Reading With A Passion; Rhetoric, Autobiography and the American West in the Gospel of John by Jeffrey L. Staley
Part Two Reading the Reader: an autobiographical turn in reader criticism
The Father of Lies: Autobiographical Acts in Recent Biblical Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory
There is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography.
Paul Valery, as quoted in Lionnet, Miller, Olney, et.al.
All Autobiographers are unreliable narrators, all humans are liars . . .
Listening carefully to lies is sometimes very revealing of the truth.
When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44
Jeff intends this chapter to bridge himself as formalist reader and some-other-kind-of-reader. He asks, “So what if those readers that I and others have been discovering in the biblical text and writing about for the past ten years were, as some critics have been saying, just our own selves disguised by the critical language of academic discourse? Could we then turn around and do an exegesis of souls that parallels our exegesis of texts? What would be the fallout if we unearthed elements in our personal experience—outside of our professional training—that might have influenced our views of the bible’s rhetorical strategies as much as, or perhaps more than, our reading in critical theory?” (115) Jeff looks at three, who have already woven into their reading of Jesus’ life, their own stories: Marcus Borg, Sandra M. Schneiders and Mikeal Parsons. I am going tell you what he says about Marcus Borg. Borg was the Jesus Seminar spokesperson and the author of Meeting Jesus for the First Time. In this book, Borg frames his purposes and theological goals in an autobiographical section. But Jeff cautions us—just because one appears revealing does not mean one is. Borg was raised in American, Scandinavian Lutheran pietism and became an Oxford-trained New Testament scholar. In an unfamiliar country church, Borg listened to missionaries tell stories of China. Jeff suggests that this experience created an environment for his own spiritual pilgrimage and an acceptance of the journey motif as an unexamined assumption.
Jeff also suggests Borg’s experiences in North Dakota near the Canadian border may have framed Borg’s Jesus who crosses the borders of Jewish purity systems. “Like the strange but friendly border scenes from his autobiography, Borg’s Jesus challenges stereotypical American religiosity from the outside and simultaneously soothes white middle-class American fears about the cost of radical sociopolitical engagement and subversive boundary crossing.”
In Meeting Jesus for the First Time, Jeff observes that the destination of Jerusalem and the cross seem unrelated to following Jesus—Jesus’ death is only found in the footnotes. Jeff wonders if Borg has kept problems of rejection and death at arms length, because Borg’s Jesus is neither dismayed nor humiliated by a politically charged death.
In coloring Jesus’ life with his own crayons, Borg says discipleship is not an individual path, but his spiritual quest is nurtured primarily by private experiences. Borg does not flesh out the Jesus movement nor does he have much to say of his own church relationships. Hence, Borg’s journey into autobiography is typically male, privileging individuality over connectedness. Finally, Jeff notes both Borg and Jesus are men of spirit who practice the politics of compassion. Would a more conscious awareness of the modes of autobiographical writing have caused Borg to present himself or his Jesus differently in his text?
Net Yet Fifty: postcolonial confessions from an Outpost in the San Juan Basin
The deepest side of being an American is the sense of being like nothing before us in history . . .
I am because my little dog knows me.
Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am. John 8:58
Along with the narrow fundamentalism of his Plymouth Brethren community, he encountered a culture radically different from that of his own family. “We lived our first fourteen months at Immanuel Mission in a two-room adobe and stone cellar, sharing the single bathroom with Yellowhair, an ancient Navajo who knew no English and was a survivor of the “long Walk.” (1864 the Navajo were forced into exile), Yellowhair was more than a hundred years old when we first met him, and when he smiled, his face would wrinkle and crease, making him look like the loose skin that covered the joint of my thumb. For twenty years he had been the only baptized Navajo in Morning Meeting . . . Lately I have found myself yearning to find a place where I could meet Yellowhair once again, speak his language and explore the shriveled memories of his youth.”(154)
“Immanuel means God with us. For the mission staff, the us part, was a crucial exclusivistic term. God could only be found with us, on that ten acres of fenced desert, and nowhere else within a fifty-mile radius.”
Jeff writes, “my most vivid childhood memories are of dogs. They haunt my dreams. To the Navajo, a well fed, grinning dog meant only one thing: a cunning sheep killer. Dogs were not well treated by the Navajos.”
At the mission, Jeff experienced difference. “Outside our childhood home, white-skinned people were dirty, smelly and stupid. To most of the Navajo children we played with, our heads were strangely shaped, protruding out from the backside of our necks like grossly overgrown tumors, likewise our genitals were curiosity pieces, a topic of frequent speculative conversations. We transmitted ghost-sickness, and a strange, cow-like odor followed us wherever we went. I was learning by fits and starts that brown skin denoted intelligence, along with beauty, cleanliness, and everything that was good in the world.” (170)
Jeff married a dark-skinned woman, a Chinese woman. Although he grew up being different and married into difference, being different didn’t always separate him from the Navajo people. He climbed the mesas and buttes with the Navajo boys and learned to sense danger as they did whether cougar or lizard. And he learned to ride bareback, and to swim in quicksand. He ate fry bread and mutton stew in his friends’ homes and invited the Navajo boys home to tuna sandwiches and chips, reading comic books together and playing cards into the night.
His father was his teacher for four of his eight years of grammar school. With a natural curiosity about the new world to which he had brought his family, in the fall or spring, when they had science class, he would take the class on hikes around the area with the Navajo children as his guides. Collecting insects, rocks, plants, they would take them back to school, catalogue and display their treasures with scientific names written beside Navajo names, and an explanation of its use in Navajo culture. But miles, time and career have separated him from the reservation. So there is distance as well as difference in this story.
Tools of distance. On the Indian reservation Jeff acquired skills to see things from a distance, easily perceiving difference. He says that perhaps without this background, he may not have been so willing to question his subculture and its certainties of interpretation. When he began his career in biblical studies, he avoided the Fourth Gospel, it seemed two-dimensional, the seeing versus the blind, the truth tellers versus the liars. It was when he led students in Greek exercises that he began to use the Fourth Gospel. It was then that he discovered the unreliability of the narrator that peaked his interest—ambiguity! Tricks! Something to play with, trails to follow, expanded meanings to detail.
He could enjoy studying this discovered dimension in the Fourth Gospel with the tools learned in the formalist reader-response approach because he could read both critically (with difference, distance) and imaginatively. “Assuming that no text (or worldview) has the whole truth, reader-response criticism has given me a set of critical tools with which to ask questions about the Gospel’s imaginative, dramatic story and how it intends to affect its audience (187). Reflecting on his own social context, Jeff believes that difference, distance and defamiliarization have been part of his psychological makeup from the age of 7 when he moved to the Navajo reservation.
He has learned to read the Johannine narrative like he learned to hike the puzzling land of the canyons and mesas of Arizona.” Whether I am wrestling with geology or theology, Saint John or San Juan, I will always treasure my initial probings into that Gospel. Like the red desert sand of my reservation childhood, the book is my blood. So I am now beginning to believe that the critics of formalist reader-response criticism have an important point to make. Perhaps all our readings of Scripture are autobiographical and circular.” (195) He wonders, if perhaps he cannot find that elusive encoded reader; maybe he can only find himself in the text. Has he discovered anything useful for anyone thus far in his work?
Postmortem passion play: John 18:28-19:42 and the erosion of the reader
No one has ever done exegesis of John’s writings until the reader has received, as a vital reality, the message of the work and has felt its impact in his own life and existence.
John Dominic Crossan
I am going to . . . read the Gospel of St. John as an Indian. Secondly, this Indian is not a hypothetical being . . . whom I have imagined. This Indian is myself.
Let us . . . cast lots for it to see who will get it. John 19:24
The passion play has roots deeper than medieval Europe; the roots go back to the ancient marketplace and a carnival of the underworld. The setting for Jeff’s Passion play is neither the underworld, Oberammergau nor Spearfish South Dakota, but somewhere within the postmodern struggle against totalizing theories of texts and selves.
He observes that this is a passionless passion. As Jesus is being flogged, slandered, and crucified, he does not defend, flinch or cry out. In his passion play, his characters notice the difficulty in expressing pain and wrestle with the text’s silences.
Then the characters propose various interpretations in response to the text’s resistance to expressing Jesus’ pain. Finally, the characters act as witnesses who check what happens in interpretation and refuse to go along when an interpreter overwrites the text. Since no one character represents a specific ideology; I will not distinguish the individual voices. Rather, I will summarize their conversation.
As the play begins, three corpses are slowly being taken down from three crosses by a Roman soldier and begin a tortuous conversation about the Johannine passion.
The passion narratives are the most carefully plotted parts of the Synoptic Gospels and the Fourth Gospel. Jesus is handed over and enters his passion, he is passive, bound, led, and brought. Jesus is acting like a good and loyal son in a Mediterranean household, voiceless, uncomplaining. Power and powerlessness are juxtaposed. (All this while one corpse is having nightmares about dogs).
The ancient Mediterranean world is a ‘high context society’ which produces sketchy texts, leaving much to the imagination. Everyone knows what a crucifixion is like. We don’t have to spell out all the gory details. And narratives, by definition, have to reflect high contexts—to keep the plot moving, they cannot stop to tell the details.
Jesus was killed in an honor/shame society. Crucifixion is meaningful as a shaming act in that narrative. So the Johannine author refused to dwell on its most shameful details. The implied author works to convince the encoded reader that despite appearances, Jesus does bring honor to his father. What we need to notice is what is implicit and what was left out. (Cynicism, argument and logic are all here. There is talk of dogs as symbols of evildoers).
The important question underlying all others is whether Jesus is a threat to power, not whether he is a King, the Son of God or anything else. Handing over Jesus, the chief priests have safeguarded their positions of power against the threat of their Roman overlords. In handing over Jesus Pilate is safeguarding his position of power against Caesar. And in handing over his spirit, Jesus will safeguard his place of power.
Repetitions, patronage, kinship are all discussed in relationship to power in an honor/shame culture. Repetitions reveal the implied author’s theological point of view.
A look at the fourfold plot: arrest, legal charges, crucifixion and burial with sequences fixing blame for crucifixion on collusion of roman and Jewish power, slowing down plot in first three parts. Jesus’ experience of being handed over is detailed. The narrative and story times are compared in first and second halves of passion narrative. He goes on to note scene changes, characters, scripture fulfillment, and surprise that when Jesus is lifted up the narrative account encourages the reader to look away.
Change in narrative point of view: Jesus is the ‘focalizer’ the encoded reader joins him gazing down at those around the cross. But what do we make of humanity’s craving for unity, for essence, for the real and the true? That is a primitive passion.
The passion play abruptly ends. Have we just witnessed the deconstruction of the encoded reader? Perhaps. For as the corpses have been talking, interrupting each other, insulting one another, what Jeff playfully calls the eroded reader, which appeared in three persons, is being eaten by dogs.
Despite the limitations, the impossibilities of an accurate autobiographical voice in his exegesis of the Fourth Gospel, Jeff chose to enlist corpses, (over-the-top characterization) to represent the various and common perspectives within himself and the Johannine text.
Jeff recalls Normal Holland saying that coherence in his interpretation is evidence of a psychological identity theme, where interpretation is a function of identity, a fantasy pushing for gratification upward toward coherence and significance. This hide and seek game of self in text and text in self is quite controversial.
Conclusion or a second ending
Things not written in this book
Jeff sees recent literary theories of autobiography helping biblical reader-response critics reinvent themselves for a postmodern age. Yet he also sees two possible dangers within in his book: first he would feel sadly misunderstood if readers read his last two chapters as a reconfiguring of biblical readers in radically individualistic terms. Secondly, he would feel doubly sad if someone construed those chapters to support a naïve, unreflective reading of the bible. And he feels he could have added a chapter on the influence community has on the way he reads.
Jeff believes that readerly fictions that give a place to the voiceless at the table are those that ultimately are theologically and socially constructive and useful.
And then, finally, his poem in which he is an unreliable poet, misleading us as we of course misunderstand what is in the oak cabinet. A revolver, right? Oh, it’s revolving! “The blackened disc with a hole in it is the spinning gospel record, now imagined as though some marksman (God?) shot a hole right through the middle of it. Maybe ironically, it (the gospel, God?) only works when there is a hole in it.”