Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Christian life is jazz.

I probably have Quakersauer over at Friendly Skripture Study to thank for pointing me towards, Faith and Theology , a self-described Barthian blog. It's a bit -- no, a lot -- more academic in orientation than I am able to comprehend; most of the references are unknown to me.

Nevertheless, my recent immersion in the life and writings of William Stringfellow -- who, as a young lay theologian during Karl Barth's 1962 tour of the U.S. was singled out by Barth as one of the few who really got what he was saying -- gives me appreciation for at least some of what I read there.

Today, there's a particularly interesting essay entitled Ten Thoughts on the Literal and the Literary that that addresses much more powerfully the point I tried to make in my last post about how art can convey Truth better than most intellectual discourse. There is a particulary interesting though brief thought on something called "virtue ethics" that struck home, and about which I'd like to learn more.

The whole essay is worth reading, but here are a few tantalizing excerpts:

The more literal, the less literary a person is likely to be – and vice versa. . . . To plagiarise Paul, the literal crucifies, the literary resurrects: meaning walks through closed doors. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” Emily Dickinson).
* * *
Fundamentalist ethics are rule-based, and the answers to moral problems are found, decontextualised, at the back of the (good) book. Jesus’preferred method of ethical instruction, however, is the parable, “subversive speech” (William R. Herzog II). Indeed Richard B. Hays argues that a “symbolic world as context for moral discernment” is fundamental to the entire New Testament. “The kingdom of God is like this.” Enter the story, work it out – then act it out!
* * *
Rules are not excluded, but they function heuristically, as “perspicuous descriptive summaries of good judgments” (Martha Nussbaum), to inculcate habits appropriate to the development of Christ-like character. Moral theology works best when it tells the stories of the saints. Virtue ethics is narrative ethics,where the script is unfinished and improvisation is essential. The Christian life is jazz.
* * *
One of the great filmic send-ups of biblical literalism: the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The camera pans to Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and then to a group at a distance where our Lord’s voice doesn’t quite carry. “Blessed are the cheese makers,” one character hears. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” asks a woman. “Obviously it is not to be taken literally,” her husband replies; “it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”
* * *
If we are ignorant of science we lapse into Idiocy 101-102: Creationism; or Imbecility 201-202: Intelligent Design. But if we are ignorant of literature, mere ignorance becomes downright dangerous – witness the nonsensical interpretations of biblical apocalypse by the religious right and its pernicious influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

I like this. It changes the question from "What do you think?" to "What's your story?"

1 comment:

Dave Carl said...

This theme of telling a story is one that somehow keeps popping into my awareness lately. I actually started to do that in MfW recently, and it felt so powerful that... well, I chickened out and kept it to myself! But maybe that's an indication that this is the right track. Its something I'd like to continue to explore.

As for improvisational jazz, its not something you hear a lot on the banjo --but I'm sure you could manage it!