Wednesday, February 2, 2011

God: Goad or Code?

Taking the bible as a whole you have to admit nine times out of ten God appears to be shaking a long stick with a sharp point, always about to poke it in someone. Thinking some more you might reflect you can go from the word “god” to the word “goad” by adding a single vowel, the sound you make when you go to the dentist! “Ahhh Go(a)d is threatening to stick something sharp in someone…again!”

This is only a word game, of course, but perhaps there is a serious point. Words are “sounds plus meaning” and when we write them down we do so with little squiggles which mark the divided sounds and so separate the meanings. We never think about it when we’re blurbing full-on in speech or text, but everything is in code for us humans. We swim and live in a sea of code, and to change the code is to change the meaning. Change it at a deep enough level and you change the whole sea, the whole meaning of existence.

To understand the apparent savagery of the bible you have to step back and look at it from a larger, wiser perspective, one in fact that thinks of the bible in terms of code.

And the new techniques of internet and website language can really help us here. If you study the creation of websites you learn that an important element in a website is something called metadata.

Metadata is information about when and by whom a website was created, and the language or tools used to write it. To understand how important metadata is we can usefully refer the concept to the interpretation of ancient texts.

For example, Plato’s dialogues are very hard to interpret as one continuous body because we have very little information as to when any one of them was written. So which ones represent his early thought, and which his mature thought, and by what steps did he move from one to the other? We can’t be certain, because Plato left us no metadata-style information.

In contrast the Bible is rich in metadata. For example, the prophets are very often explicit about who they are and when they’re working. And of course books like Exodus and Kings situate themselves squarely in historical situations with historical actors. The investigation of this historical material constitutes a lot of what is called “biblical criticism” and involves many fusty hours of labor for seminarians.

But, as I just said, metadata is not just about “when and by whom”, it’s also about the language and tools used to create something. This is where the concept gets really interesting, and helps us go a good bit beyond traditional biblical criticism!

The original language of the web is something called HTML. As I understand it HTML is a series of “tags” or little signs that tell the computer how to treat a bit of information and where to put it on the screen. It was this language that enabled our computers to recognize information coming from servers and translate it into text and images. Do you remember the first time you saw an internet screen, the slightly awed sense that this thing could give you real-time visual information about any organization, place or individual in the world? It was a qualitative step-up in human experience and it was made possible by HTML.

Well, it was made possible by version #1 of HTML. We’re now about to get HTML5, a new generation of internet language, “to improve our web experience” as they say. And so, part of the metadata of any website has also to be what version of HTML (or other possible internet languages) the writer is using. Without knowing this essential information anyone trying to interpret that website—to de-code it and truly reflect what the writer is doing—runs a huge risk of misreading everything and possibly messing up the website!

So, here’s the thing. Here’s the huge cash-out of this illustration. The bible has its own metadata embedded in it. And it’s not just about when and by whom, it’s about the original breakthrough language being used in it. It contains code about itself, about its basic language, and the metadata tells us there are essentially two versions of its language, 1.0 and an upgrade, 2.0. A good bible student has to know both and be able to tell when we are reading one and when we are reading the other! Above all she knows that when God appears as pointy-stick Go(a)d this is an imperfection in the original code, one exposed and fixed by 2.0. But the writers of 2.0 could only have known this and figured out the upgrade by embracing and working with the language of 1.0 down to its last “jot and tittle” (Matt.5:18)! Let me explain.

According to RenĂ© Girard language is birthed in violence and the production of sacred order through violence. So human language has always had a built-in interest in disguising its violent origins, in mythologizing them, and has continued to do so since the beginning of human culture. But—once more according to Girard—the Hebrew Bible has an extraordinary concern to uproot those violent origins, to subvert them and expose them. And so the bible begins a pathway of setting humanity free from a social and cultural order founded and framed in violence. Now using the model of internet languages, I would say that what Girard is talking about is the emergence of a new human language, beginning with 1.0. And I would suggest the metadata indicating the first emergence and writing of Bible 1.0 can be found forcefully at the beginning of Exodus, where it says that God heard the cry and the groaning of an enslaved and suffering people (2:23-25, 3:7).

I believe this to be a critical writing of metadata, an embedding of a radical code in every sense, and it seems to me essential that a student of the bible would know this. The root language of the Bible is of liberation from violent oppression and oppressive violence, and Exodus 2 & 3 is a key place where that root coding is recorded.

But in a world founded culturally (and even before that neurologically) in violence it is extremely difficult to bring violence to the surface without detonating more actual violence, and beginning in the hearts of the oppressed themselves. How can the oppressed suddenly go from a dazed sense of inevitable suffering to a belief in their liberation, and not do so in terms of a powerful separating and retaliatory violence? The oppressed are probably the last people to ask for an enlightened sense of non-retaliation! Hence Exodus rejoices in the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. And in the same book Moses makes no bones about quartering the camp with the bloody swords of the Levites in order to retain purity of worship of the single God of the Exodus (chap. 32). Violence remains the dominant form of making meaning despite the message of liberation from its effects! Nothing surprising there.

Nor is there anything surprising, as things develop. The prophets no longer see the encroaching violence of surrounding nations as the marching of the Fates—now one nation up, now another down—but neither do they see it as a horrible aberration. Rather it becomes the fearful punishment inflicted by Go(a)d on his own people for reason of their own oppression of each other and their invoking of other injustice-complicit gods. The chosen people remain under the pressure of a radical new source language but it is extremely difficult for them to emerge fully from the original human coding of violence. The radical meaning of liberation is re-integrated in the universal human idiom of violence because it is so difficult wholly to imagine another one.

What is truly surprising, and proves that the Bible is genuinely all about a new human code, is that even as their history continues in bloodstained footsteps the writers continue to worry the whole issue at its margins. And really more than the margins. The book of Genesis is prefixed to the entire saga of Exodus-through-Deuteronomy probably sometime during or immediately after the exile, so creating the Torah. Why is it there—because we need an account of human origins, of creation? Partly. But that account itself is so wreathed around with the questions of peace and violence that we have to see it in fact as a first sketch of Bible 2.0, written by a brilliant author after the more primitive tradition of Exodus became established (even though Genesis likely made use of early source material).

At all events we can see Genesis as deliberately seeking a break in original violent coding, and so foregrounding and critiquing what comes after it in Exodus. Genesis climaxes with the epic story of Joseph, a story of attempted murder and then fraternal forgiveness. Given its position, “at the head of the book”, this particular story has to be an outstanding instance of metadata, and one that intentionally goes much further than the original metadata of Exodus. Its writers are at the cutting edge of biblical 2.0, taking the original language of Exodus and moving it toward its deep and true potential.

2nd Isaiah, however, is the moment when the 2.0 code finds its full authentic grammar. "Behold my servant, whom I uphold…a bruised reed he will not break, and dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (42:3). Again I think it is indispensable that the bible student recognizes this moment for what it is, that it is the breakthrough of a truly new human language. Without an understanding that a qualitatively new coding based in nonviolence is emerging the student could easily lapse into some gross atonement doctrine—i.e. exactly the way that Christendom has reintegrated 2.0 into normal human language (thus making it exponentially more violent: God requires the death of his Son in order to be appeased….) Other candidates for 2.0 are the books of Job and Jonah, both of which can be read as highly sarcastic attacks on die-hard devotees of imperfect and corrupt 1.0; and then parts of Zechariah and Daniel which are very likely influenced by 2nd Isaiah.

But of course for the Christian the supreme 2.0 moment is the life and death of Jesus, the moment the code perfected itself in a single individual. Jesus read the Hebrew bible and integrated its revolutionary new language of humanity in the depths of his own person. For that reason Jesus becomes himself a supreme instance of biblical metadata, a coding that in one single line, so to speak, gives us the whole project of biblical writing. That is why “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). There is no other single “sound plus meaning” which can in and of itself set us free for a new way of being human. And so through Jesus the whole issue of violence as a method of God goading us into obedience or good behavior disappears. He is rightly called the savior and we say truthfully through his blood we are redeemed. But, again, this is not some ghastly cheap pay-off to God so as to avert God’s blistering cosmic violence. Instead everything is information, data urgently offered and received. It is a translation of our inherited cultural coding into something wonderfully new, an infinite loving nonviolence in the face of cosmic human violence. We have to pay attention and willingly accept this new coding as our own.

If we don’t then we are left with the goad, now not something that God is or does, because Jesus as new human meaning shows us also a God who is without violence. But if we refuse this meaning we are left with the goad of our own violence, goading against ourselves, against others. This is the meaning of “Gehenna”, Jerusalem’s permanent trash fire which Jesus used as code (what else?) for the self-consuming fire of human violence, internal and external, that must and will overtake us if we refuse the new human source language 2.0.

This is why when Jesus appeared to Paul he said, “I am Jesus whom you persecute….It hurts you to kick against the goad ” (Acts 26:14). In other words it is you who are offering the violence, not me, and it only hurts yourself, because you are in fact kicking against yourself, knowing now that I am the truly new human. You are just making your anger worse, causing more and more mayhem, until you give in finally and accept 2.0!

Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence

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