by Derek Olsen
I appreciated Linda McMillan’s recent piece in Daily Episcopalian on the movie Noah. In particular, I like the way she talked about stories. In that piece, she compared different interpretive approaches to Genesis under the rubric of stories. She spoke of how her story was confirmed and challenged and stretched by the story portrayed in the movie. I find this a very helpful way to speak of what we encounter in the biblical text.
As a biblical scholar, one of my main fields of research is the history of interpretation. How have faithful people read, understood, and made sense of the text over time? Stories are one of the key lenses, particularly when dealing with narrative material like the events of the flood.
Where I begin to grow cautious, though, is when we see an assertion that all stories are equally true. Don’t get me wrong, I could agree with the statement that all stories are bearers of truth – but that’s not the same as saying all stories are true. I think we do better if we suggest that all stories are on a sliding scale; some contain more truth than others. Why does this matter? Because stories are important. Stories shape the way that we understand ourselves, understand the world around us, and the relationships, how we understand God, and the relationships between all of these things. Stories matter because stories shape actions. The way in which stories shape our actions requires us to value and weigh our stories.
In reading Linda’s thoughts about the movie Noah, I was reminded of one of my favorite stories of the interpretive past. It’s a reading of the Garden of Eden story from a text called “The Apocryphon [Hidden Book] of John.” It’s a delightful story that challenges our received readings, and helps us look at the text with new eyes.
You see, most of us come to the Garden of Eden story bringing with it several other stories. In fact, when most of us open the second and third chapters of Genesis, we’re not so much reading the Bible as we are inserting our own abridgment of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s hard to overstate the influence that Paradise Lost has had on how we understand this text. Ask anybody who the snake in the garden it was – they’ll tell you straight off that it’s the devil. And yet, that’s not what the text says! Rather, there is nothing in the vocabulary, grammar, or syntax of the original story that suggests that the snake is a supernatural being at all – except for the fact that it talks. The only real descriptor that we get of the snake, is that it was wiser than all of the other creatures. Certainly the received interpretation isn’t unique to Milton—the Book of Revelation alludes to it—but the version that most of us carry around in our heads owe more to Milton than anyone else.
“The Apocryphon of John” turns this received wisdom completely on its head by means of noticing and interpreting bits of the story that we normally skip over. It carefully notes that the snake is the wisest of the creatures, that it offers to share wisdom with humanity, and, indeed, enables humanity to become like God—a process like theosis where humanity puts on divinity. With these observations in hand, it confidently identifies as the snake as a different supernatural being: Jesus!
Yes—in this text, the snake in the garden is Jesus! You have to admit, it does give a transgressive thrill to read this text the opposite of the way that we usually hear it. Too, from this direction, Eve is a much more sympathetic character, and can be seen as a real person exhibiting real agency rather than the serpent’s gullible pawn. Shaking us out of our usual patterns, this interpretation helps us hear the text anew, from a radically different angle, and to see elements in it that we’d likely never noticed before.
All in all, it’s an interpretive win—right?
Well, maybe not…
There is one problem here. If you respect the narrative structure at all, there is one essential pattern coded into the story’s dramatic fabric that cannot be altered: the snake-character and the God-character are diametrically opposed. If the God-character is “good,” the snake-character has to be “bad.” If the snake-character is “good”—the God-character has to be the villain. And that’s precisely how “The Apocryphon of John” reads it. While the snake is Jesus, the “god” referred to in Genesis is the evil (or at least thoroughly ignorant) creating demiurge, the sub-divine maker of the material world. In this interpretation, the demiurge is so threatened and challenged by humans “becoming like one of us” (Gen 3:22) that it punishes them by enclosing them in “garments of skin” (Gen 3:21). Thus, it takes the incorruptible souls who are Adam and Eve and encases them within decaying flesh, corruptible matter, by giving them physical bodies. This, then, sets up the religious problem to solve: humans need the wisdom from Jesus to realize the truth about their real spiritual nature, and to escape the corruptible material world for a purely spiritual existence.
If this sounds rather Gnostic to you, there’s a reason for that—it is. “The Apocryphon of John” is a heretical text. Its teachings were condemned by Irenaeus, writing around AD 185 or so, and those condemnations were reiterated for centuries after.
The problem with this kind of reading isn’t just the interpretation itself, it’s the beliefs and actions that are derived from it. Historically, the logic communicated by this text has tended to go in one of two directions. The first is a complete denigration of the physical world and materiality. This is the attitude that says that the world doesn’t matter, physically-based issues like hunger, poverty, and injustice don’t matter, and that the chief concern of the religious should be fleeing the material world for a purely spiritual existence. And, yes, strands of this thinking have been present in strands of Christian thinking through the centuries—and usually have received (and deserve) push-back for it either in their time or in our own. The second is the notion that since real reality is properly spiritual, anything that occurs on a material level is incapable of touching the soul, and therefore any kind of material excess is theologically fair game whether that’s gluttony, lust, or what have you. And, yes, male cult leaders have been laying this one on impressionable young women for literally millennia…
The stories that we tell matter. Stories shape identities and actions. Yes, stories bear truth—but not all stories bear the same kind, quality, and degree of truth. Humans are story-telling creatures and the stories we tell do profoundly shape what we believe and how we act. Cicero’s classic definition of rhetoric, borrowed by Augustine and transmitted hence is that it should “teach, delight, and persuade.” Stories often foreground the “delight,” to the point that we sometimes forget that in their pages and structures are tucked “teaching” and “persuading” as well.
I said above that “The Apocryphon of John” is one of my favorite stories. That’s not because I believe it. On the contrary, I think it’s flat wrong. The reason why it’s one of my favorites is because it dramatically illustrates the need for interpretive boundaries. It demonstrates that for a text to be read consistently and coherently by a given community, that community needs agreed-upon limits for what constitutes acceptable readings.
It’s not enough to declare a reading like this “heretical”—we have to be able to answer the question of why. What is it about the interpretation that makes it heretical? For Christianity as we have received it, there’s a very simple answer. We say “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” That’s the Apostles’ Creed. In two phrases, it shuts down this line of interpretation in two different ways. First, it establishes that God, the one referred to by Jesus as “Father,” is the Creator of the material world. Second, it establishes that Jesus and God really are on the same team. Jesus is not opposed to the Creator, nor is the creator a sub-divine demonic entity. The interpretation put forward by “The Apocryphon of John” fails the creedal test at the outset. (And in quite a lot of other places too numerous to mention. I dramatically simplified the story. Eve isn’t just Eve; she’s actually Sophia in disguise who has been put to sleep and given amnesia by the evil archons who want to defile her. It’s like a complicated “Days of Our Lives” plot but with metaphysical allegories…)
Early on, the Church recognized that stories weren’t enough. Scripture by itself was not enough. Any text can be re-read, misread, and tortured to say something different given enough time and creativity. As a result, we developed a set of inter-related strategies to help keep this from happening: the threefold combination of canon, creed, and apostolic succession. The first is just this: we know which books we’re going to read together. The second: we know which direction we’re going to go on certain controversial points. The third, if we’re not sure about a reading, we have a living body of teachers who have an organic connection (demonstrated symbolically and liturgically by means of laying-on of hands) going back to the Apostles themselves. As Episcopalians, we reaffirmed our commitment to this threefold structure (with the addition of the two great sacraments) in the definition of Christian unity laid out in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral found on page 877 of your Book of Common Prayer.
The creeds are interpretive guides, not straight-jackets. My favorite image for them is the boundaries of a playing field. You can play anywhere you like within the field. Interpret however you like as long as you remain within them. You can go out of bounds, but there are consequences. If you do go outside, the readings you find out there aren’t going to be considered Christian readings. They might be interesting. They might even be instructive. But we won’t able to claim them as our own. The readings found inside the boundaries are the ones that must have the greater claim on what we teach, what we do and—ultimately—who we are.
We should—we must—interpret. We should tell stories and even tell stories about our stories. And we should do so with a spirit of play. But in doing so we need to mind the boundaries; the boundaries exist for a reason.
Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede’s Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.