Too Literal


“I have sometimes wondered if perhaps it was the writers of the Gospels themselves who put into Jesus’ mouth by way of explanation the words, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ I have wondered if perhaps Jesus himself, when the incident actually took place, merely pointed to the lilies and said nothing at all.”

Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

Years ago, if I had read this passage, I would have been scandalized. How dare someone question the word for word quotation of Jesus in the Gospels, and how could I even entertain the possibility that the red letter words did not directly issue from his mouth? After all, I was brought up to understand the Bible as a word-for-word transcription of things as they happened.

But this was before I became a journalist. When I started writing for a newspaper, I suddenly became aware of the distance between things as they are said and things as they are written. I learned that not only was a word-for-word quotation unlikely, it was almost impossible.

When I interview people for an article, I scribble notes furiously to take down as much as possible of what they say in their own words and phrases. But even the most faithful and quick transcriber cannot get literally every word right. What is important, and what gets selected and written down, is the gist of what is said.

Often, what I choose to include and exclude depends entirely on my agenda – what I want the overall story to say. The end result, the actual quote that makes it into print, will contain a phrase or two of what the person actually said, with my sentence structure, perhaps a cadence of my own writing style, which creeps in. And the timing of where each quote goes into the article is determined not by what happened sequentially in the interview, but by what I am shaping the article to say. This is especially when I’m reporting and then translating into another language, which I did a lot when I was in China.

Does this make my reporting untrue? No – in fact, “journalistic reporting” is held up as the gold standard of truth telling, of how the ordinary man is informed about his world.

I think we protestants have a tendency to fetishize the Bible in too literal a way. I certainly did, and had no idea there was any other way of thinking about it until I took Professor Gomes’ Christian Bible class, and learned that there were alternative sources of authority throughout Christian history and in other Christian traditions. For example, our Catholic friends think the pronouncements of the church are authoritative in the same way we think the Bible to be.

Just to be clear here, I do not want to undermine the literal witness of the Bible as regards the most central tenets of our faith – I believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection were real, actual events which happened in time and space. I am merely saying that literal-mindedness can be taken too far and lead us to miss the woods for the trees, and also prevent us from appreciating the more poetic layers of meaning in the very texts we revere.

After all, what is the relationship between text and truth? Text can never fully approximate the truth of lived experience, because the simultaneity of events in the world cannot be captured on the linear page.

But need we be so fixated on that aspect of truth? Isn’t truth also a matter of essence? Isn’t the matter of principle more important than matters of fact?

I remember discussing John Donne’s poem, Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, with my chaplain, Ben King, while discussing this very question one day.

“You don’t think that Donne was literally scourged by Jesus while riding into the sunset that day, do you?” he asked. “But does that make it any less true?”

I marvelled at this thought. True, the poem was not true in the literal sense – but it was true, perhaps even more true, in a spiritual sense. It revealed a spiritual truth about the poet’s relationship with Christ, on a level of reality that was not lesser but in fact greater than what we can see with physical eyes.

So what is it that is the true point of the Gospel’s writers, the point they were trying to make with their accounts, their quotations, their recollections of Jesus’ actions and words? Nothing less than as true as possible an impression of that marvellous character, that beautiful Person, in his inscrutable wisdom and unbearable love, the one who taught us not to worry about anything but who at the same time demanded everything of us, whose cross is heavy but whose yoke is light, that incomparable Son of God.

And because, after all, we believe that this man, this God, is still alive and able to speak to us in the intimate language of the innermost heart while we read, think, and pray about him, we need not worry ourselves too much over whether the red letters are word-accurate reportage or not. After all, he speaks to us in words beyond words, of a reality that is beyond anyone’s power to describe.

We are the black swan

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