VEILED TO THE WESTERN MIND
Few things seem to shock devout believers more than to hear so many errors have crept into the copying of the texts of the New Testament. But what is even more difficult to let go of is the very widespread conviction that you can read and understand the New Testament in a good translation with the same ease as you would understand the morning newspaper.
The Bible of course is not a book as the name would suggest, but is in fact a library of books written in very many different ways, by very different people, in many different literary forms - poetry, history, allegory -stretching over a period of more than a thousand years. That span of a thousand years is of course now separated from us today by a span of years twice that in extent.
But the lapse of so many years is not the biggest problem we have here. It's fairly easy to read and understand any of the classical writings of Greece and Rome in a good English translation today even though some of those are farther back in time from us than the writings of the New Testament. For all our problems we still breathe, think and feel the atmosphere of the Western world whose foundations were laid in classical Greece and Rome. So for a person in the Western world today that time gap of two thousand years is easily bridged by a good translation. Despite all the familiar biblical stories and those hauntingly beautiful biblical phrases that we love so well, it simply is not possible to do the same with the writings of the New Testament. The New Testament comes from a culture that is as alien from ours today as can be imagined. The Christian biblical faith is not a Western faith at all but an ancient Near-Eastern faith. So to gain access to the mind of the biblical writers so as to understand in some depth what they mean to convey can be extraordinarily difficult for a person of the 21st. century western world.
Our preoccupation in the West has tended to be with facts, with historicity. Did it happen or not? Am I getting the full facts here? This is the mentality with which we approach the Bible. Were there an Adam and Eve or not? Was Jesus serenaded by a choir of angels at his birth, did he really walk on water and raise the dead? All too often that's all we think of asking of those texts. This is not to say the facts of history are not important, but it is to say that the biblical writers were often intent on conveying something in addition to the facts which we tend to miss entirely today for cultural reasons. Unfortunately the "something in addition" is normally of far greater importance than just the facts themselves.
The mentality that wrote the bible texts in many ways reminds me of some pieces of relatively modern western literature such as JRR Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," the stories of CS Lewis, or Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." "Gulliver" is not just a story about a race of small men and a giant designed to be read by children. It was meant to be a satirical comment on the society of Swift's own day in Dublin and London, and a very savage commentary at that. It can be read on two levels. Swift, Tolkien and Lewis were communicating in a mindset much closer to the biblical mind than to today's western mind, which is possibly one of the reasons whey they were slow to attain the popularity they now enjoy.
In trying to interpret scripture properly today it is necessary for us to do a lot of homework to see meaning that normally would be hidden from the western mind. Allegory, mystery, allusion, and above all how the narrative is structured, are enormously powerful tools for the biblical writers that are largely alien to how most of us think and express ourselves. As a result a lot of what is conveyed, and very likely the most important things that are being conveyed, are likely to float over our heads completely, while what we do pick up is likely to be the matters of lesser importance.
Take an example: The Book of Genesis, chapters 2 and 3. Sadly, we know all too well that the kind of questions the western mind is likely to focus on those chapters is whether there was an Adam and Eve or not, or whether God created the entire universe during an exceptionally busy week six thousand years ago.
However if we try to understand the text with the mentality of those who set it down what we see instead is a wonderful balance of structure that contrasts a perfect state that was supposed to have existed at the beginning (chapter 2) , with the comparatively miserable condition which we now enjoy (second part of chapter 3). Sandwiched between those two sections is an attempt to explain why the blissful state was replaced by the miserable one, and what we should do about it (chapter 3, vv.1-7). Basically those two chapters are a rallying cry to overcome the polarity of a divided nature that keeps us crippled in a state of powerlessness. If we do that we can ascend, as our present goal, to that blissful original condition which is pictured as having already occurred in the past. In short to the eastern mind Genesis 2 and 3 are actually a prophecy of what our future can be, set in the past: an issue of much more importance surely than whether there really was an Adam and Eve or not.
Likewise if we look at the Book of Jonah the western mind is likely to see only what we'd assess as a very improbable tale about a man who life was a disaster until he was relieved by being swallowed by a fish. After he was rescued from his horrible ordeal instead of recuperating he went out and converted the largest city in the world in double-quick time. That's all the western mind is liable to see in the story of Jonah and if so is it any wonder this narrative is normally regarded with some embarrassment by western Christians.
The eastern mind would see it very differently. The key to understanding is the fish: in many ancient cultures it was a symbol of the earth and its powers. In Madagascar up to relatively recent times a chief was inaugurated by being immersed for three days in a giant symbolic fish erected in the central meeting place of the tribe. When the chief came out of the initiation his people regarded him as having been transformed by the magical powers of the earth. This is what the eastern mind would see in the story of Jonah. There are three sections in the book. In the first part Jonah, as we might express it today, is out of alignment with his God, and as a result everything he touches becomes a disaster. The swallowing by the fish brings the transformation. Now he is aligned, and the sky's the limit. So much so that Nineveh and its King follow his teachings. It's a meditation on the futility of a life that is out of alignment with one's God, and contrasts the limitless possibilities for one who is aligned: far more significant than whether Jonah should have gone into intensive care after his ordeal, which would be the preoccupation of the western mind.
Such examples abound all through the scriptures and can radically alter our understanding of those texts. A particularly good one is in the first chapter of St. Luke's Gospel where Mary the mother of Jesus is being visited by her kinswoman Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant. Elizabeth says "When I heard your greeting the infant in my womb danced for joy." The western mind says "How can an infant dance for joy in the womb?"
The Greek word 'dance for joy' is very rare in the New Testament. It corresponds to an even more rare word in Hebrew, and to the informed and alert it immediately signals the incident in the Book of Samuel where King David, the precursor of God in Israel,
The eastern mind would see Luke as deliberately creating a parallel with the incident in the Book of Samuel, but this time it is the new precursor, John the Baptist, who dances in his mother Elizabeth's womb to acknowledge the one who is present in the womb of Mary, the new Ark of the Covenant. In short, far from being just a touching story of two pregnant cousins meeting each other, it is a proclamation of Christ's divinity.
There is no mentality so alien to the mind of the authors who set down the biblical narratives as the modern western mind. We are instinctively preoccupied with facts and historicity to the exclusion of almost everything else, so that the message conveyed by the structure of form and allusion flows right by us unseen.
The New Testament is not as easy to read as the morning newspapers. If we had understood that better then we might have been spared so many excesses down the centuries which caused such damage to our understanding of the human person, and its power and destiny. We understand now that the greatest barriers to evolution are fear and guilt, ironically exactly what is purveyed in the main by those who have assumed our immortal destiny is in their charge. Hidden from the western mind behind the scripture texts is a very different world view which would have removed those centuries of suffering, fear, stress and uncertainty: states which were unfortunately marketed as the will of God and the only sure gateway to our immortal destiny by those who should have served us better.
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Copyright © 2007 Míceál F. Ledwith All rights reserved