Wednesday, March 01, 2006

primary sources 4.0: oral tradition

A short while ago, I wrote a series about our failure to garner the information that shapes our beliefs, convictions, apprenticeship, and formation from primary sources. As an illustration, I mentioned having spoken with my class about The Da Vinci Code, and as expected, found that everyone knew much about the book, but few had actually read it. I was reminded of all this more recently when End of the Spear received so much harsh criticism, and the criticism spilled over to the individuals who were part of the story or the making of the movie. I read post after post of repeated slander, hatred, accusations, but little of it was based in truth or knowledge. I commented on one to point out that it was far from the truth, but was censored and banned from commenting at all. Of course, later, some of these folks were confronted with the truth and felt compelled to apologize for their knee-jerk reactions that weren’t founded in knowledge. The folks who repeated their falsehoods, however, just seemed to avoid the subject altogether, and go on to some other third-hand subject to spew venom about.
Still more recently, the original illustration I used with the Da Vinci Code was refreshed in my mind by an article in last week’s New Yorker. The article is about Mary Magdalene. In order to give a bit of a background for the article as to how the Magdalene has become who she has become, the author Joan Accocella, spends some time explaining the oral tradition that spawned the written accounts in the Gospels. She also points out that after the accounts were set to paper, the oral tradition and the adding to the story never really stopped. She uses Magdalene as the example and explains that although she is mentioned only a few times (though her role is great), we certainly know an inordinate amount about her. This is precisely because most of what we think we know, we’ve made up. During the past 1500 years, much of the addition to the recorded information appears to have been intentional, to create a Biblical disciple that would suit our political needs.

Any of my students can tell you that one of my most frequented rants is that we spin our wheels discussing and attempting to implement spiritual formation methods, while we dreadfully neglect teaching the teaching of Jesus from the pulpit. We do a ton of teaching other peoples’ teaching about Jesus. And of course, this teaching about Jesus is arrived at by great study and contemplation by others, but it is manmade and in many instances, conjecture.
In his brand new book, “Eat This Book”, Peterson agrees with my years-old rant. He says that renewed interest in spiritual formation has not brought us more interested in the text necessary for shaping the souls. Likewise, only care about the text leaves no souls to whom it can be applied. Has the bible become a source for information on what to believe, but completely unhelpful in showing how to let our beliefs change our lives? We study the scripture for theology and doctrine and for discipleship, we conjecture what would Jesus do? What would jesus eat?
But when is the last time we actually, read and contemplated what is actually there and why it is actually there? I was telling Allison about the Acocella article and ended up reading some of it to her. We both sat at the kitchen table and looked up the passages that include Mary Magdalene. Of course I didn’t expect to find most of the stuff that people are now claiming about her, but I was amazed at how little is actually there, and at what assumptions I’ve added to the text based on what other people ponder and wonder about.
I was angered by reading about how, in a mostly illiterate culture, things were added to the story that served the purposes of those in power. I thought more about how livid the Christian community was when the Da Vinci Code was published. In no time, there were numerous books debunking the premise. Numerous editions of the Gnostic Gospels were published, and countered with books debunking them. Mary Magdalene became a star again, in much the way she was in the 15th century when she became a character that could inspire a book like the Da Vinci Code.
Then I thought about how much we add today. The biblical record is still just as much an oral tradition as it ever was. We extract verses and portions of verses and implant them in other contexts, and slap it all onto a powerpoint slide. We have Magi and animals at the nativity, we have… It is actually difficult to pick up the text, read it for yourself and notice what is there. We still add, even in our reading, what we assumed was there but isn’t. We don’t notice much of what IS there, because we’ve so many aurally gained notions that we no longer know how to read to learn.