Daily Archives: September 19, 2006

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The last two posts, and Rachel’s comments, prompt an aside.

This is one of those times when an apparently clear path turns out to lead into a thicket. And trying impatiently to pull one bramble out of the way pulls several others into view. Several issues are mixed in together; it’s not quite clear that we have hit upon the distinctions or the vocabulary to sort them out; and the point of what we’re saying has become elusive.

It is at this kind of point that it actually becomes necessary to think. To work, to labour at untangling without oversimplifying. I find that my life (the life of an academic theologian!) doesn’t actually involve that many occasions when I am required, in this sense, to think. Most of the time (when I’m not absorbed in those activities in which thinking would be a dangerous distraction – like driving, or attending committee meetings…) my life involves putting myself in places where I might be called upon to think – and then waiting, listening for the call.

It’s not that we’re obviously tussling with big, dramatic profundities. Playing with big, dramatic profundities doesn’t often involve a real labour of thinking, in my experience. We’re simply trying to work out whether anything can be saved from a platitude that seemed like an obvious thing to say about a particular passage. But the labour of thought is set of by small incongruities, small rucks in the carpet.

All this is one reason for reading the Bible slowly, of course: putting oneself on a path that leads into thickets.

Named and caught

In the comments to the last post, Rachel wrote:

Though at the same time John fits into certain patterns and expectations – patterns of what an ascetic/world-renouncing lifestyle should look like. I suppose he couldn’t do otherwise, as soon as he’s described.

and I then speculated that

the liminal position occupied by John [might be]… a socially functional necessity: one of the safety valves that allows the functioning of ‘ordinary life’ … John would then be an ‘interruption’ that, as it were, ordinary life used to perpetuate itself – a ruse of power, perhaps.

I went on to say something about how we might say that John escapes this suspicious reading:

The claim that something else, something other, was becoming visible even in this process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates, is fragile…

But thinking about Rachel’s point makes me realise that my response is facile. John, after all, performs his function in the Gospels in part because he ‘fits into certain patterns and expectations’, because he can be ‘described’ (‘as it is written’…). And yet clearly John is not in any straightforward sense simply the expression of that which is written: he exceeds it, simply by virtue of having concrete existence. I have that itch on the back of my neck that you get when creeping through a deserted mine, realising that one should have bought some decent social theory with you… The contrast between the activity of ‘describing in existing categories’ which perpetuates the existing symbolic order, and the eruption of the decisively new that re-makes that order, is clearly too blunt: ‘existing symbolic orders’ are always changing, always being deployed in new ways, always being inhabited differently. The contrast between the ‘process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates’ and ‘something else, something other…becoming visible’ is a childish one – all too closely related to other contrasts between inwardness and externality that I’ve been taught to eschew. I’m on the wrong track. Ho hum.