My mind sometimes works in, I think it is fair to say, unorthodox ways. I am aware that most people, when the local radio station (goodness alone knows why) decides it would be marvellous to play The Presidents of the United States of America’s Peaches, would not immediately recognise an opportunity to discuss Biblical exegesis. Evidently I am not most people: I did. As I listened to the repetitive (and here I seriously understate the case) strains of “Movin’ to the country; gonna eat a lot of peaches” (pretty much the sum-total of three long minutes’ worth of lyrics), I realised that the song would provide me with the perfect way to introduce where I want to take my blog’s discussions in coming weeks.
In my recent posts I have been arguing that if we are to understand what the “good news” of Christianity really is, then it is necessary to start by recognising that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is largely a fairly recent Protestant one, and that we be willing to discard it. Please understand that I am not advocating that we dismiss the Bible altogether. That would be foolish. After all, the bulk of what we know about Christian origins and the early church is contained in its pages. If you want to investigate Jesus and understand the Christian message – not the version we have of it now, distorted through the ages into the ticket-to-paradise, middle-class-social-club monstrosity we have inherited, but the one that, despite vicious persecution in a brutal, imperialist Greco-Roman world, where Messianic claims were reasonably commonplace, took root and flourished, transforming Western worldviews – then studying the Bible is imperative. Just because I reject the claims that it is inerrant, it does not mean that I see it as worthless. Quite the opposite; it is vital to establishing a sound Christian theology. Rather, I am suggesting that we ought to approach the Bible as we would any other text: critically.
Generally speaking, people are quite lazy and naïve readers. If a text seems to resonate with our worldview, we regard it as truthful. If not, or if we do not understand it, we regard it with suspicion or dismiss it outright. Often we think dualistically. Either something is right or it is wrong. Its “rightness” is determined by how closely we perceive its ideas to resemble our own. Wrongness entitles us to ignore it. But things are seldom that simple. I fell into that trap the first time I heard Peaches. I like my music to have (even marginally) intelligent lyrics, or failing that, to have one of the band members demonstrate exceptional musical skill on an instrument, hence my (possibly unfair) disregard for Katy Perry, for example. So a song that expressed, as its central concern, a desire to relocate to a rural setting and, once there, to consume significant quantities of fruit, practically invited mockery. But my “reading” was irresponsible and lazy. Not that my assessment was off, necessarily. I still dislike the song, but I don’t think it’s fair to label it “bad” because it doesn’t suit my taste. Maybe Peaches is simply about a fructose addict looking for his next fix. Maybe, though, there is something more.
So how ought I to approach the text? Well, the obvious first step is to attempt to comprehend what is being said. That can itself be relatively tricky. For example, was the relocation to the country voluntary, or was some hostile agrarian force with a predilection for peaches force-feeding some unfortunate subordinate, causing him to bemoan his impending fate? Does the high volume of peach consumption indicate a preference for peaches, or does it rather suggest a paucity in the supply of alternative deciduous fruit? Does the writer believe that peaches consumed in a more natural setting are somehow superior to those consumed in an urban environment? Mere comprehension is not always a straightforward as it might initially appear. And, going on the text alone, we do not have sufficient information to make any sort of definitive arguments either way.
Similarly, when reading the Scriptures, it is seldom sufficient to rely on the text alone. Without an understanding of both the context in which the passage was written, and the context in which we read it, the text can be made to say pretty much anything. But a Christian culture that emphasises personal salvation, and which believes that the Bible speaks with one inerrant voice – God’s – is underpinned by the (probably subconscious) assumption that because God actually wrote it, the “meaning” must be clear. The “fact” that God uses it to speak to me personally discourages me from interrogating the validity of the message I receive from the text. We don’t bother with context, probably because at some level we are suspicious of it. It is easier to cling to the belief that both we and the texts are neutral. After all, our faith makes us feel better, safe even, and we don’t want to risk that by probing too much. The result is a Christian culture that believes in “the” meaning of Scriptures, where “the” meaning is whatever I need it to be, and utterly beyond questioning.
But context matters. I know that we live in a postmodern culture, where the meaning that I make of a text is as valid as the meaning the author did, where the text can take on its own life, independent of the author’s intentions, and legitimately speak in different ways to different people. But I believe if we are going to base our theologies, our lifestyles, our ethical codes on a text, then we ought to make some effort to understand what is actually being said. The New Testament, for example, contains two very different and largely incompatible theologies: Paul’s and the church in Jerusalem’s. It is not sufficient to say, “The Bible says…”. You cannot frame a coherent theology around the idea that the Law is both part of the problem (as Paul argues) and part of the solution (as the church in Jerusalem argues), which you would have to do if the Bible was one, God-authored book. You certainly cannot meld them if you have understood either side of the argument properly ie. If you have actually read the New Testament. To do so implies a schizophrenic God.
If I am to do justice to Peaches I need to look beyond initial impressions; I need to explore context. How do I locate it in within late 20th Century popular culture, and alternative rock culture particularly? Do the band’s other songs provide insight into my reading of Peaches? Could the song possibly be parodic in nature? Certainly both alternative and punk bands make frequent use of parody and satire, and The Presidents of the Unites States of America have made use of parody themselves in that same album. If so, were there specific events or prevalent worldviews in society that would have prompted such a response? Is the song’s message consistent with the band’s outspoken support of the Democrats? If not, why not? Are there other sources, apart from the band’s own work, that could help us make sense of the song? Could John Denver’s Blow Up Your TV (quoted below) have had any influence, and if so, why?:
“Blow up your TV, throw away your paper,
Go to the country, build you a home.
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,
Try and find Jesus on your own”
Is this similarity more than coincidence? If so, was that conscious? Has the writer himself said anything about the text? In the case of Peaches, yes. Chris Ballew said that it was inspired by a childhood memory of waiting under a peach tree for a sweetheart. Was he truthful? If not, why not? Has anybody else written about the text? If so, how reliable are they as sources?
If it is obvious how valuable these questions are to understanding a song as simple as Peaches, how much more useful would they be in investigating the gospels or the Pauline letters? Sadly, that is a bit too much like hard work, and far too threatening, for many. Instead, we blindly trust in others to think for us, despite the wealth of information that is readily accessible to everyone in the technological age.
One of the considerations we ought to make when investigating a text is how our own mind-sets and the predominant worldviews in our own cultures affect the meaning-making process. I need to acknowledge that my engagement with a text is never neutral. I come with certain expectations of the text. Countless studies on the brain have demonstrated that we see what we want to or expect to see, and can be blind to evidence that contradicts those expectations. For example, I come to music (and especially alternative rock) with an expectation of a degree of intelligence. Three lines into Peaches, I had made up my mind that I could leave that planet because there were no signs of sentient lifeforms. I could easily have not looked for evidence to contradict my impressions. I think that is the path most would have taken.
When we engage with texts, we need to acknowledge that we have biases, and that those biases influence what we see. I may well be overly critical and dismissive of, or too quick to accept what is presented because I have certain agendas, or have had certain experiences. That can be devastating when it affects how a person reads a “holy text”. For instance, if one is homophobic or racist or misogynistic, it is easy to latch onto those verses in Scripture that seem to validate those biases. The consequences of that, as I noted before, can be catastrophic.
I also need to identify which key concepts or terms may have had a different meaning for the creator of the text than they do for me. Differences in understanding of central terms could result in significantly different interpretations of a text. How, for example, might my South African picture of the “country” differ from the Presidents’? Are there political or social connotations to “country” and country living for PUSA that I would be unaware of?
I think modern Western Christianity has failed to take this into account when reading the Scriptures. We have assumed that ideas like “The Law”, “salvation”, or “eternal life” had the same meanings for 1st Century Jews as they do for us today. Quite simply, they don’t. And if we are going to reconstruct what Jesus or Paul believed, then we dare not make that assumption. For the most part, for example, 1st Century Jews did not believe that obedience to the law led to salvation. Even the concept of salvation had political connotations for them that we are largely ignorant of. For the Pharisees and the people of Jesus’ time, salvation was not so much spiritual and personal as it was political and communal. We have, for too long, been reading the Scriptures through our own lenses, not exploring the ideas through the filter of 1st Century Judaism. I think if we did that – if we built our theologies (and consequently our ethics) around what Paul actually meant, as opposed to what we think he meant, or around what a 16th Century Protestant worldview has taught us he meant – then I suspect Christianity would look very different. Better.
So in the next few weeks I am going to try distil for you what I am reading. I want to understand what a 1st Century Judaic context – the one that influenced what and how Jesus and Paul taught – looks like. And if you are up to it, I would love to have you along. Come with me to the country, away from all that is comfortable and familiar to you. I hope you like peaches.