Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Guyton on Fundamentalism

Morgan Guyton has a baffling post on fundamentalism whose argument is, as far as I can see, largely nonsensical. The basic conceit is that there are seven 'instincts' of an English major that are inconsistent with fundamentalist readings. You can already tell the absurdity of the argument with the first 'instinct':

Unsubtle communication is bad writing

The measure of how good a writer you are is the degree to which you are able to communicate with subtlety. If I know how a sentence is going to end before I’ve gotten there, then it’s a crappy, uncreative sentence. To be unsubtle and completely straightforward is to be a bad writer....

This is absurd. There is not, and cannot be, one single measure of how good a writer you are. Nor does Guyton's standard make any sense. The standard of creativity is not always how the sentence unfolds. Sometimes it is how a sentence stands juxtaposed to another, or calls back to another. Sometimes the inevitable and obvious has a different sound in a different context. Sometimes the point is to state the inevitable and obvious; to force the reader to deal with it. Sometimes the writer is portraying something unsubtle and completely straightforward. Sometimes ... well, the thing of it is, you can extend the list indefinitely because the ability to do things with even very trite sentences is limited only by the creativity of the writer. And it is not exactly a 'subtle' thing to pop a twist on a sentence. When Sterne ends A Sentimental Journey with the famous line,

So that when I stretch’d out my hand I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s -

he wasn't being subtle at all, but quite boldly straightforward, telegraphing exactly what he meant, as sharply as if he hit you in the face with it.

It does not get any better. The second is that "Narrators are supposed to have an agenda" and the reason is that "Stories in which you can completely trust the narrator and/or the protagonist are uninteresting and unrealistic." Except when they aren't. It's really amusing how 'unrealistic' crept in there as if people can never be entirely trusted to tell a story, or as if people about whom stories are told never do entirely trustworthy things. This is to subjugate serious storytelling to artificial standards that have no business dominating it. This is supposed to be tied of course to fundamentalism, of which Guyton says:

For fundamentalists, it’s a scandalous betrayal of the text to say that the gospel writers had any kind of agenda other than dispassionately dictating whatever the proverbial angel whispered in their ears for them to copy down.

This is manifest falsehood. You can go back to The Fundamentals themselves and they clearly distinguish between what the human author was trying to do and what the Holy Spirit was doing; this is not what dictation-style theories of inspiration deny.

The same sort of falsehood pervades the next one, "It's all about the metaphors", in which Guyton says, "Metaphors are scary things to fundamentalists because they seem like a ploy to undermine the Bible’s authority." Err, no, fundamentalists are perfectly fine with metaphors and other figures of speech. Ask a fundamentalist some day whether Jesus was being literal when he said, "This is my body." This is not what fundamentalist literalism is. Guyton is confusing 'metaphors' with 'symbolism'; but even there, I have yet to meet a fundamentalist who did not have a rather sophisticated grasp of typologies. Fundamentalists do restrict the kinds of reading, and dislike allegorical readings -- which may be what Guyton really has in mind, given his examples; but this is hardly a distinctive feature of fundamentalism -- you have to get fairly 'high church' before finding people who think they aren't at least dangerous ways to turn the text into a wax nose. And none of this has much to do with metaphors. The misunderstanding is even worse when we get to the next one, "We make analogies":

In reading the Bible, I instinctively look for elements that might be analogies. In the New Testament, there are three major controversies that become important analogies for me in Biblical interpretation: Jesus’ Sabbath healing, the circumcision of the Gentiles, and eating ceremonially unclean foods. For fundamentalist Bible readers, these controversies are isolated incidents that have no bearing on how the church should handle analogous problems today.

And at this point I'm wondering if Guyton has ever read anything written from a fundamentalist perspective in his life. Intratextual analogy is one of the most important means by which serious fundamental interpretation is done; and the particular three controversies that Guyton notes are particularly poorly chosen, since a fundamentalist would obviously take the three to be analogous, and the general principle by which they are to be understood he would find in his interpretation of the letters of Paul. And fundamentalists are constantly drawing analogies to modern day; many of the weirder fundamentalist views out there are precisely based on taking some feature of modern life to be highly analogous to something in the text.

The next one, "We expect characters to be complicated," is equally problematic; Guyton's claim, "A fundamentalist doesn’t recognize Paul to have a character as such because Paul is simply a mouthpiece of God" is again sheer nonsense. Just get a fundamentalist pastor started on Paul, and you will hear a lot, and I mean a lot, about Paul's character. No doubt the character analysis will be very different from Guyton's. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And the special irony, of course, is that Guyton's depiction of the fundamentalist is utterly in violation of this supposed 'instinct': no complication here, just highly simplistic characterization.

The next one, "Poetry trumps grammar and history," he does manage to get right that fundamentalists take grammar and history to be key to the text, but then spoils it by implying that fundamentalists don't take etymology into account -- which is manifest falsehood, again. Fundamentalists take these 'poetic quirks' of words to be part of their grammatical-historical study. And, indeed, the nature of the text often requires it -- you have hapax legoumena and obscure terms. This is also where intratextuality comes in: one of the most common forms of fundamentalist Bible interpretation is the 'word study', in which you look at all the other passages in which a word is found so that you don't lose its many shades of meaning; and if you were doing a full such study, you would also look at cognates, at etymologically related words, and at how New Testament Greek translates Old Testament Hebrew or Aramaic.

I don't really have much to say about Guyton's seventh, "Every text has multiple voices," except to point out the obvious fact that dissenting voices can't be 'rebellious' unless you can clearly identify what it is against which they are rebelling, and that if Guyton's argument is, as it seems to be, that God would intend to write a text with rebellious dissenting voices and no single, unequivocal "intended meaning" that he has quite obviously contradicted himself.

Of course, there's not any real mystery about the thrust of the post; it is simply to insist that fundamentalists view the Bible in a way that makes it unsubtle, unrealistic, hyperliteralist, fragmented, simplistic, unpoetic, and simple-minded, and Guyton is much better than the lowly fundamentalist because his view of the Bible makes it as extraordinarily sophisticated as you get in an undergraduate class on novels. In reality, none of it makes much sense, and many of his claims about fundamentalism are certainly not generally true. Some of them are actually ironic. One of the longstanding fundamentalist complaints about Higher Criticism, for instance, is that it is only concerned with fragmented passages and does not recognize that every word, every phrase, every sentence, has a higher significance in context, so that Higher Criticism is an attempt to drain away the beauty and the sublimity of the whole of the text. There are lots of ways in which fundamentalist approaches can be criticized as limited, or as flattening the text; you won't figure them out from Guyton, though.

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