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an interview with Phyllis Tickle: oy veh.

Blogger Kimberly Winston has published an interview with Phyllis Tickle about her most recent book, The Words of Jesus. The book removes words attributed to Jesus in the four canonical gospels from any narrative context and then prints them with reflections from Tickle.

I like Phyllis Tickle, and am a great admirer of her previous work, but this sounds like a project that, if not misbegotten entirely, is at the very least built on the shakiest of premises. She seems to think that when you remove text about Jesus' actions and setting, you "get rid of the author" of the gospels and get direct access to Jesus himself. "And when you get rid of the author," she says, "you have removed the filter" of previous interpretation of Jesus' words (and, I'd add, actions). "You can be stripped naked," she says, "of all the preconceptions and the conditions that you have come to the scriptures dressed in or robed in or anaesthetized in and meet here stark naked what your God is."

How on earth could she think that the writers of the gospels aren't exercising their authorial voice in their selection, ordering of, and, yes, the wording of speech attributed to Jesus? Anyone who reads Matthew's version of the Beatitudes alongside Luke's version would have a hard time making that claim, I'd think. And how on earth could she think that we as readers can shed our skin and read anything without our reading being shaped by the lense of OUR cultural, social, and historical context? Reading communities shape our views of texts. That's not a bad thing; it's just part of the package of being human and making meaning. If we did get "stripped naked of all the preconceptions," as Tickle says her book will do for us, we wouldn't be able to interpret texts about Jesus at all -- they'd be nothing to us but a bunch of chicken scratches on pages had we not been taught to read, and in a particular context that inevitably shapes what we think of what we read.

Oy veh.

And besides, I think that Jesus' actions -- particularly his healings, confronting oppressive powers, and most importantly his willingness to suffer death on a Roman cross rather than undermine his prophetic ministry or retaliate with violence -- are a crucial part of the frame through which we interpret Jesus' words. Would it matter if he said "love your enemies" if what he did when people came to arrest him was to hack several of them to death with a machete? And what would it do to Jesus' words, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing" had he said them about someone getting his order wrong in a cafe in Jerusalem rather than as he faced his death?

I'll probably read this book, and I hope it turns out to be better and more helpful than it sounds. But at the very least, I'm rather sad about how it's being presented by the author.

January 20, 2008 in Books, Religion | Permalink

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