In high school I had a class on Early British Literature. It was a lot like most other high school English classes. We would read, listen to lectures, and have group discussions. Then about halfway through the course a handful of students turned it into a game. They all assigned themselves topics that they were obligated to invoke no matter what was being discussed in class. One student would say, without fail, “What this really reminds me of is Plato’s allegory of the cave…” and another would say, “This is a lot like Star Wars…” And there were other participants too. It was hilarious until it suddenly became tedious. But what was funny about the whole exercise is that sometimes (only sometimes) their comments actually made sense. Sometimes the interpretive lens of Star Wars actually shed some light on a theme in Early British Literature, despite the fact that everyone knew the Star Wars analogy was pre-ordained.
I’ve been thinking lately about truth and persuasion and the way we find meaning in texts. It’s the sort of thing you have to think about if you’re a student of the Bible, or really if you’re doing interpretive work of any sort. I’ve been thinking about true interpretation and false interpretation and how it is we try to separate the two. And in doing all of this thinking I couldn’t escape the conclusion that rational argumentation is vastly overrated, and that we need to reach beyond rationality if we wish to be persuasive moral agents. These are a few of my reflections and conjectures.
I. The Bible Usually Means What We Assume It Means
Let me share with you some of the worst interpretive work to which I’ve ever been subjected. It comes from David Barton, and it’s based off of the Parable of the Workers, which goes like this:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man, a boss, who went out in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. Having bargained with the workers for $48 a day, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out again about 9 A.M., he saw others standing around doing nothing in the village square. He said to them, “You go out to my vineyard, too, and I’ll pay you whatever’s fair.” So they went.
Going out at Noon and at 3 P.M., he did the same thing. About five o’clock he found others standing around, and he said to them, “Why are you standing around doing nothing?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” So he said to them, “You, too, go out to my vineyard.”
When evening came, the boss said to his foreman, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages, from the last hired to the first.” And those hired around five o’clock each got $48. The first hired thought they would get more, but they each got $48. Picking up their pay, they started grumbling at the boss, saying, “Those last ones you hired worked only an hour, and you paid them what you’re paying us, who’ve worked all day long under the hot sun!” But he answered them “Friend, I do you no wrong. Didn’t you bargain with me for $48 a day? Take what’s coming to you and get out! Suppose I do decide to pay the last the same as you; can’t I do what I want with my own? Is your nose out of joint because I am generous? (Matt. 20: 1—15.)*
Alright, so what’s that mean? Get ready to pull your hair out a little bit. David Barton says this passage is very clearly discouraging minimum wage laws and labor unions. The employer pays his employees whatever he deems to be fair without any pesky intervention from government or needing to fuss with collective bargaining processes. It’s right there in the story.
A while ago I preached a Labor Sunday sermon on this parable. I said that setting actual economic policy according to the parable of the workers would be like gardening according to the parable of the mustard seed, and that we are probably missing the point of the parable if we’re talking about literal workers and bosses. My own theological understanding is that parables operate at a more basic level. They try to disrupt our own everyday logic with the logic of God’s gracious giving. We might use this passage to draw conclusions about the way workers ought to be treated, but those conclusions would come from a deeper insight about the nature of God and the worth of humans.
What Barton did is called eisegesis, which is, speaking in technical terms, a big no-no. Eisegesis means reading meaning into a text rather than drawing it out. An eisegete is someone who uses the notoriety or prestige of a text to bolster their own pre-existing agenda. Of course, to do that sort of thing you have to be either incredibly dishonest or shockingly lacking in self-awareness. Eisegesis is, most of all, rude. It completely disregards the author’s context and intentions. Barton, here and elsewhere, is a poster boy for Eisegesis.
But here’s the thing; I’m not sure that the rest of us are doing much better. A more rigorous, honest engagement with a text is called exegesis, and everyone in their own mind is an exegete. I’m led to believe, though, that the difference between eisegesis and exegesis depends largely upon context and group consensus. In other words, no one actually knows what a text means.
There is literary theory to suggest as much (meaning happens in the exchange between author and reader and all that), but I tend to think about the issue in more sociological terms. Consider that probably millions of Americans consider David Barton to be a brilliant biblical scholar. Are they wrong? Well, that’s probably not a terribly useful question. Nearly everyone with whom I associate would say Yes, they are wrong. We would say that they are anachronistic thinkers, that their preferred interpretive work clearly doesn’t meet the standards of real biblical scholarship, that they are maybe a little bit detached from reality. And all of that is fine and good and probably true. But it is also true that David Barton and David Barton’s fans do not care if they meet your standards or not, because they are staunchly convinced that their standards are, in fact, the correct standards.
Do you see how this works? Why do faith traditions or schools of academicians accept some interpretations and reject others? And why is there such variety depending on context? It is not as if the theology of The United Methodist Church or the methodology of historical critical scholarship is in some way objective. Hermeneutics can’t be verified by mathematical proofs. They depend, instead, on social consensus; what else?
I don’t mean to say that there’s no way of telling which interpretations are better than others (I’ll take that up later), but what I am saying is that we are all on similarly shaky, subjective footing when it comes to doing the work of interpretation. The meanings we draw out of text depend in large part upon the sort of assumptions we make before we start reading. The Bible usually means what we assume it means.
II. The Power of Detail
Something else is happening, too. What I just described is a “top down” interpretive scheme. The big, general assumptions we make about theology or the nature of the Bible affect the way that we draw meaning out of particular passages. So we find the universal in the particular. David Barton finds his own particular mix of conservative Evangelicalism and Libertarian social and economic thought in the Parable of the Workers. But we don’t always move exclusively from the general to the particular. Actually, the way we think about general themes and particular details is more like a feedback loop. Our small interpretive details tend to bolster much larger themes.
So now I’ll leave David Barton alone and talk about some religious thinkers I actually like, but let’s stick with the Parable of the Workers. It just so happened that I ran across the Parable of the Workers in two different sources the other day—David Buttrick’s book Preaching the New and The Now and William Sloane Coffin’s collected Riverside Sermons. Buttrick and Coffin treat the parable in mostly similar ways. Here’s Buttrick:
The parable is designed so that we look at the opening scene objectively, but, having heard of a pay agreement and talk of “fair pay,” we join the grievance committee and are trapped in the unfolding “plot” of the parable. Deeper still, our conventional fair-play world (with a conventional fair-play God) has been disrupted when the bottom-of-the-barrel workers are paid exactly the same as the industrious workers.
And now Coffin:
What the workers were complaining about…was something that haunts each one of us: it is the fear that somewhere, someone might be getting away with something….The parable really opposes two deep-seated views of human existence, two worlds, if you will, between which we go back and forth like a shuttlecock on a loom. They are the world of merit and the world of grace.
In both treatments of the parable, the same structure and themes are in place. And that’s mostly unsurprising. Buttrick and Coffin shared much in the way of background, training, and ideological sensibilities. So both read the parable as a statement about the grace of God, a grace which does not operate according to human notions of transactional fairness.
But look a little bit closer. This Parable of the Workers, as it appears in Scripture, has a lot of unspoken details. Those five o’clock workers, the ones who do only an hour of work but receive a full day’s wages, what are they like? Well, whoever wrote the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say, but Buttrick and Coffin both have their hunches. Buttrick says the five o’clock workers are “bottom-of-the-barrel workers.” They are “the riffraff, the drinkers, the goof-offs.” Coffin has a different intuition. He says of the workers, “The fact that they remained all day was an indication of how desperately they wanted to work, for if they went unemployed for even one day they went home to worried wives and hungry children.” So where the Bible is silent preachers and theologians tend to fill in the gaps. Buttrick sees riffraff and Coffin sees good workers who can’t catch a break.
Does it make a difference whether the five o’clock workers are good or bad? Both preachers, after all, come to very similar conclusions about the grand meaning of the parable. These exegetical particularities may not seem all that significant in isolation, but I think they start to gain importance if we back up a bit.
Buttrick’s bad workers and Coffin’s good workers serve to bolster some of the bigger themes that show up in each of their bodies of work. Buttrick’s book is concerned throughout with society’s “losers”—the people absolutely no one has time for. Preaching the New and The Now sketches out a vision of God’s New Social Order, a state of affairs in which society’s “losers” are reintegrated and treated as equals. Coffin’s work tends to focus more on society’s structural injustices. Nearly all of his writing and speaking intertwined theological elements with fairly overt left-leaning political sensibilities. The good workers are at home in Coffin’s worldview. They would like nothing more than to feed their families, yet are not given the chance. Of course, these two distinct emphases from Buttrick and Coffin are not necessarily in tension, it’s just that they are distinct. For both writers, little exegetical details such as the character of the five o’clock workers serve to bolster the sensibilities that show up throughout the entirety of their work. The general and particular are locked into a feedback loop.
This feedback loop is why interpreters with differing viewpoints can rarely reach common ground. The big themes are assumed and the little details come to be shaped in such a way as to support the big themes. The system is closed unless something can change its inner workings.
III. To What Shall We Cling?
I’ve tried to strike a blow to the notion that some interpretations are true simply by virtue of being in alignment with certain methodologies or sets of interpretive assumptions. As much as it pains me to admit, I have no objective grounding to claim that William Sloane Coffin’s interpretive work is more true than David Barton’s. My preference for Coffin over Barton is, after all, just a preference. And that leaves me with something of a problem. As a minister I’m supposed to have deeper theological grounding than “I happen to personally like this.” How will I justify my claims?
It seems to me that our ability to make truth claims depends almost solely on our ability to build social consensus. I haven’t seen much evidence that ideological squabbling can build consensus, so I guess we’ll have to look elsewhere. Unfortunately we can’t do the easy thing, because one of the easiest ways to bring about social consensus is to hate people. Fred Craddock once preached that
there is nothing more powerful if you love applause than to play upon the hatreds and the prejudices of people. Draw them out, say their hatreds for them and then receive the accolades. In fact, in some quarters it is called conviction. And it generates enthusiasm to be clear about who’s wrong, who’s under judgment, who is outside.
Hate is easy and Hate is for cowards, but Hate can gather a crowd in a hurry. Hate is always a trustworthy way to bring about truth claims through social consensus.
The truth is that we need to focus less on truth claims, because our truth claims are always at least partially flawed. Would you like to know what truth is? I think I have a pretty good guess. Truth is all of our love and hate and connection and insecurity wearing a tattered costume we call reason. Our justifications, our methodologies, our formal logic, appeals to authority, all of that stuff is secondary. A deeper-seated emotional conviction is primary. Maybe those rational defenses we build up are important. It is important, or at least oftentimes necessary, to give coherent, orderly accounts of ourselves. But it’s foolish to think we can change minds without first changing hearts.
If we wish to be effective in moral persuasion, then the only rational thing to do is to forget about rationality. Underneath all of our robust theorizing is usually a simple conviction or feeling, and it’s those feelings that bind us together so we can build truth around social consensus. And it’s here that I think we can finally make claims about which sorts of truths are better than others. Morally superior truths are those which are built upon the sorts of shared emotions we would wish for ourselves and our own. All I can really claim, finally, is that love is superior to hate.
I think most of us know from our own lives that moral persuasion comes about through experiences of empathy. It’s when we’re bothered by the hurt of another that we finally stop holding positions that bring about their suffering. In other words, no one is moral alone. And the point is, most everyone else is just like us. We build up the rational walls surrounding our positions all the more feverishly when we are under siege. But then one day the siege stopped and someone approached us quietly and sincerely and unarmed. And they made themselves vulnerable and said, “this is hurting me.”
Moral persuasion doesn’t begin with “you are wrong.” It starts with “this is hurting me.”
*This translation of the Parable of the Workers comes from David Buttrick’s book. It’s mostly NRSV with a few swapped-out words.