Interpretive Imagination: seeking the power of illustration rather than the dogma of instruction Reply

Lets be clear, interpretation of difficult texts requires imagination.

When I teach Law and Literature, it seems every class turns to the same topic:  whose lens do we understand the text through, author or reader?  That question becomes particularly charged when God is the purported author.  Sacred texts have the unusual benefit of being endorsed as having a special relationship to the reader — a relationship that implies an authority to be heard – to say something that is meaningful – or to extol some virtue that the reader should pay attention to.

This problem of the sacred text and the reader’s dilemma increases as the text becomes more murky.   That is, a sacred text which is clear and consistent often requires fewer heuristics to justify its authority.   But those texts which lack clarity or which send contradicting messages often require an interpretive mechanism for the text to maintain its sacred authority.

In the Christian tradition, two mechanisms have been employed in this interpretive effort —  either the traditions of the church or the fiction of the inerrant Word. (I would argue that the law uses similar mechanisms to justify the stasis that the law maintains or the sudden change that the law undertakes — Justice Cardozo’s penchant for claiming the law has always approached problems in certain ways calls on a tradition (albeit one that does not exist) to support the new legal regime he created).

Those interpretive mechanisms (whether by tradition or inerrancy) tend to lead readers of the Christian sacred text on a search for its instruction, rather than its illustration.  For example tradition often binds the reader to only understand the text by the processes and order that was pre-established.   Inerrancy seeks to validate problematic texts by a mysterious unknown factor.  But interestingly, neither of these interpretive mechanisms limit individuals from claiming an instruction: that God wants you to do something; or that God is disappointed in some behavior.  For the inerrant, the biblical text is filled with land mines of inconsistency. For every command to not do something, there is an example of one exonerated who did that very thing.   In fact, I argue (indeed, I challenge anyone to prove me wrong) that the only norm that is not contradicted in the biblical text is the norm of fidelity to God and to to other human beings as being the highest order norm.  Problematically, the other norms of behavior have often been seen as supporting this fidelity to God — a point again refuted regularly throughout both the Old and New Testament as the narrative only sometimes attributes behavior with Fidelity to God.

So then what are we to do with an interpretation like Jay Michaelson proposed at the Huffington Post last week, titled “When Jesus Healed a Same Sex Partner.”  (To be clear, Michaelson is not the only or the first to proffer this argument).  Michaelson describes (convincingly) that Jesus’s healing of the Centurion’s servant was likely the healing of a same-sex partner (at least same-sex partner as the First Century would have understood the interaction).  Michaelson goes on to say:

If I and dozens of other scholars (some of whom are listed below) are correct, this is a radical act. Jesus is extending his hand not only to the centurion but to his partner, as well. In addition to Jesus’ silence on homosexuality in general (he never mentions same-sex intimacy, not once, despite its prevalence in his social context), it speaks volumes that he did not hesitate to heal a Roman’s likely same-sex lover. Like his willingness to include former prostitutes in his close circle, Jesus’ engagement with those whose conduct might offend sexual mores even today is a statement of radical inclusion, and of his own priorities for the spiritual life.
It also sets up a useful distinction for those who may be struggling with same-sex marriage as a religious act, but who nonetheless want their gay and lesbian family members, friends, and community members not to be discriminated against. Jesus is not conducting a same-sex marriage here. Yet he is recognizing a socially accepted same-sex relationship. Likewise, Christians and Jews today who may not be ready to celebrate same-sex weddings in their own churches and synagogues can and should endorse civil marriage equality in the public sphere. In a very different context, this is exactly what Jesus did 2,000 years ago.

Frankly, this type of interpretation creates some problems for both the tradition ladened interpreter and the inerrant interpreter.  For the traditionalist, its poses the possibility that the church misunderstood Jesus.  For the inerrant, it posses the possibility that the cannon is flawed.  But Michaelson’s interpretation need not be so limited:

What both tradition and inerrancy require is a third more powerful heuristic — imagination.   The ability to see beyond the text to the illustration, rather than stopping at the supposed instruction, allows one to treat the sacred text with authority, while acknowledging that difficult passages require more than just fictions or traditions to resolve.  It also allows the reader to imagine how the text might shift in light of its new surroundings (a limitation for both the inerrant and the traditionalist).

Thus, one might view the passage in the minimalist way as Michaels has suggested — that Jesus’s act of kindness is one that at the very least should be extended to similar folk.  Or, one can let the imagination take us where the normative message of the sacred text might — that whatever relationship one is in, be it heterosexual or homosexual, the virtues that Jesus affirms are loyalty and fidelity.

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