Christmas, the Bible as literature and the limits of our language

Christmas

Men dressed as Father Christmas preparing to be deployed over the Christmas Holidays pose at the job centre in Rostock, northeastern Germany, on December 10, 2014. 

Photo credit: Bernd Wuestneck | AFP

As we roll into the final weeks of the year, our feelings and minds grapple with a sense of endings and an anticipation of new beginnings. In our calendar-controlled activities, December is time for reviewing our performance over the ending year and for setting targets for the new one.

Among Christians, especially those of the conventional denominations, the final bit of November and the first three weeks of December, leading up to Christmas, are called “Advent” (arrival). This suggests the arrival of the Christ, whose birth memorial is observed on Christmas Day, and also signals the beginning of a new era that stretches into eternity.

Christmas is, of course, only a memorial, and not a literal or calendar birthday. The perennial debate whether a man called Jesus was or was not born on December 25th, year this-or-that, just shows the Christians’ lack of interpretative skills.

While Christians dither and quibble about the reality and significance of the Nativity of their Founder, pleasure-seeking hedonists and commercial opportunists, who do not care a hoot about the person at the centre of the celebrations, have spectacularly hijacked Christmas.

To those Christians, however, who seriously care about the spiritual significance of the coming or arrival of their Lord, the season is one of great spiritual renewal. They prepare for it by fasting, repentance and the prayerful reading of the sacred scriptures, the Bible.

Their readings dwell on not only the coming of the Christ into the world as a human being but also his “second coming” at the end of time. The readings, mainly from the great prophets and from the book of Revelation or Apocalypse, are heavy and grave, and in many parts frightening. In Theology, they are called “eschatological”, and they deal with the final dissolution of our world and the eventual establishment of “a new world, a new heaven”.

The main problem, however, lies in how to read and understand these profound texts. Indeed, the challenge of making practical meaning or sense of sacred texts highlights the problem of understanding all texts, including those oral ones of our daily conversation.

Literature, the critical and systematic study of creative communication, originated partly from exegesis, the critical explanation and interpretation of sacred scriptures, and partly from the Greek philosophical pursuit of poetics.

Back to exegesis, “interpretation”, means much more than merely stating the meaning in other words, or in other languages (tafsiri, in Kiswahili). Of course the rendering in other languages (fasiri) is necessary in scriptural study, as very few of us have access to the original tongues of the texts, like Hebrew, Aramaic, Ancient Greek, or Qureshi in the case of the Qur’an. Interpretation means the responsible and comprehensive construction of meaning or significance from a text by taking into consideration all the available information about the circumstances in which it is created.

Sacred scriptures

I tell some of my “the-bible-says”, bible-thumping preacher acquaintances that the Bible does not say, because the Bible, as its name implies, is a book. Books do not say. What we read in books is said by either those who wrote the books or those who inspired them.

The meaning of texts also depends largely on what we, as responsible and trained readers, can elicit from them. This is where Literature and literary training can, I believe, contribute to our reading of the sacred scriptures.

To give you a common example, there is a recurrent debate about what some believers call purgatory. This, according to them, is a process of final cleansing (or purging) of the soul before it deserves eternal presence before God. They think of it as a fiery prison wherein the mildly unrefined souls are cleansed by fire for varying periods before they enter eternal rest.

Other Christians, especially those of the instant coffee, instant salvation brand, ridicule all that. After all, the Bible does not say “purgatory”. In any case, once you believe in your heart and confess with you lips, “it is finished”, you are saved. Where does post-mortem cleansing come in?

A literary reader would probably be cautious about both standpoints, while appreciating the merits of each. A literal “purgatory prison” may not be in the Bible, and the concept of a “temporary” lockup is problematic. After all, when we die, we transition into timelessness.

Yet, in many parts of the Bible we see that the encounter between humans and their Deity, even when benevolent, is marked with fire. Moses, for example, encounters the divine in a burning bush, Elijah is taken up in a chariot of fire.

The great prophet Isiah is cleansed (purged) with a burning “coal” to his lips, after he acknowledges his human unworthiness before the divine presence. Even the great Pentecostal Anointing culminates in tongues of fire upon the chosen ones. Could that fire be a symbol for the indescribable impact of the contrast between the divine and the human at their first encounter?

Our experiences

The problem is that language is purely human, bound and bounded by our experiences in the confines of matter, time and space. It is seriously limited when it attempts to address “experiences” beyond these, like spirit, timelessness, eternity and the divine. It, therefore, resorts to figuration and symbolism. This is why a literal, word-for-word reading of the Bible is highly questionable. By contrast, we propose a literary, interpretative reading.

The study of the Bible as literature is now a well-established discipline. Its most brilliant modern exponent was the late Canadian Professor Northrop Frye. He was a leading literary scholar among the school of New (and Practical) Criticism that flourished mostly through the 1950s and 60s, and his study, Anatomy of Criticism, remains classical reference.

But Frye was also a clergyman, a Methodist minister. His two works, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature and Words with Power: Being the Second Study of the Bible and Literature, are richly illuminating.

Prof Frye shows us that dogma should not be too doggedly dogmatic, and doctrine should not be too inflexibly doctrinaire.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]

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