I was playing P.O.D. in the car on the way home. It is part of my shameless attempt to ensure that when Nathan is a teenager, I don’t have to listen to R&B blaring from his room. The early signs were positive. He didn’t object at all to one of my favourite feel-good songs of all time, Alive (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxAcx8jyqoY) and when Boom (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhJfdWxpI2Q) came on, Nathan even started singing along. The lead vocalist, Sonny Sandoval, had repeated the line: “Is that all you got? I’ll take your best shot” a few times, which apparently gave Nathan the confidence to accompany him: “Is that all you got? I’ll take your Pear-Shark”. I tried not to laugh, because I don’t want to discourage him from singing by making him feel self-conscious, but it was a wonderful moment. I knew then and there that he had given me the perfect illustration for a topic I have long wanted to write about.
You are going to need to bear with me now as I take a brief but necessary detour through the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose work underpins most of what follows.
Early literary theory speaks about the inadequacy of language as a vessel for communicating truth. Words have an arbitrary connection to the things that they describe. There is nothing to really connect the word ‘dog’ (English) to the object it describes other than a collective agreement by the English-speaking community that ‘dog’ refers to … what exactly does it refer to? What breed? What size? Age? Gender? Condition? Real or replica? At this point, the range of possibilities of what ‘dog’ might entail becomes so vast that the odds of a speaker saying ‘dog’ and a hearer forming a mental picture of the exact dog the speaker intended are negligible.
If the connection between the signifier (the word ‘dog’) and the signified (the animal itself)was not arbitrary, there would be no need for multiple words – that bear little relation to each other – in a multiplicity of languages to signify the same thing – ‘hond’ (Afrikaans), inja (isiZulu), 犬 (Japanese) or perro (Spanish).We would all just use the same word. Which language’s word most accurately signifies ‘dog’? Can we make a qualitative judgment? It is impossible because the relationship is an arbitrary one. Even the onomatopoeic words that describe the sounds they make, where the connections are a little more concrete, differ from language to language – ‘woof’ (English), ‘gua’ (Spanish), ‘wan’ (Japanese), for example.
To further complicate matters, different cultures may attach conflicting values to the signified (which is why so many Westerners might be horrified at the thought of eating a dog, whereas an Easterner might not be). In short, we must conclude that both the signifier and the signified are cultural constructs, and therefore that language cannot guarantee reference to an empirically certifiable reality.
The difficulties don’t end there. A word never makes meaning by itself. The message a word conveys relies as much on what is not there as what is. For example, when you look at a ‘red’ traffic light, an understanding of ‘green’ and ‘orange’ in that context is key to helping you decode ‘red’. In fact if you did not understand ‘green’ and ‘orange’, even though they are not present in the moment, you could not distinguish the meaning of this particular ‘red’ from a ‘red’ rose, or any other form of ‘red’, for that matter. Derrida puts it like this: “The signified concept is never present in and of itself, in a sufficient presence that would refer only to itself. Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts.” Simply put, we cannot understand one word without understanding a host of other words and concepts. And because it is an impossibility to ever fully understand a “speaker’s” context, we can never understand any single word, let alone a whole text, fully.
Derrida takes it a step further: we cannot even understand our own personal language-use fully, because language pre-exists us. It is rooted in power systems, and is embedded within social structures that are larger than any one user of the language. Each language has taken shape around cultural norms and values that look to preserve themselves, and often use language as a tool for doing so. We find ourselves, then, in a position where, as he explains in De la Grammatologie (1967), we must make use of a language that simultaneously uses us: that speaks through us; where we can only make use of language by allowing the system to control us to a certain extent. This is why people cannot detect their own prejudices – they have become naturalised through the very language we use. Jacques Lacan, another literary theorist, argues that the self is constituted by language, and always by a language that is not one’s own and that serves another’s agenda.
So language, far from being a clear window through which to view reality, is in fact at best a smudged and muddied screen, at worst a distorting lens. Who knows what insight Nathan got into the world as he listened to Boom. He had no ‘green’ or ‘orange’ through which to make sense of the phrase “I’ll take your best shot” because the boxing analogy was completely removed from his frame of reference. So he filtered the words through a framework of objects that did make sense to him in his world: fruit and fish. I don’t know if he paused to consider what a Pear-Shark might possibly be, or merely accepted its existence as a bona fide real-world object. I wonder if he puzzled over what moved Sonny to threaten to take the only thing of value somebody else seemed to possess: his breakfast with a bite. He was incapable of understanding what was spoken, but he made sense of it as best he could, and a worldview spoke back through him.
Now (at last) to my point. The way that we look at sacred texts has long bothered me. Every time some atrocity is committed in the name of religion, this becomes a key element of the debate. I am going to nail my colours to the wall here and confess that the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible troubles me. If the Bible is indeed God’s word (and I still believe it is, by the way), then the message is – by virtue of the fact that it is comprised of human words – inherently unstable.
First, we have no conception of the ‘green’ and ‘orange’ necessary for understanding the message properly. Because we are finite and bound by both time and space, we cannot even begin to suitably understand communication from a being, who is by definition infinite and unlimited. The best we can do is interpret the words through the lens of our present concerns – our desires and our fears – and thus reduce it. While the writers of the Biblical texts may have been faithful in recording the events themselves, they could never have comprehensively understood (and therefore accounted for) the significance of those events. They would have, in the act of writing them down, recorded them imperfectly.
Second, words are inherently insufficient for communicating truth reliably because the connections between the signified and the signifier are arbitrary. If even ideas about concrete objects like ‘dog’ cannot properly be conveyed in words, how much more difficult would it be to communicate ideas about ‘love’ and ‘grace’ and ‘holiness’, which are at the heart of God’s message? Look, for example, at how many people, who will all adamantly insist that they are ‘Bible-following Christians’, can have vastly differing views on how to think about homosexuality or baptism or a host of other ideas, and most of those beliefs will not have been consciously adopted. Each will find something in the Bible to lend credence to their beliefs. Simply put, human language is too small and unreliable to adequately convey the thoughts of God. But it not too small to perpetuate the pettiness of humans.
So I do not think the Bible is perfect. Not because God isn’t, but because humans are not. We have, given the limitations of our understanding of the universe when compared with God’s, no option but to Pear-Shark His word. We will always ‘read’ it from a limited frame of reference. We will always use our present concerns to fill in the gaps in our understanding. We will tend to manipulate it to suit our own agendas and powerful others will always use it to speak through us. Words are nebulous and unstable, dangerously rooted in the politics of power. And the Bible is written in human words. So I simply cannot subscribe to a worldview that sees the Bible as anything more than a sincere human attempt to make sense of the divine.
But I don’t think that is a bad thing. I do not believe that this invalidates the legitimacy of the Christian message at all. Quite the opposite. Despite its obvious cultural and gender bias (see, for example, how Dinah’s voice is completely absent in the account of her rape in Genesis 34), the Bible contains innumerable stories of often despicable people, across millennia, who – despite themselves – met with the love and grace of God. There is a common thread linking the accounts of these vastly disparate people. Even in the midst of the bigotry and the bloodshed, of occasions where God’s name was used to justify atrocities, there are prophetic voices with a consistent message, there are glimpses of grace. And maybe that is part of why the incarnation of Jesus (whom John interestingly refers to as the Word)was a necessity – so that something of a more tangible face could be put to the ideas of love and redemption that had remained largely abstract and incomprehensible. Maybe we humans simply needed to see something of the interface between the Law and God’s grace, rather than be left to remake God in our own image.
I am aware that it is a dangerous stance I take. If the Bible is not infallible, where do we look for guidance? Surely relying on the veracity of our own subjective experiences would be worse? I believe God did give us an external reference: His Word – Jesus. Maybe the gospel writers who recorded his life weren’t always 100% accurate. Maybe they wrote from limited perspectives. But there is enough there that is common, from a very diverse range of witnesses, for me pay attention. And there are visible traces of the ‘green’ and ‘orange’ in the Old Testament documents that lend context to the gospels, despite the imperfections.
I do believe that God speaks to us, and even that He uses the Bible to do so, but it cannot be as neat and seamless as a process as accepted creed would have us think. The act of the Infinite communicating with the (very, very)finite is a complex interaction, the consequent inconsistencies of which cannot be explained away with a doctrine as simplistic (and frankly, oppressive) as that of the infallibility of the Bible. I will content myself with being aware of the limitations of my interaction with His Word. I live in hope that there will come a time when I can see my Pear-Sharks for what they are, and when I discover that I was asking the wrong questions all along. I will live in anticipation of a day when my preconceptions fall away and I experience the love of God in all truth, knowing Him fully, even as I am fully known.