|Opening the Book of Daniel|
|Shylock the money-lender|
There were those who felt the portrayal (not to mention the name) of “Nigger Jim” in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn made it inappropriate material for high school study.
There’s hardly any doubt that both Shylock and Nigger Jim are stereotypes common to the the time in which they were written, although a case could be made that the writers are making use of caricatures of those stereotypes satirically.
Concern by educators about how these books should be taught—if at all—shouldn’t come as a surprise given the current climate on the subject of racial profiling.
It certainly raises questions about the skills required for the appropriate reading and interpreting of texts “out of their time” without—as it were—throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (I really hate it when I have to resort to cliché.) It requires a judgment regarding the writer’s stature in his or her time, his or her intentions, the sophistication of the audience (both Shakespeare’s and Twain’s target audiences and the audience that might be a present-day high school class, for instance).
I’ve written enough fiction to know that my audience will have some readers in it who will assume that if my character says something controversial, I must hold the same opinion. I wrote it, after all. There are also readers on whom irony, metaphor, and other figurative speech are bound to be misread primarily because their experience with such language is not broad.
All of which takes me to this concern: how do we appropriately read and interpret one of the most read and revered texts of all time, namely the Holy Bible? More importantly, how do we agree on a way to read it with integrity, a way that might bring about debate, but not quarreling?
A man sat down beside me at coffee a few days ago and knowing I had just been in Vancouver at the national church assembly of the Mennonite Church began to quiz me rather forcefully about what had been decided “about the gays and lesbians.”
“It never came up,” I said, half-truthfully. “We decided on a plan to deal with how we ought to interpret the Bible before making any far-reaching pronouncements on such a controversial subject,” I went on.
He gave me his interpretation of what the Bible had to say, including reference to all the usual proof texts and numerous mentions of Sodom and Gomorrah. “How’re you gonna get around that?” he asked, as if I were the chief organizer of the Toronto Gay Pride Parade.
I concluded with a bit of a scolding I tend to use in such situations. “Perhaps we should read the Bible as it applies to us personally . . . and avoid applying it to everyone else.”
We parted amicably; he thanked me for listening to him.
It seems unlikely to me that we’ll easily get Christians with a variety of backgrounds, experiences and worldviews to learn to read the Bible differently from the way they have heretofore, any more than we’ll get consensus on whether or not Shakespeare’s creation of Shylock means this or that.
Meanwhile, Christians generally could benefit from a thorough reading and discussion of N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. But then, that too is a book written in a certain context with a certain style and I can already hear the cries of “Yes, but that’s not what he’s saying!” or “I can’t make any sense out of that!”
And to what audience is Wright writing? A chapter sub-heading like “A Diminishing Focus on the Narrative Character and Israel-Dimension of Scripture” gives a clue; what percentage of the people in the pews can process that language with confidence?
In Shylock’s famous “If you prick us [Jews], do we not bleed?” speech, he also says:
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction (III,i).*
So is Shakespeare an anti-Semite? I don’t know for sure what his private thoughts were, but can’t think of a more enjoyable afternoon than one spent with you interpreting Shylock’s speech!
I'm far from ready to tackle the Book of Daniel with confidence though.
*Roughly paraphrased: If a Jew does harm to a Christian, what will the Christian do to regain his pride? Well, take revenge, of course. And if a Christian does harm to a Jew, what should he do to gain back his self respect? Well, take revenge, naturally. The evil of revenge that you Christians taught me I will practice on you, and although it won't be easy, you'll see that I'll do what you taught me better than you showed me.