Sunday, March 09, 2014

Apple of the eye

When I had the opportunity to give a "Lay Stewardship Homily" at Holy Apostles four and a half years ago, I had a chance to reflect publicly on the pleasure of being a Lector. Not just pleasure. Here's what I said:

I had no idea how different [than being a professor] lectoring would be until I tried it. Not to be grandiose about it, but it filled me with fear and trembling (especially when I got to read the passage in Philippians where those words appear, "fear and trembling"!). In being a lector you have a totally different relationship to the text than you do as a teacher—even if you’re a teacher who sometimes takes people through passages from the Bible, or through Biblically formed texts like, say, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. As a lector you don’t get to choose the piece of scripture you’re reading. You don’t introduce or contextualize it, you don’t paraphrase, you don’t interpret it. Sure, in reading it aloud you are interpreting it. But I found as I prepared that I was trying to do something different: to let the text speak, to let it say more things than I knew were in it. (We all know that scripture says different things to different people, and even to the same person at different times.) As a lector I try to make the text significant, relevant, available; the purpose isn’t to commend my interpretation of it. (Often—I can say this here!—I don’t know what I’m reading. The more times I read it, and read it aloud, the less I understand. And I admit I’ve had a hard time with some of the texts I’ve been given, like the insistence that not one Egyptian survived the closing of the Red Sea over Pharoah’s army, not one.) But even then, I’m trying to be there for the reading, to give it voice, make it available. It’s a humbling, but also exciting experience.

I was Lector again today (first time for a while) and they gave me a dusey. Try it on for size!

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 

It's Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:1-7, somewhat awkwardly stitched together. Omitted for reasons of economy are not just the naming of the animals but the creation of Eve ('It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner,' 2:19), who, in this expurgated text, shows up out of nowhere.

It's interesting to have had to read this so-important story just as my Job talks have been focusing on the value of dramatizing the text - key passages, and transitions, etc. turn out to be capable of quite different stagings/voicings; the interpreter is forced to go with one of the them, often making a choice which she might not have made, or felt the need to make, had she just been reading a text silently.

In this hoary story the narrator has (or has the opportunity) to communicate a number of voices, reactions, deliberations, actions. The first few times I practiced reading it, theological and other interpretations were racing along above and below like news tickers on cable TV. Depending on the ticker God was informing "the man" about a poisonous tree he should take care to avoid or jealously threatening punishment of an otherwise desirable activity. The serpent was by turns crafty and wild and, more uncomfortably, an animal that the Lord God had made. His craftiness expressed itself in his words, or in the fact that they are addressed to "the woman." Adam is a cipher in this story, but what Eve was doing is open to exploration too. Why does she interpolate nor shall you touch it into what she's heard from "the man" - or was it Adam who added it to his recollection? She wasn't there for the public service announcement/prohibition, after all. (So even within this narrative two people had to voice what they heard God say.)

It's not a story I much like, knowing how foundational it's been for millennia of misogyny, and how its been mined and mobilized for misanthropic theodicies. (And Pierre Bayle's questions - didn't God make the serpent and the tree, didn't He know that the tempter would be successful? - rankle.) It's kind of a big deal. How to read it? As I tried to articulate in the homily, I don't see it as my business to endorse a particular interpretation, at least not deliberately. I wanted to let the text speak. Practicing different ways of reading, different stresses and pauses, would leave me limber enough to move as the spirit listeth.

As I practiced I found myself pausing in different places in the sentence beginning So when the woman saw... For a few iterations there was a pause between she took of its fruit and and ate but none in Adam's her husband, who was with her, and he ate but in the end I read the words about her as if they were a single movement and left a pause - a short one, but still a pause - before and he ate. It seemed to make sense as I was reading it but was a side being taken in the ancient debate?

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