Soaring Prophets

EzekielSpaceshipOkay, so I pulled the book off the shelf, and I feel now like I need to read it. Call it an occupational hazard. Josef F. Blumrich’s The Spaceships of Ezekiel, despite its von Däniken-like sales, has never been taken seriously by biblical scholars. Blumrich, no doubt a brilliant engineer, simply had no street cred among biblicists. His handling of biblical passages is awkward and he leaves out anything that really can’t be explained by his theories. Not exactly professional exegesis. He suggests, of course, that the “chariot” vision of Ezekiel was, in fact, a spaceship. The figure Ezekiel assumes is God is actually a commander of the ship and the message (which accounts for the vast majority of the book) really doesn’t matter in this context. In my earlier post, having not read the book then, I made the error of supposing that the helicopters were impractical in space. Reading it, I instantly saw my error. This was engineered as a landing craft from the mothership circling the earth above our heads. Boy, do I feel stupid now.

The overall mistake Blumrich makes is the “unforgivable sin” of eisegesis. Suspecting that he has a well-engineered spacecraft on his hands, he draws out the implications—such as the propellers—which would not be necessary, but must be there because of a “literal” interpretation of Ezekiel. Once the eisegesis is done, it can be used to explain further episodes throughout the prophetic book. The message of Jerusalem’s destruction and the hopeful prospect of a return from exile get lost in the space dust raised by these propellers. Blumrich was quite right, however, that technical people and humanities people need to be willing to learn from one another. Ezekiel may have seen something unexplained, but his function was that of a prophet, and prophets say the strangest things.

Even more odd, from my unprofessional reading, was the sense that Blumrich saw capitalism as the default economic system of the galaxy. Time and again he mentions how expensive such interplanetary travel must have been. How do we know, I wonder, that aliens like to exploit each other as capitalists do? If they are a more advanced species, surely they must have an imagination that reaches beyond one percent controlling 99 percent of the wealth to aggrandize themselves. I can imagine a society without money. A society with fair trade where everyone is cared for by medical individuals who don’t charge an arm and a leg to treat an arm and a leg. A world where doctors don’t worry about being sued by lawyers. A world where dreamers are free to dream and society values it. Ah, I’d better be careful since, it seems, I may be beginning to sound like a prophet.

Chick Trick

Yesterday was our local town’s Earth Day clean-up day. I have always thought we lived in a clean town, and generally it’s true. When you look closer, however, the litter becomes all too obvious. Now, I know the purpose of this exercise is to get rid of pollution—my family filled five trash bags in the morning’s jaunt. As I reached for a bit of paper, I instantly recognized that I had found a half-torn page of a Jack T. Chick tract. Jack Chick is an old school Fundamentalist who draws some of the scariest cartoon evangelistic tracts imaginable. He is personally responsible for many of my childhood nightmares and phobias. Even as an adult, I still find myself believing, at some level, the tripe he serves up at the food of salvation. Children, you see, are extremely vulnerable to suggestion. Chick unremittingly claims we all deserve to burn in Hell, literally, and that only those who buy his version of Christianity can avoid it. He scares me. Instead of putting the torn comic strip in the trash, it went into my pocket. I needed to exegete it.

As a child I purchased every single Chick tract available from our local Christian bookstore. I was terrified of Hell and absolutely wanted to make sure I had double-covered every single base. A Chick tract can be read in a matter of minutes, but they can stay with you for decades. The one I found yesterday was one I’d never read. It consists of part of pages 5 and 6 of a black-on-black violence story involving a seriously looking tough guy called Ice Man. As the story opens, in media res, a photograph of “the preacher’s boy” is on a cell phone. Ice Man is seriously pissed off, and on page 6, in a drive-by shooting with an assault rifle, blows the young man away. His death, as in most Chick tracts, is violent, but bloodless. Chick spares most of the blood for the cross, where, sometimes it trickles eerily down over the repentant sinner.

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If I might be forgiven for some textual criticism, in which I might be guilty of a modicum of eisegesis, let me guess that the preacher’s boy had been suggesting that Ice Man change his sinful ways in the previous lacuna. In a fit of Icy rage, the PK becomes a sacrificial victim. Most likely, by the end of the pamphlet, Ice Man will have come to realize the evil of his ways and will end up on his knees. Depending on Chick’s mood that day, he may even end up dead. One thing is certain, the story will attempt to scare a youngster to a life of righteousness. The area where we were gathering trash is on the relative “wrong side of the tracks” for my little town. Some real violence does occur here, but it is mostly out of sight. Having grown up with Chick tracts guiding my every thought, I wonder if somebody got the message before it was too late. I see this torn page as a small sign of hope.

Exegesis Dies

One of the time-honored adages among composition primers is that a serious writer will own a well-worn dictionary and thesaurus. In twenty-first century terms that equates, I suppose, to frequently visiting bookmarked dictionary and thesaurus websites. While writing my dissertation I once cited a dictionary—likely Merriam-Webster—only to be told that the definitive dictionary for academic purposes was the Oxford English Dictionary. Copyright laws prevent some dictionary sites from including entries from the OED, and, given the perpetual vicissitudes of streams of income, I really can’t afford to subscribe to the fee-based OED website, much less purchase the physical hardcopy. Dictionary.com remains free and even has a handy thesaurus, so it is my well-worn website. Many electronic wordsmithies offer a word of the day, and so on my morning visit to dictionary.com I found a familiar word awaiting today: eisegesis. Eisegesis, according to the this online dictionary is: “An interpretation that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text.”

In biblical studies eisegesis is utilized like an academic swear word. The true scholar engages in exegesis, the practice that is supposed to reveal what the original text actually meant. The problem, of course, is that what the text originally meant depends on the baggage the reader brings with him or herself. Reader-response theorists inform us that even an author loses control of words once they are scrawled on paper (or electrons, I suspect). The words convey their own interpretation, and, as in any communication system, the transmission must be interpreted through the medium of a receiver. My understanding of the original meaning will depend on what I bring to the parchment. Even the author cannot control the denotation of what s/he has written, for connotation always lurks in the shadowy corners of the room.

The implication of this simply truth for any religious writing should be transparent. We do not control the words—we interpret them. I’ve taught many fundamentalists over the years who bring this weary refrain to the text: “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it.” Reading is interpreting. The words on a page (or monitor) are simply a system of ciphers that must be processed. The way your brain processes them will be different from the way my brain does. For the fundamentalist, God wrote the words, but God has no physical brain so how are we to find the true meaning? Exegesis. At the heart of the matter, however, all exegesis is eisegesis. The example I like to give my classes is the word “die” —what does it mean? Most say something like “to stop living.” Those with a background in machining might say die is a noun indicating a mould or tooling device to form an object. Some even know it could be the singular of the word “dice.” Once they’ve exhausted their suggestions, I inform them any of them could be correct, only I had neglected to tell them it was intended to be the feminine singular form of the definite article in German.