Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, February 20, 2017

A gospel story for Flint, Michigan

A little book at my local favorite indie bookstore caught my eye and I bought it. (That's a good example of our need for actual, as opposed to virtual, bookstores.) It's called Ninety-nine Stories of God, by the much-acclaimed writer Joy Williams. Many of the mini-stories in this book are no more than a third of a page; others are a page and a half or two pages. I don't know of the right words to describe them; unique might be one. Some of them are more baffling than others; some are a clear window into the transcendent. Her sometimes-dark-sometimes-bright imagination is certainly like nothing else I've ever seen. Here's one mini-story that knocked me out:
   The Lord was drinking some water out of a glass. There was nothing wrong with the glass, but the water tasted terrible.
   This was in a white building on a vast wasteland. The engineers within wore white uniforms and bootees on their shoes and gloves on their hands. The water had traveled many hundreds of miles through wide pipes to be there.
   What have you done to my water? the Lord asked. My living water...
   Oh, they said, we thought that was just a metaphor.
Any poor benighted soul who does not know the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) will not have a clue what this is all about.

It's about many things, but for me it illustrates the fluid relationship between literal and figurative interpretation. I've argued strenuously in my books that literal-mindedness is the enemy of biblical interpretation, but at the same time we must insist that some biblical passages rest upon actual fact--the crucifixion of Jesus "under Pontius Pilate" being foremost among them, and the unique vocation of the Jews another.

In the story of the woman at the well, it is clear that the water of which Jesus speaks is not literal water, but his own Word and presence. And yet, the story begins with Jesus being tired and asking for an actual drink of actual water.  A feature of the narrative is the way that the woman misunderstands, thinking that the "living water" promised by Jesus is actual water from a well: "Sir, give me this water so that I won't have to keep coming to this well."

It seems to me that Joy Williams' tiny story breathtakingly illustrates the way in which theological imagination might work. There is a joke at the center: the sterilized workers in the sterile installation are the ones who are thinking in terms of metaphor! Ordinarily it would be the engineers who would be literal-minded. It is suggested, though not stated, that this is some sort of dystopia where engineers are working in privileged, isolated security overseen by some sinister ruling class and able to bend scripture to their world-view. It's an image of the principalities and powers reigning supreme. (Or not.)

In the narrative in the Gospel of John, let's say that water functions as metaphor ninety-five percent of the time and as literal water five percent. In any case, it seems to me to suggest that there needs always to be a capacity among bible readers, preachers, and interpreters for multiple meanings--meanings "on the ground," especially when poor, ostracized, and otherwise despised Samaritan women of our own day (and that's synecdoche) are involved.

But I don't want to over-analyze Joy Williams' miniature. It simply took my breath away.