Interpretation of a Text and the Method of Dissonant Parables
Copyright 2009, John Manimas Medeiros
Anyone who presents a position on the teachings of Jesus is open to the accusation that they have "interpreted" the Gospels, or put a slant of their own choosing on what Christ said and meant by what he said. This is actually a misleading technique of "debate" if one thinks of the examination of the Gospels as an ongoing search for the true and valuable meaning.
The reason the allegation of "interpreting" is invalid, when intended as a means to discredit a viewpoint, is because all language, written or vocal, is interpretation. Interpretation is how we communicate and there is no such thing as communication without interpretation. No one can receive a message unless they employ their ability, natural or trained, to interpret symbols and icons. In the case of voice the subtle symbols and icons of oral language are tones, pitch, decibels and as any linguist or psychotherapist can explain, the "non-verbal" movements of the eyes, mouth, facial muscles, hands, fingers, and the entire gross movements of the arms and legs and torso. The meaning of a few words can be interpreted as a dramatically different message if the person speaking is moving toward the receiver and waving their hands, as opposed to calmly sitting.
All understanding arises out of the brain's capacity to interpret, the mental habit and necessity to receive signals in different forms, audio, visual, tactile, and the subtle differences in meaning, commonly labeled as "connotations" that attach to a word -- or a gesture -- because of its position in a statement -- or a movement -- and the other words -- or gestures -- in that statement -- or movement, and the context of the communication. This is linguistics, but it is only secondary school linguistics. Language requires interpretation, and therefore to describe a position or thesis as being an "interpretation" does not in itself discredit the viewpoint. The only valid way to discredit a viewpoint is to show that there is some weakness or fracture or invalid premise within that particular interpretation. For the purposes of dealing with any critics, of course I have "interpreted" the Gospels. We all do that. Then if you find fault with an interpretation, you must say something more, much more, than simply that one has "interpreted" the Gospels. What is the interpretation, and what is the flaw that one might find in it?
An interesting way to "interpret" the teachings of Jesus, whatever the historical source may be, is a method or "game" that I call "dissonant parables." It is easy and can actually be a bit entertaining. The principle of the method is simple. One takes a parable or passage or event described in the Gospels, and changes it. Then, with the change, one asks Does the passage or parable convey the Jesus that we know? The Jesus that is familiar to us? Is the behavior of our "fictitious Jesus" in our new text consistent and recognizable as the Jesus described in the remainder of the Gospels? Let me give two examples.
Dissonance #One. The parable of the adulteress: The Pharisees brought an angry crowd and a woman found guilty of adultery to the attention of Jesus. She kneeled on the ground with her face to a wall of stone. A person in the crowd said, "The law of Moses and the prophets tells us she must be stoned to death. Jesus, hearing this, looked at the crowd and said, "Yes, of course. Let me throw the first stone and we shall all throw stones, striking her body until the bruises and fractures cause her to die here before us. I see that the woman is crying because of her shame and impending punishment, but mercy is only a human weakness." The reader should see immediately the point of this "game." The dissonance of the story is immediate and obvious. This is not the Jesus we know. What does this sharp "dissonance" mean? It means that when anyone says that Jesus was not punitive, that he emphasized the importance and value of mercy, understanding, forgiveness, nurturing the shamed and vulnerable back to personal strength and re-integration into the community, as opposed to engaging the violence of making an already lonely person into even more of an outcast, that is not a questionable interpretation. It is a description of Jesus in one instance that is consistent with Jesus in all the other instances.
Dissonance #Two. The Good Samaritan. A man was attacked by thieves on the road, stripped of his belongings and beaten, then left for dead though he was injured but still alive. He was at risk to die in the heat of the desert. A Roman and then a Jewish traveler passed by him and kept their distance. They moved on because they did not know the man and did not want to get involved. Then a non-Jew and traditional enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, stopped and took pity on the victim of a crime and shared his water with him and carried him to an inn and left some money with the innkeeper with the request that the man be taken care of until he was strong enough to leave and take care of himself. This Samaritan traveler rescued the victim and paid for his recovery even though he was not able to wait at that place so that the victim could know him personally and possibly repay him for his care. Then Jesus said, "We know that although it appears this Samaritan did a good deed, it has no value because he is a Samaritan and he has the wrong religion. He is not one of us and God does not love him and his soul is lost no matter how he behaves." If that is not wildly dissonant then what is? It is so obvious that this is the antithesis of the Jesus we know, and therefore, once again, when anyone says that Jesus teaches that we are all judged or evaluated according to our conduct and not according to any memberships, this is not a questionable interpretation. It is the accurate teaching of Jesus, as clear and as sweet as the water being poured down the victim's throat by the Samaritan who rests the victim's raised head on his arm. At that moment the victim believes in God and humankind and all the goodness in the world. The taste of that caring, the knowledge that someone found him worthy of interest, was kind to a stranger and nurtured him without knowing who he was or what his business, and making no demand for repayment, this is the taste of the life-giving water of human stewardship. This is not a questionable interpretation. This is the teaching of the Jesus Christ we all know and the code of the Buddha and the Surrender to Righteousness at the Heart of Islam. The rightness of the real parable is not an "interpretation." Thank you God, for sending us Jesus, who tells us the truth we need to hear.
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