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Sunday, July 26, 2009

A serious question emerges from these ramblings

Does our American culture suffer from a lack of meaning?

Well, in one sense the answer is no. Meaning is everywhere, in everything. In professional sports, for example, every game has the potential to be "historic" and spectacular. Meaning is the pull of most sales pitches. Watching a toilet paper commercial or a fabric softener commercial is an exercise in living a more meaningful life, as this Downy commercial from 1990 illustrates:

And yet in an era where everything is meaningful, nothing is meaningful. That is, we are saturated in meaning, we live in a hyper-meaningful society. Our lives are intensely meaningful, much of this is due to the fact that Corporate America needs to link "a meaningful life" with the product or service that it is selling.

You need an investing company that understand how meaningful your life is. You need to invest in a laptop that can really (no, I mean really) express your unique creativity and interests. And, of course, your toilet paper is an intimate aspect of what really defines you.

So, in this meaning-saturated context, we walk this tightrope, we exist in this tension: we want this life to be meaningful, even though we know that the meaningful life we are being sold isn't nearly as meaningful as it appears on tv.

The result, I think, is that we kind of surrender to the cycle of over-hyped products that can't deliver the meaning they promise. But if we just keep going, we can kind of numb ourselves to the fact that there are no alternatives.

Meaning has become so commonplace that it is almost as if we transcend meaning completely.

Meaning is banal, boring.

The Bible.

Where does the Good Book fit into this mix?

For those of us from 20th century religious backgrounds, the Bible was that above which there is no higher meaning. It was the uber-meaningful. Meaning to the tenth power.

But this was a sales job. It was part of a mad scramble to compete with the hyper-meaning of the greater culture, or just a desire to completely disconnect from the culture of meaning and insulate the religious community, gathering around the Good Book each night and shunning all other forms of meaningful expression.

So, to the extent that the Good Book became caught up in the competition for meaning, it became so meaningful that it became banal. In fact, I suggest that for some, since the Bible was the ultimate source of meaning, it follows that the Bible suffers from being ultra-banal and uber-boring. Since we are numb to meaning, we are particularly numb to things that are particularly meaningful.

In what sense, then, is there hope for the Bible?

Where does that leave the Good Book?

A while back on this blog, I suggested that we burn our Bibles. That the Good Book was too common place, not sacred enough.

Anyone have a less radical solution? Or did I misidentify the problem?


amy said...

So is it significant that, in order to make the Bible more "meaningful," there is now a Bible designed and marketed toward every conceivable subculture in America (woman, men, teens, older children, younger children, infants [!], the elderly, homosexuals, heterosexuals, doctors, skaters, hipsters, the uber-literate, the anti-literate, wannabe archaeologists, wannabe prophets, tree huggers, tree haters, artists, mucisians, mothers, fathers, grandparents, 4th cousins twice removed, and so on and on and on)?

As a woman / tree hugger / uber-literate person, I actually find these attempts to make the Bible more "meaningful" condescending and off-putting; corporate America is telling me that I need it to process and package the Bible (just like my food!) in a way that is attractive and "relevant" to me, and only then will I be able to "extract" its full "applicability" "to my life." So I can say "Ooooo, shiny!" and suddenly be "in love" with "God's Word." Ugh. I'd better stop now before I need to use any more quotation marks.

Melody said...

Amy, yeah I never got why it was that I needed my own special (invariably pink) bible because I was a woman. The main difference is the cover and we all know that the women buying it are just gunna plop it in an over-embroidered bible-case anyway.

Melody said...

Jon, I'm not sure I know what you mean.

Do you mean what Amy said, about the commercialized bibles in flashy colors and specialized versions?

Or do you mean that you're tired of reading the Bible and you'd like people to stop talking about it?

Or...something else?

I'm with you on the products. The best sales come when people associate the product strongly with home and family and tradition. So they have to figure out a way to make toilet paper (I didn't watch the commercial) seem traditional and family oriented.

But I don't understand the transition over to the Bible.

Maybe because I think the bible has actual value and not just associational value? (i.e. having "more ovaltine please" only gives you the warm fuzzies if there are warm fuzzy memories associated with it, but the words in the Bible hold no matter who picks it up or why)

Russ said...

Jon, I'm persuaded by your argument that the Bible has been caught up in the sort of propaganda/advertisement oriented struggle to establish meaning, and I think you're right when you say that it's certainly devalued the meaning.

I personally, don't have any great emotional attachment to the Bible, or to religion in general, truth be told, so I'm not exactly scandalized by the suggestion to just burn 'em up. On the other hand, another possible remedy for the whole meaning problem comes to mind, that's perhaps a little less dramatic.

What if we just started speaking realistically about the role of the Bible in contemporary culture? It's a fascinating history, and I think, anyway, that quite a lot of wisdom and truth (small 't') are contained in its pages. Retreating from the marketing gimmicks seems to me the best thing that the Church can do to regain its relevance. What if, instead of pretending people's salvation was incumbent upon memorizing Paul's letters or having quiet times or interpreting the Bible in some particular way, the Bible was considered an important piece of Judeo-Christian history with some wisdom scattered throughout? I think that with that approach, people are freed to derive much more meaning from the Bible -- they are able to consider the context in which things were written and consider, historiographically, the cultural significance of their creation stories and tribal histories. Instead of it being some set-in-stone document given to us directly by God and having our salvation be incumbent upon the way we interpret it, it's a much looser document that shows how our way of interacting with each other and the transcendent realm has developed over time.

Tamie said...

I agree with you, Russ, overall. Although I think I'd add that I think God has been working through both Scripture, and within the cultures described in Scripture.

But then again, I think God also speaks through the Bagavad Gita, the Hopi myths, and through the Grand Canyon.

A couple things happen though. First, people want to be Right, and they want to be sure that they have Truth. Which is understandable, and also impossible.

The other thing though, that I think is even more complex, is that although I do believe God speaks through just about everything, everywhere, all the time, I also am not a relativist, and I do think that some Scriptures/people/contexts are more true than others, and actually some are just downright wrong and fucked up. So then the question becomes: how does one decide which is wise and which is fucked up? This is a tricky question, and many have taken the route of deciding that there is an Objective Truth, and also deciding that they have special access to that Objective Truth. Because then they have something by which to measure all other truth.

Which, alas, is a strategy fraught with problems.

But why am I even saying all this stuff? We've had this discussion a hundred times! Sorry. Got in a waxing eloquent mood.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I think this is a good approach....a bit more positive and less violent than my suggestion to burn Bibles!

I think your ideas also have the ability to open the Bible up in a less threating way to others. Many of those who dogmatically push the Bible create an Us vs. Them: either you accept the Bible as "the Word of God" or you reject the Bible and God all at the same time. What "the Word of God" truly and actually translates into varies for each person, of course, and usually has more to do with the specific and peculiar way in which that person interprets the Bible.

The Bible just does not seem best served as a tool for dividing people: the Bible believin' type and the rest of us heathen folk.

God is bigger than language.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, indeed. God speaks in the Grand Canyon....and she does not need words.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Would we all agree that a person can make a truth claim without having to assert that it is The Objective Truth? Or, put another way, can a person make a claim to a moral truth (e.g., "women should not be forced to wear a veil over their faces if they do not want to") without grounding this truth in a higher power (the Bible, God, etc.)?

Functionally, it seems to work fine if we make strong truth claims and yet recognize that we could be wrong. This is something of spiritual/psychological point: that we can be passionate for what we believe and yet remain open to other sincere individuals who have differing perspectives.

Tamie said...

Yes, I do think that we can make truth claims without appealing to Objective Truth.

But at the same time, I think there has to be a way to argue for our truth claims, to give reasons (not necessarily rational or logical, but *reasons* nonetheless) for believing what we believe. This especially becomes important when we're asserting against the trend (like your example of women and headcoverings....if we were trying to assert that in the middle of Afghanistan or something).

But it does seem to me like trying to bring Objective Truth into it is just a sneaky move to make sure that God is on my side, not yours. Or something like that. Still....it *does* get tricky! And the consequences can be very real, of disagreeing about the truth of certain claims.