Interpretation is where the Bible and Winnie-the-Pooh meet

In this post I will sort of agree with many religious people; but I will do my best to do so in a way that leaves a bitter, bitter taste in their mouths.

Any text that is mulled over, interpreted, commented on, and read and read long enough, and occasionally for reasons not immediately related to the text itself (reader is stressed, sad, in want of agreement, bored out of her skull, etc.) will be polished into a mirror that will, after a certain threshold of smoothness has been passed, only reflect, in various funnyhouse ways, the one looking into it.

If you took the Scriptures of Goat-Baal (c. 1300 BCE, made up) instead of the Old Testament; if Suetonius’s Lives of Famous Whores was taken up for carefully saccharine re-interpretation instead of the New Testament, by Anon (ed.), if you took the Moby Dick instead of the Book of Mormon, you would still eventually get the same result: the text remains the same, but the meaning read into it is something new, alien and shiny. The major difference is Moby Dick and similar works are not of immediately religious nature; but then again not one of the religious works above listed is read today much like it originally was. (And in the case of the few people who do, we often wish they didn’t.)

The great and subtle point in all this is it does not matter what mirror you choose, whether ready-polished by some culture or rough to be worked by yourself. No matter your choice, eventually you will get all the reflections of yourself you want. Take sandpaper and a fresco: eventually the fresco is gone and there’s a nice uniform reflective surface in its place for you to dimly behold your own glory, or the glory of whatever you desire.

You could choose anything with enough commentaries — the Bible, say, has been so immensely interpreted that you can find support for any reading at all: there are commentaries by monarchists and republicans, racists and anti-racists, hellfires and sugarbears, sexual conservatives and sexual liberals, celibates, monogamists, polygamists, polyamorists, masochists, people of justice, people of mercy, people of great flaming chunks of falling brimstone, people of any particular color or nationality, the oppressed, the oppressors, the poor, the well-off, the well-endowed, those that have, those that want, socialists, conservatives, Greens, anarchists, probably Nazis, Communists and UFO believers too; in short, the Bible has been interpreted by every possible group in all worlds where an association with the Bible was a source of respect, a source of “Gott mit uns”.

One occasionally even sees atheists pointing at particular pieces of Scripture and saying they mean, illustrate and/or exemplify whatever secular lesson one wishes to see within.

Then again, to use an empty, irritating, slippery buzzword, there’s something more “spiritual” in picking something a little more off-beat; maybe not quite your favorite issue of the Donald Duck comic, but something different. That way at least one doesn’t get mistaken for the sort of people that get their jollies from imagining Einstein, Gandhi and Anne Frank really tortured for all eternity.

If you think I am just frothing, you don’t know there are published books that read Winnie the Pooh as an exposition of philosophy, Taoism, and the like. The only difference to various interpretations of Christianity is the Pooh-as-Tao and Pooh-as-Nietzsche people would probably, if sufficiently probed and stripped of their jocularity, admit they knew their reading was not in the original. Religious people, unwilling to let go of the last tatters of their ghost, often insist interpretation #856 is what the text has always meant. (There’s probably a good point in saying that if something can be re-interpreted by every new generation, in always new and different and relevant ways, with no-one raising an alarm, there’s no intrinsic or “original” meaning left in the thing at all — and it’s a knife without a handle because of it: liable cut you.)

(The Bible has an original meaning — but really, when’s the last time you’ve heard someone call the New Testament an outdated anthology of evolved sectarian screeds about how their neighbors were wrong about the fan fiction told over the memory of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who thought the physical Kingdom of God would be here on Earth in 34 AD, give or take a few months? Oh, and an anthology “inspired by” the Old Testament, in the full Hollywood sense.)

(Wait; that’s a research project — “Slashing swords: Christological controversies in the New Testament versus fan fic pairing feuds on LiveJournal: an essay of comparative sociodynamical metapsychothema-analysis”.)

It pays to pick something with enough curlicues to lose yourself in; something with enough ambiguities and loose ends to let your inner mirrorist semi-sub-consciously pick the interpretation that’s most appealing to you personally; and I think I’ve said something like this before, and in an Erisian holy book, no less (though the book was not really ambiguous enough for this):

Now, however, suppose you are purposefully dense, opaque and abstruse. Or just one of those. People will not be sure of what you mean: and thus they shall read your words in the way most preferable to their own prejudices, and most fitting with the[ir] preconceptions; and you will be hailed as a wise one, a primate among the priests of profundity. [Ook.]

Profound personal meanings are a weird, weird thing. I’ll keep to reading Principia Discordia, Illuminatus! and Azumanga Daioh rather than the Bible myself; less risk of being taken for one of the deranged first-interpretation types that way. (“Hello! I am Jesus; if you do not obey me I shall have you tortured forever!”)

* * *

A tangent, about the Bible and the Prophecies of Goat-Baal: Something that I occasionally wonder about, but am unfit to judge: is the Bible really a great work of literature? Is it, in some literary way, divorced from the influence it has wielded, as a book any better than the other ancient anthologies of Middle Eastern holy writings? (And don’t tell me all that has survived to our time is jewels and jewels; when a god’s on your side, who cares about the reviews?)

Maybe the adoration lavished on the Bible comes from lingering religiosity, and from it having been so inescapable for so long it sourced many literary tropes. I’d guess that if Chinese communism lasted for five centuries it would be so saturated, forcefully influenced and painted red with residual cheerleading that Mao’s Little Red Book would seem a work of immense stylistic genius: not because of brute merit, or because of brute adoration-dogma: but because it happened to be one of the first bricks of the vast edifice, even if possibly half-baked and all.

Then again, disregard this tangent; I don’t know the first thing about judging the intrinsic value of a book as compared to its influence. That’s the expertise of folks alien to me.

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