“Writing about other people is a form of writing about oneself.”
Whatever the content of whatever conversation may be, the real conversation is about self disclosure, and that is all there is. I cannot tell someone about how I perceive God without necessarily telling them about who I am, how I perceive truth, what my views on authority, family, government, and so on are. I am bound by my perception, and I would argue (though this is not 100% my belief) that the underlying question of any conversation is: am I normal?
In the United States, our government functions as a democracy. We have decided that the majority opinion will dictate normative behavior. People argue, debate, and run slur campaigns all trying to prick that nerve inside of us that will turn on one of them. With our vote we will say that one candidate’s views are more normal or better than the other. Even in this act however, we are not interacting with some objective normalcy that can be measured in a lab, we are more likely using words like “good” or “true” as terms that express a relationship to the views that we already hold. This candidate is “good” because they agree with me.
These values may be less about healthcare, or racial reconciliation, or justice (though I hope they are), and more about being seen as a certain kind of person. There is a narrative that I have that tells me who I am. In this narrative of my life, of which I am the main character, I am a social reformer that would have marched with Dr. King, or would have happily worked alongside Mother Theresa with lepers. I am loving and accepting of all, and I would never, under any circumstance, judge anyone.
So, when we talk about anything, to anyone what we’re really doing is smoke screening some form of content that is meant to divert attention away from my real purpose, which is to trot out the narrative of myself and see if you will buy into it with me.
I think this is fascinating.
This is even more fascinating depending on the content of the smoke screen, especially (to me) when we’re talking about the Bible.
For instance, the book of Ruth:
Ruth is a story about two widows, Naomi and Ruth (who is also an alien in the land of Israel). These women live in a patriarchal society where they have no legal rights and are essentially property. Without a husband they are hopeless and have no means of providing for themselves other than picking grain from the fields that is left by field workers. After working for a time in the fields of a man named Boaz (who is apparently a relative of some kind, though it is never spelled out), Naomi, the mother in law of Ruth, hatches a plan to get Boaz, or at least to remind him, that he has a responsibility to look after his relatives estate, which includes Ruth and Naomi. Here is her plan:
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” (Ruth 3:1-5 NRSV).
This is clearly proof that romance novels are totally derivative.
This passage is laden with innuendo both in the original Hebrew, and much of it comes through in the English translation as well. Regardless about where one lands on the incident at the threshing room floor, the conversation around it reveals more.
I have been in situations where I have read the book of Ruth, and folks skim past the premise of the book, namely two widows, one of whom is an alien, that are forced into a situation where the system has no resources for them (a pretty clear image of systemic oppression), but get hung up on whether or not Boaz was drunk, or whether or not Ruth and Boaz had sex. Hmmmm…
If my premise is true that all one can do is self disclose, then it would appear that systemic injustice, while unfortunate, is not a big deal so long as people “do the right thing,” but sex and drinking are the most depraved offenses.
As a Christian I have a certain narrative I tell myself about who I am, and about the Bible says. So, a story about two desperate widows that may have employed sex to survive really messes up that narrative. Bible characters are supposed to be monolithic paradigms of purity. This story is disturbing because it messes up my narrative and brings to the surface the toxic fumes that I have inhaled about alcohol and sex.
One commentator I read said that if Ruth had sex with Boaz then the rest of the story is ruined, and Ruth is not a woman of character. Really?! To me this reeks of an interpretation that is more in service of this particular commentators views on sex than about the text of Ruth. This scholar, apparently believes that sex is simple and lacking in complexity and can be viewed in a binary fashion where it is either good or bad. This potential example falls into the latter category.
Is it really Ruth’s fault that she has to work within an unjust system, and for the sake of survival has to use one of the only resources available to her to save her life and the life of her mother in law?
Such interpretations can have tragic consequences, when people are beat up by one person’s limited understanding of sexuality and they make complex issues black and white.
An interpretation where the scandal of Ruth is the threshing room floor exposes that I see sex as a way of exerting power, not gaining it. I am privileged enough that I do not worry about where my next meal is coming from. I cannot conceive of a universe where difficult circumstance will make me put myself in such a vulnerable situation to save myself and others. My privilege allows me to ignore systemic oppression, because I am the direct beneficiary of an unjust system. From my perch on top of the world, I feel entitled to look down on people in difficult circumstance I cannot even imagine and tell them how wrong or immoral, or dysfunctional they are.
This is where it all comes full circle. In the narrative we create of ourselves, like the one that I create about myself, I have to/ I need to be the protagonist. In order for me to remain the protagonist, I need to create villains. I will allow people to be crushed by my interpretation of a very old book, so that I come out looking like the good guy. There has to be an other that I can draw contrast to. However, in doing so, I may be actualizing my greatest fear, which is that in the narrative of my life I am actually the villain.
In his book I Wear the Black Hat Chuck Klosterman concludes with this, “I never feel weird about being the main character in the nontransferable, nonexistent movie of my life. That’s totally fine. What makes me nervous is a growing suspicion that this movie is [messed] up and devoid of meaning. The auteur is a nihilist. What if I’m the main character, but still not the protagonist? What if there is not protagonist? What if there’s just an uninteresting person, thinking about himself because there’s nothing else to think about?”
The anxiety that Klosterman is articulating is at the heart of my desire to create villains. I think it is safe to say that the world is multifaceted. There is layer upon layer of meaning and mystery. As a Christian I need to learn to love and create from this place. Interpretations of scripture and interactions with people cannot be in service of my lazy desire for a simpler universe.