Saying More Than One Thing

I was a senior at Rice University, and as I loved my Religious Studies major and had shown a bit of aptitude for it, I and a few other undergrads were invited to participate in a graduate survey/seminar on Biblical Studies with Matthias Henze and Werner Kelber. So with less than 10 students in the room, I and the other undergrads were pretty intimidated. I had thought I was doing pretty well just keeping up with the reading and discussion and engaging occasionally.

So I was terrified, mortified, and strangely flattered when Dr Henze stopped us all in our tracks one day with this statement: “This is a graduate-level seminar and you are all excellent students. You need to be prepared to say more than one thing each class.”

I learned many valuable things about what it meant to take Biblical scholarship seriously, about asking tough questions and living with ambiguity and tension, and much more. But the lesson that served me the most was the one taught in that moment: “Say more than one thing.”

Today, we live in a digital culture. I just don’t mean my laptop, iPhone, electrical outlets, Dish Network TV, GPS…I also mean that we employ an “on/off” approach to many issues affecting us at a deeply human, philosophical, religious level. Someone’s either right or not. This issue is either the most important in the history of the world…or irrelevant. If there is one minor flaw with an argument, then the whole thing is wrong.

Contrast this approach with that of St Augustine’s:

Augustine is a really stylish professional: he rarely relies on the knock-out; he is out to win the fight on points. It is a fight carried on in twenty-two books [The City of God] against nothing less than the whole pagan literary culture available to him.
–P R L Brown,
as quoted in R W Dyson’s introduction to The City of God
This is an approach which can live with ambiguity: Augustine draws upon “pagan” historians, philosophers, rhetoricians and more to make his arguments. Yet he does not loose his grasp on the issue that needs addressing or heresy requiring confrontation. In short, Augustine was a master at saying more than one thing.

The Bible, too, I believe is polyvocal and multivalent. If we tried to eradicate all context or become reductionist, then we might believe that the Bible contradicted itself, or we would give as much priority to obscure and minor passages available for misinterpretation as we do to the premier themes. These “minority reports” are often valuable correctives, or complement the main thrust of the Biblical authors. The various perspectives of Scripture engage our imaginations, catch us up in the economy of God, and enrich our faith and life.

But we flatten the message and meaning of the Bible at our own risk. Take the current conversation about gay marriage in our country. As I read the Bible, I do not seethat it contemplates in any way marriage as something other than between a man and a woman. Yet it also speaks eloquently and persuasively to our time on behalf of those who are marginalized, oppressed, are different or are strangers…and of the availability of divine grace and love to all.

So when it comes to the volatile conversation about gay marriage, I believe the Bible says more than one thing. Does a so-called Biblical perspective on marriage (which presumes, again, there is only one) contemplate marriage between two men or two women? No. Yet neither does it envision limiting basic rights, slandering and libeling those outside the mainstream, or rejecting people from the community of faith or common society.

Now this just happens to the be the thought on my mind at the time: the question of “who is saved and how does that happen?”–one of the central themes of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament–could also stand for scrutiny of this nature (and more time than I have this afternoon!). And many others. The narrative and poetic nature of the Bible resists conflation and reductionist tendencies.

Better to ask: How do these stories shape our own life’s story…both individually and communally? Do we have more than one thing to say about the infinite, finally-beyond-all-words God?

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