Semantic Environments

The move from a participant to a participant-observer position is almost always accompanied by a lessening of fervor, a suspicion of ideology, a willing suspension of belief, and a heightening of interest in the process of communication. For by declining the temptation to attend solely to what people are saying, we may focus our attention on the relationship of the what to the whys and the hows. (Neil Postman, Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, p. 237)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a leisurely re-reading of a favorite, personally influential book from which the above quote is taken. I did notice this shift from participant to participant-observer in myself when I took on congregational research work. Most people probably don’t think that kind of shift–a little less fervor, a suspension of belief, and paying attention to why things are being said as much as to what is being said–are the best things for the spiritual life. You examine what is being said or shown, and start asking a lot of questions. You’re a little “outside” the actual worshipping congregation, noticing what is going on–verbally and visually.

Context is incredibly important. Context–not just the physical environment, but what Postman refers to as the “semantic environment”(the purposes of and roles within a conversation)–is important. It changes the meaning of the exact same words. Episcopalians often hear “The Lord Be With You” in their church circles. When you hear “The Lord Be With You” in the nave of the church, spoken by someone who is obviously leading worship, it is (usually) a call to prayer and devotion. In the parish hall, when it is spoken in a loud voice over others who are talking, it generally means “Shut Up and Bring This Meeting To Order”. (Alternatively, “We’re All Hungry and We Have To Say Grace Before We Can Eat. So Shut Up and Pray.)

Attention to the way the same words are used in different contexts is a nuanced exercise. Over the last few days, I’ve been involved in another Facebook conversation with a person (another friend of a friend with whom I’m not sure why I’m friends) who rather proudly claims to read the Bible literally–and when it leads into saying silly things, which has happened, he loudly objects to being told he’s said something silly. I would never say the things in church that I’ve wanted to say (mostly refraining from saying) to this person.

The most recent (and last, as I’ve decided to leave the conversation) was about Jesus and the Bible being one and the same. I was chastised for not believing this, because the opening verses of John’s Gospel say that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Okay, yes they do. And if you believe that Jesus was God, that means that the Word is Jesus and that Jesus was with Jesus. Which is a bit redundant, but not entirely silly.

The silly came in when the equation was made between Word and Bible. I don’t think most thoughtful Biblical scholars make this claim–because the Greek doesn’t translate into simply what we mean as the written word. And we can’t equate what human beings can put into writing with all of the wisdom (“logos”, which is what is used in the original) of God.

Then the really assertion that I just can’t wrap my brain around without spraining my mind: that Jesus wrote the Bible–something which I don’t think can be supported by even a cursory reading of the worst vernacular translation. If Jesus had written the Bible, wouldn’t the gospels all be narrated from first-person perspective?

So, logically, this illogical argument is that Jesus is the Word. The Bible is the Word. Jesus wrote the Bible. So Jesus wrote himself.

By saying that I did not hold to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy (I’m not sure Jesus himself did), I was told I cannot possibly be a Christian because I’m saying “Jesus made mistakes” when he wrote the Bible.

This is where I had to leave the conversation, because we’re obviously in two entirely different–possibly completely incompatible–semantic environments (if not universes). And I don’t even know how to converse in the one he wants to continue. I can’t embrace the kind of uncritical approach to scripture it would require not to be, eventually, in a combative situation with this person. Best to retreat before conversational blood gets spilled when there is no good outcome imaginable.

I almost certainly believe a little less fervently than my conversation partner. But my own constitution does not allow me to say things without at least thinking about how they logically follow on one another. Sometimes, that puts me in a weird semantic sub-environment within the larger one of Christian religion.

That’s okay. It might even be useful for Christians to have someone knowledgeable and sympathetic, but with a bit of critical distance and keen observational abilities, to have a look at public pronouncements of faith. Might help them become more effective.


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