Thursday, November 13, 2008

Issues behind, and in front of, a Letter

Biblical scholars- particularly when talking among themselves- often speak of 'the world behind the text,' as well as 'the world in front of the text' when reading biblical texts. I'm not always sure what, exactly, people are intending by those phrases, but on occasion I feel like I'm coming close to understanding a little bit of that stuff. And so, today, I'm going to adopt that language in order to talk about this letter from Paul to the church in Thessalonica. However, I'll try to stipulate what I mean by 'in front of' and 'behind' the text, because I cannot guarantee that I'm using that language the same way that people who are actually smart and informed use it.

When I think of issues that lie 'in front of' Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, I am referring to the specific issues that Paul is addressing. Typically he will name the issue and speak of it for a few paragraphs, then move on. At other times, he may string a list of issues one after another, such as in the 5th chapter when he encourages virtuous activity: "And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil." That's a whole lotta good stuff coming in rapid-fire fashion, which indicates that Paul assumes the meaning is clear enough to mention and move on. A very different kind of issue, but still an issue 'in front of' the text, would be how Paul spend 3 chapters in Romans (9-11) specifically addressing God's covenant with Israel and what that means from a Christian point of view.

When I think of issues that lie 'behind' the letter, I think of what is going on that provokes Paul to write on this or that specific topic. In my mind, when Paul explains what the issue is that he's addressing, it is 'in front of' the text. However, there are times when the specific issues are not explained or obvious. And sometimes there seems to be more to the issue than what is explained- perhaps the question that gets us there is not "What is he talking about?" but "So what?" When we have to tease issues or the importance of issues out, I think we are looking at issue 'behind' the text. And of the big 'behind the text' issues is one that I think is particularly important: Where does Paul see history going? That is, how does this issue (being address in front of the text) fit into the larger picture (that lies behind the text)? Scholars will sometimes refer to this as the 'meta-narrative' that lies behind the specific story.

Here's a made up example of a Paul letter and how I see the various parts:
Paul writes in II Spartanians 3:1, "You must strictly stay away from idols."

In front of the text: Idols are images that are intended to be objects of worship, or at least images that represent gods. The God of Israel forbade images of godself, which was a revered distinctive trait among the Hebrews. Paul continues this strain of forbidding both the creation and worship of idols. Sparta is full of idols and the pressure to 'go with the flow' sometimes is a temptation for the church there. etc.

Behind the text: Spartan idols are often phallic or militaristic in nature, so revering them does not mean that someone is actually worshipping, say, "Mars, the god of war," as much as it means that someone is accepting warfare as a way of life or the path toward blessedness. A constant diet of Mars worship means that weapons and aggression and so forth (including the kinds of misogyny that typically accompany that way of life) are one's view of 'the good life.'

The Meta-Narrative behind the text: Life is a violent mess; the gods are malicious or locked in constant warfare among themselves; humans are destined to the eternal circle of struggling against nature, and one another, for survival; etc.

In this made-up illustration, the simple injunction for the Spartans to refrain from idols is not just a 'rule' that says "If you worship an idol, you're sinning and going to hell." That's what I call "the radio preacher approach": simple, and simply missing the whole point.

So, I think reading 'behind the text' is quite important for someone who aspires to be a faithful disciple of the God who is made known to us through our Scriptures. And that is what I want to do with Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica.

Issues in front of the Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians:
Paul's desire to visit the church again; the reports that Timothy brought to Paul, which made him glad; the death of some of the church folk and what implications that death has for the second coming; the ethical manner in which the church ought to conduct itself; etc. Most of the issues 'in front of' the text show up in subtitles written by helpful Bible translators and editors ("Excellent helps," I say).

Issues behind Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians:
The imminent expectation of Christ's return; the early struggles of what it means when another day/week/month/year goes by and return hasn't happened yet (even to call it the 'delay' of the parousia is to make a statement about this issue); Paul's reputation among the church; Paul's critics among the church; the reliability of Paul's message if the coming of Christ keeps not happening; etc.

Meta-Narrative Behind Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians:
Paul sees history 'going somewhere,' but, unlike the predominant view of the world at that time, he did not see it going the way of all empires. The monuments and inscriptions of that time show an 'imperial' worldview that subjugates genders, peoples, nations, etc. based on militaristic prowess and justifies all of that with a religious narrative that the gods intend the world to operate this way. When Paul says, "See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all" there is a 'world of meaning' behind these words. The sheer predominance of the Roman empire everywhere you look argues that repaying evil for evil is exactly how the world ought to function; but here is Paul offering a counter-vision of what is good, how things ought to be, and how to participate in the reign of God.

I hope this little lesson in reading texts is helpful. Tomorrow we want to look at a conflict between the openness and the secrecy of Christ's second coming in Paul's letters to the church in Thessalonica.

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