for form criticism and even in exploring the practice of hermeneutics.

In exploring the possible interpretation of the reader we can draw on the possibility of a dialogic third space between the reader and the text; assuming in this context that the reader is examining the text from any background. Gideon Burton has expressed a similar view when experiencing Mozart: “At the same time, this reflection reveals something back to [us] about who [we] are and how their culture responds to great art: we read The Magic Flute, and The Magic Flute reads us” (2004: 23). We cannot help be changed by engagement with truths and art. The benefits of engagement with truths are not just a greater understanding of others, and their literature, but also a greater understanding of what it means to be an individual.

Thus a third space exists when we engage in dialogue with a text- when the text itself becomes our dialogue partner. When people read or hear a text they cannot help but view it through the spectacles of their own experience. Card describes the unavoidability of such an approach in the use of stories but the same could be said of scripture.

“Of course, audience members filter and edit the stories they receive. Things that to the author or other readers might be unnoticed will make a much deeper impression on a particular reader, because of his own concerns or experiences.

Readers bring their own attitudes to the stories they are given; what seems obvious and important to one might seem trivial or non-existent to another.”[1]

An example of how the recognition of the biases that we bring to texts can be harnessed positively is in Scriptural Reasoning. This project, essentially reading scripture from a Muslim, Christian and Jewish perspective, works from the basis that “recognizing those differences can be a source of illumination to each” faith group (Ford, 2006: 345). In revealing that which is important to faith communities scriptural reasoning celebrates disagreement:

One might suggest that the handling of disagreements is one of the important ways participants in scriptural reasoning establish and acknowledge friendships. In a context which aims at consensus, disagreement is a problem to be overcome. In a context which values friendship, disagreement is a gift to be treasured. Scriptural reasoning is a practice that sometimes treasures disagreement as a gift (Adams, 2006: 398).

People are able to learn more about their own position by exploring and engaging with other people’s assumptions and interpretations.

We can also explore the writings in terms of the context in which they were written- this does not deny the possibility of divine inspiration just that human words cannot necessarily catch the full import of God’s word. Exploring the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of first century Palestine is central to understanding its radical message- thousands of years of repetition have sanitised it or in some cases changed its message. In the Political Samaritan by Nick Spencer he explores the various uses to which it has been put- maybe as the sign of my political leanings I was surprised by the Thatcherite interpretation that the Samaritan had to be wealthy first to be in a position to help the man who had fallen among thieves. It perhaps said more about the interpreter than the original text.

What is really important is that encouraging people to take this approach to scripture will perhaps lead to a more thoughtful use of quotes, but will also equip them to explore contemporary quotes in the modern world more critically so that we don’t just accept what is being said. The days of cherry picking and shoe horning to support our views should be over- but maybe it never will be- because while I will always think my interpretation is correct there will always be someone to disagree.

[1] http://www.mormontimes.com/mormon_voices/orson_scott_card/?id=14027