When the Word becomes a mouthpiece

Satire uses exaggeration, irony and ridicule to show us our shortcomings. A satirist distorts the story, which we already know, so that a truth, one not readily evident, can emerge. It’s not easy to write satire when the times are as unpredictable as the weather. History seems to have entered its own sort of warming acceleration so that today’s parody runs the risk of becoming prophecy.

The French satirist Michele Houellebecq was on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, the very week its staff was attacked, because he had once called Islam the stupidest of religions. Yet the faith plays a prominent role in his newest novel Submission (2015). The premise and plot are both simple.

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Voters never cease to demand change. So, in the not very distant future of France, the socialist left blocks the rise of the nationalist right by allowing a moderate Islamic party to come to power. France loses some of its secularity, but family values and value-oriented education are championed. Most importantly, there’s still money to be made and careers to be advanced. Islam doesn’t really conquer the Republic. The Republic dies from the exhaustion of the secular project, which seems to find nothing greater to shield or to serve than sex and sales.

Here’s how one academic proposes Islam to a colleague, as each looks for his place in the new France.

What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to his laws. In general, I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn about Islam by reading the Koran, unless of course you take the trouble to learn Arabic and read the original text. What I tell people to do instead is to listen to the suras read aloud, and repeat them, so you can feel their breath and their force. In any case, Islam is the only religion where it’s forbidden to use any translations in the liturgy, because the Koran is made up entirely of rhythms, rhymes, refrains, assonance. It starts with the idea, the basic idea of all poetry, that sound and sense can be made one, and so can speak to the world (212-13).

 

Michel Houellebecq is lauded as one of the great authors of France, though all the critics deplore his cynicism. Sarcasm employed against the left leaves it stupefied. But his character is canny in his advice about the Koran. Indeed, the insight is useful for all “People of the Book”: Jews, Christians and Muslims. “Sound and sense can be made one, and so can speak to the world.”

The Scriptures weren’t created to rest in our hands, to lie open before us for consultation, like a document nearly arrived from God. Indeed, the notion of the Scriptures as a ready reference, which played such a prominent role in the Protestant Reformation, wasn’t even possible before the advent of the printing press. A monk might have prayed over the sacred Scriptures in the Middle Ages, like a lover his letters, but Scripture wasn’t consulted by the individual to ascertain if his community was faithful. The ordinary believer didn’t think that he owned a self-evident communique from God.

For countless generations of Christians—Jews and Muslims as well—Scripture was something proclaimed to the people, as it is in both the Book of Nehemiah and the Gospel of Luke. One stands in the assembly of the faithful and professes God’s Word in a way that reorders the world itself. The Word calls the world to judgement. The Word reforms and recreates it. Sound and sense are made one and speak to the world.

Scripture has proven itself rather lethal in the hands of modern men and women of faith, of any faith. Why? If you think the world revolves around you, then the Scriptures you tote and quote will inevitably shrink until they do more than validate your own small world. The word of God, suitably edited, becomes your own mouthpiece. Watch Donald Trump quoting Scripture at Liberty University.

Texts live in communities. They come from communities and speak authentically to those who receive them within the continuity of a living community. Even the Lord Jesus, heard his Scriptures as a faithful Son of Israel. Yes, there’s a place for revolutions and rebellions and reformations. Prophets do arise, but they’re only recognized as prophets because they make the Word to live again, because they bring together sound and sense in the midst of a people.

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4: 20-21).

 

Nehemiah 8: 2-4a, 5-6, 8-10   1 Corinthians 12: 12-14, 17  Luke 1: 1-4, 14-21  

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William Rydberg
1 year 10 months ago
Your take on scripture and ordinary people (I assume you mean uneducated peasants, serfs, etc.. ) is fantastical in my opinion (again I am assuming early Middle Ages). It would be more accurate to say that people didn't understand Latin or Biblic Greek or Old Russian for that matter. But they could understand the actions of the people that did and "read" the Gospel in their "betters" actions. Additionally, the beauty of the Liturgy as well as the helps of Glass Windows depicting biblical scenes was helpful. Finally, I take exception to the categorization of Catholicism as a part of "the people of the book", because the Gospel scriptures, like the Jewish Scriptures came from the ancient "qahal" then the Catholic Church under the inspiration of the third person of the holy Trinity (knowledge given to the Apostles by Jesus-God come in the flesh) not from an inspired set of quotations compiled in a book presented as part of a private revelation during the time of the then powerful theocratic governance of the Rashidun Caliphate. Finally, it isn't just the Scriptures that are mistakenly taken out of context; ask experts on Karl Marx and his works. Think of all the blood spilled... It never ends... Which is another reason why the Gospel needs to be understood within the hermenutic of the Catholic Church in my humble opinion...
William deHaas
1 year 10 months ago
Sorry, Mr. Ryberg - quite simply, we are *people of the book*.
William Rydberg
1 year 10 months ago
You do know that the origin of the term is Koranic? Catholicism is based on Jesus-God come in the flesh. Grace + Peace in Christ
Tom Poelker
1 year 10 months ago
SHOULD THE TEXT READ If you think the world revolves around you, then the Scriptures you tote and quote will inevitably shrink until they do NO more than validate your own small world. INSTEAD OF THE PUBLISHED If you think the world revolves around you, then the Scriptures you tote and quote will inevitably shrink until they do more than validate your own small world.
Robert Lewis
1 year 10 months ago
I don't always agree with Mr. Rydberg, but here I think his theology is quite sound: In orthodox theology--that is, Catholic or Orthodox--the "Bible" is NOT "the word of God"; Jesus Christ is, by New Testament Scriptural definition, and when Christ says that He comes to fulfill the old law, his meaning of "fulfill" is a dialectical meaning--to complete and to "finish" it, just as a master craftsman makes further work on an artifact redundant. That's why every single contradiction in the Bible--and there are many, causing much joyful work for Fundamentalists (such as Mr. Rydberg often is)--must be resolved in the SPIRIT of Jesus Christ's words, and ONLY His words--not Paul's, not Peter's, not James's, and certainly not those of most of the Prophets of the Jews (with notable exceptions).
William Rydberg
1 year 10 months ago
Mr Lewis, you have misunderstood me if you think that I do not believe in the inspired teaching of Dei Verbum. I could never agree with your previously stated personal conviction in these pages that parts of the Catholic Bible are not worth reading. If you look in to the etymology of the Term "Fundamentalist" you will find that the name comes from 19th Century North American Protestants that chose to follow a book authored by a then famous Protestant listing what he thought were "fundamental" Protestant beliefs. Since I am a Catholic, I therefore cannot be a "Fundamentalist" as defined. In Christ,
Robert Lewis
1 year 10 months ago
Oh, I think you misunderstood me: Being a linguist and an educator, I always mean something other than what most take "read" to mean: "reading" means that the READER makes "meaning" of a text, and that the writer doesn't--not anymore. So I'm actually in FAVOUR of "making meaning" of the largest portions of the Biblical texts--to recognize that they are contradictory and full of major discrepancies on the ethical plane, and in their characterizations of the nature of the Creator. For me, this means that the only parts of the Christian Sacred Scriptures that actually have "authority" (a big issue in ecclesiology) are the actual words of the "Word of God." I understand that, in a sense, this makes me an even more radical revisionist of Christian theology than the heresiarchs of the 16th century. However, I also suspect that this is exactly what Roman Catholic theology has been doing when, for centuries, it has bragged to the Protestants that they, and only they, read the Sacred Scriptures "holistically" (Much of what some sexist and homophobic Paul or some anti-Semitic Luther or Marcion or Pius IX being wholly discarded.)
William Rydberg
1 year 10 months ago
I apologize for assuming that you were a co-religionist. You are certainly entitled to your own opinion. Have a great day.
Ana Vago
1 year 10 months ago
What religion are you? Since Mr. Lewis is Catholic from what I can tell anyway from his comments, are you not Catholic? Since I don't read this site all the time, maybe you are referring to some other comments where he said he isn't Catholic.
Ana Vago
1 year 10 months ago
Interesting article - I never really thought about some of this before. But I have thought about this - and think it is very true and very sad. "Scripture has proven itself rather lethal in the hands of modern men and women of faith, of any faith. Why? If you think the world revolves around you, then the Scriptures you tote and quote will inevitably shrink until they do more than validate your own small world. The word of God, suitably edited, becomes your own mouthpiece. Watch Donald Trump quoting Scripture at Liberty University".

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