*I apologize in advance for the length of this post. *
“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere
friend.” ~Abraham Lincoln
In his book A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs points to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as a summary of his main contention: it is possible to interpret texts and events with a hermeneutic of love—or a hermeneutic of hate. In the play, an evil man (Don John) plots to ruin a wedding by creating, well, “much ado about nothing” (many observe that in Shakespearean English, “nothing” sounded like “noting”—meaning ‘noticing’ and is probably an intentional pun) and tearing down a woman’s character. Don John sets up a situation in which one of his cronies (Borachio) appears to be making the beast with two backs with the bride-to-be (named Hero) while her would-be groom (Claudio) overhears. It works: Claudio believes what he thinks he is seeing and hearing, and publicly humiliates her at the altar the next day.
Only Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, believes Hero’s innocence, but it’s not because she knows, without a doubt, that Hero absolutely did not sleep with Borachio. It’s because she knows Hero very well—knows her character and that such infidelity is not in her nature. Therefore, whatever “evidence” Beatrice might encounter will be interpreted with a bias toward charity—or love. And that’s why Much Ado is a comedy, ending not just in one wedding (Hero’s and Claudio’s) but two. Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello involves a similar set up: Iago plants the notion of Desdemona’s infidelity in Othello’s mind, and, suddenly, everything Othello sees and hears—little things, much less than the apparent “evidence” against Hero! —appears to confirm Desdemona’s guilt. In the end, Othello smothers his innocent wife to death.
A hermeneutic of love is life-giving. A hermeneutic of suspicion is, well, not.
What was different? Not the supposed “evidence” that anyone was interpreting, but their orientation either to love or to suspicion—to interpreting the “facts” in good faith or bad.
The Christian blogosphere is currently buzzing about Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Evans has appeared on the Today show and The View and has been interviewed on NPR, in addition to many speaking engagements in churches and institutions of higher education across the country. There are negative reviews, and positive reviews, and reviews-of-other-reviews. There are long comment sections, “open letters,” tweets, Facebook threads, and YouTube videos. In short, there is “controversy,” and, for selling books and garnering pageviews, there’s nothing like it. Rachel herself has said that dealing in controversies has not been what has built her ‘brand,’ as I think we can call it, but this is a difficult case to make; certainly some of her widest-reaching posts have been among her most ‘controversial,’ and there is a sense in which her brand depends on her identifying as a (controversial) evangelical. If she identified as a mainline Protestant, for example, her calls for women’s equality in every sphere would strike no one as “dangerous”; the Pipers and Mohlers and Driscolls and Kellers would simply pay no attention. But because Rachel pushes on the boundaries of what’s acceptable in evangelicalism, she’s targeted with what amount to cries of “you do not get to call yourself one of us.” At the same time, people for whom the question of women in leadership is comfortably settled on the “pro” side rise to Rachel’s defense. In a real sense, people’s responses to A Year of Biblical Womanhood appear to be at least as much a measure of their feelings about Evans herself as they are a reading of the book, OR, perhaps, as a measure of which ‘side’ of the “womanhood” debate the reader is already on.
Of course, we humans interpret everything contextually; it is impossible not to do so. But it is possible to orient our interpretation charitably—to determine, even (especially?) when reading, to evaluate what we encounter as words from someone we are endeavoring to love as ourselves. When I speak and write—both professionally and personally—I like to be interpreted charitably. If I stake a claim on a slippery slope, or use the wrong word for something, or leave out an important link between two ideas, I am grateful if my hearers and readers gently help me find a way to move what I’m saying onto firmer ground, mentally correct my slip-ups, and help me build a little rickety bridge between one idea and the next. I think we do this all the time for people we love. Think, for example, of how we engage with children or elderly who can’t speak clearly, or even at all. We guess, we assume, we strive to understand, assuming not that they’re trying to “get one over” on us but that their efforts at communicating are in good faith. It is possible to do the reverse, of course, and I suspect that, too often, both child abuse and elder abuse are in no small part the result of a breakdown in this capacity for loving interpretation. A cry or a request is taken in bad faith as manipulation, and anger ensues. Who among us has never been guilty of mistakenly understanding another’s motives or intent? Who among us has never experienced the balm of being understood even when one’s actions and words are less-than-understandable? This is the hermeneutics of love in the everyday.
This, I think, is what Rachel Held Evans means when she says that she “loves the Bible,” as she says repeatedly and without apology, on her blog, in her book, and even on the Today show: that she loves God and God’s word, and that is why she continues to wrestle with the Bible in spite of its difficult and disturbing parts. Is that not, in fact, an exercise in the hermeneutics of love? If one loves God, and believes the Bible to be God’s word, will not one endeavor to understand the Bible in light of that love, to interpret its disturbing bits as charitably as possible? She quotes philosopher Peter Rollins:
“[W]e must attempt to read [the Bible] as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God.”
Rachel’s project—which involved a playfully imperfect (she repeatedly admits the imperfection) attempt to take the Bible “literally” in the things it says to women—has been interpreted as a “mockery” of the Bible; an exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion, if you like. But while I have seen critics pick her project apart as everything from unoriginal to straw-woman silliness, I have heard none of them affirm what is her clear aim: to show that the Bible is nowhere applied literally and, moreover, that to apply it literally and rigidly is, more often than not, to miss Scripture’s point in the first place. For a woman to cover her head during worship in St. Paul’s day was to lessen distractions. For a woman to cover her head during worship in (most evangelical churches in) our day is to have the opposite effect. This is a dynamic that appears again and again: Rachel’s attempt to ‘honor’ her husband in the mold of a 1950s housewife (a mold some contend is more ‘Biblical’ than Rachel and Dan’s actual egalitarian marriage) for example, has the effect of making him feel not loved and cherished, but simply uncomfortable. To apply the Bible “literally” as if its ancient context corresponded one-to-one to our own is, quite often, to invert its intent completely. Rachel quotes her etiquette teacher on the essence of good manners, which consist not in following the rules in the latest edition of Emily Post but in putting people at ease, much as Eleanor Roosevelt once did at a state dinner, when a guest mistakenly drank from the fingerbowl, and Mrs. Roosevelt, without blinking, followed suit. Rigid application of the rules can easily undermine their intent.
I find it hard to believe that I have not found one negative review that would at least grant the importance of this point. On the other hand, I have found dozens of reviews that barely concealed their fury at Rachel and her project. Incredibly, more than a few of these openly admitted not (yet) reading the book at all, much less reading it open to the possibility that Rachel might have something to teach them. I have not seen one review that crossed over to imaginatively identify with what Rachel has to say, regardless of their (dis) agreement. This is a hermeneutic of fear, suspicion, and (I don’t think the word is too strong) hate, for what hate depends on is ignorance and an unwillingness to open oneself to the other. Kathy Keller’s review, while seemingly rooted in the text of Rachel’s book, nevertheless, I’m sorry to say, does not appear to be engaged in an effort at sympathetic understanding of what Rachel’s project is trying to do. Rachel is not confused regarding the relationship of the Old Testament to the New; she’s highlighting the parts of the Bible many Christians would rather skip over.
Lest a reader contend that I, an Evil Egalitarian Christian Named Rachel myself, am only affirming all I have read in Rachel’s book, I will not deny that some of her hermeneutical conclusions struck me as a little unsteady: “it is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose.” To me, making sense of the Bible must include an understanding of its ancient context as well as a robust understanding of the Bible as a diverse-yet-unified, divine-yet-human whole, and making sense of the Bible in that way is less a matter of “picking and choosing” but of discerning what, in fact, is God’s preoccupation throughout; of understanding Jesus as the true fulfillment of all of the Scripture. But here’s the thing: I don’t think Rachel would disagree with any of that. I don’t assume that she has nothing to teach me. I read into what she’s saying to build up her argument, not to destroy it. For example, I think what she was getting at was nothing less than the well respected hermeneutic of love as expressed in (that old misogynist) Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine:
“If […] a man draws a meaning from [the Scriptures] that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.” (Book I, chapter 36)
In other words, the Scriptures are summed up in “love God and love your neighbor,” and if a less-than-perfect interpretive technique gets you there, the telos of Scripture has been arrived at. (Of course Augustine was all for scrupulous Biblical interpretation. Be that as it may, this is what he says.)
I realize that this does not sit well with everyone, especially with those for whom summing up Scripture as essentially and most importantly about loving God and neighbor is a little too open ended. (Wait? Who said that? Oh, yes. Jesus did.) Many of Rachel’s critics assert that if one does not interpret St. Paul to mean that all women everywhere are, by their very nature, unfit for leadership in the church, one is on a slippery slope that ends with tossing out the Bible completely. It’s highly inconvenient, then, that there are a good many people who neither interpret Paul that way nor abandon orthodoxy altogether. It would be so much easier, for them, I suppose, if Rachel Held Evans would just stop wrestling with the Bible altogether and dismiss it as a misogynistic, irrelevant, Bronze-Age text engaging in various power-plays. I suppose it just feels uncomfortable to take her book on its own terms, charitably interpreting it as words from someone claiming Christian, yea, evangelical, faith; rejecting certain interpretations and remaining within orthodoxy while asserting her love for the Bible. It might be protested that Rachel’s detractors are really just preserving ‘doctrinal purity’ and ‘contending for the faith.’ As a former (and sometimes-still) “contender” for various causes myself, I get that. We are free to engage in such pursuits, but we don’t get to toss out the Greatest Commandment and the one “like unto it” in so doing. To paraphrase Marilynne Robinson, claiming a particular kind of religious identity, and marking out its boundaries, is not more important than abiding in the kind of love that that identity should imply.
But then, with such charity, where would the controversy be? And without the controversy, where is the Shakespearean drama; the tragedy, the comedy, and the endless fodder for blog posts like this one?
Then again, Jesus didn’t get a favorable reception from the religious hotshots of his day, either. Maybe love is controversial after all.