Understanding The Bible: Recognizing Genre
There is an old mystical Jewish belief that when God created all things, He did so by speaking their names (in Hebrew, of course). It was further believed (and here’s the mystical part) that if you could manage to speak that name in the right way, you, too, could cause it to be. The instinct behind this is true, regardless of our inability to do such a thing. That instinct is that there is a link between the truth of something and its name. When God created the heavens and the earth, and all the things that are in them, He gave them being, existence, goodness, and truth. There was not a single false thing that was created – only true. Indeed the Fathers write about three things that are somewhat interchangeable: Goodness, Beauty, Truth.
This sense of the connection between the words we speak and the goodness, beauty and truth of the world find a connection in the simple injunction: “Do not lie.” We generally think of lying as being sinful because it has the potential to cause harm. And we thus describe certain lies as “harmless.” But there is a deeper problem with lying: it attempts to create what does not exist, or, rather, to uncreate what does. It becomes the enemy of Goodness, Beauty and Truth. We should take to heart the fact that our adversary is named the “father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).
Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously (and correctly) said that in the sacraments of the Church, we do not make something to be other than it is, but to reveal it for what it truly is. St. Basil sounds this same theme in his Eucharistic prayer. The priest prays that God will “bless, hallow and show this bread to be the Body of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ…” In Orthodox practice, the most essential moment in the Liturgy is the “epiclesis” the “calling down” of the Holy Spirit on the gifts. This is the “Spirit of Truth.” The Holy Spirit does not make us or anything into what it is not, but reveals its truth.
This pattern is consistent with all of Christ’s miracles. The lame are made to walk, not to fly. A human being becomes truly human at the words and hands of Christ. Of course, revealing the truth of someone is not always welcome (if the heart has come to hate the truth). As Christ walks through the land, people are shown to be what they are. In this sense, Christ is the Judge (Shophet). The Judge sets things right. But the Judge doesn’t set things right by forcing and making them to be right. Things are simply revealed in their rightness, their truth. But this truth is so “truly true,” that sickness and its falsehood are swept away.
In the resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, they say, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road?” The truth, when it is truly and rightly spoken, brings forth a burning “Yes!” within us that wants to leap to its fulfillment. Someone recently wrote asking, “How do we know when our words are true words?” I would say that they are true when they are trending in this same manner (towards the burning “Yes!”). And this points to the strange case of “falsely true” words that injure and maim.
In Acts 19, we are told of the “seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest,” who tried to perform an exorcism saying, “We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches…” The demoniac turns and attacks them saying, “Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are you?” Words alone are not the thing. These were right words, spoken to the right persons (the demons), but lacked the right heart. They spoke what they did not know.
I see this frequently, particularly in the abuse of theology and doctrine. I was asked last year to speak at a writers’ conference. The topic was writing and the spiritual life. One of the more important points of that talk was to say, “Only write about what you know.” This same advice was given me years ago about sermons. Why (or how) could I preach what I don’t know? And yet, such sermons are quite common. They may be factually correct, or morally correct, but they may do more damage than good. Those who are ordained are not charged with repeating what they’ve read. They are charged with speaking the word of God. That word is living and active and can only be spoken “by heart.” I do not mean it cannot be written. But it must be written and known in the heart before it can be spoken and true. Our words fall short of this goal many times, if not most. It is wisdom, however, to understand this reality and hold it in mind when we speak – particularly when we speak of the matters of God.
I spent a week in an icon workshop with the late Xenia Pokrovsky. I recall her statement concerning an icon that depicted a very grievous incident. She declared, “This is not an icon!” I remember looking at it and thinking, “But it’s painted in the correct style, etc.” She said, “It has hate. A true icon cannot have hate.” And I could see that it was true. Nothing that breeds hate in the human heart has about it the nature of truth. This is a hard saying.
We are a people who live by facts (or imagine that we do). We think that a fact “just is,” and is neither one thing nor another – it just is. As such, we think that facts are neutral things. But this is secularism. Nothing in all of creation is “neutral.” Nothing “just is.” Everything exists only as it relates to God. Everything exists only as it exists in the truth. It’s “fact-ness” can be beside the point, and even contrary to the point.
In our digitalized, printed world, we have access to almost everything. The vast discourse of the saints, the details of the canons, the deeds and records of empires, are all available to almost everyone. Someone wants to make a point and assembles a long list of quotes drawn from the saints. Every word written is true, and yet the presentation is not true. It is impossible to argue with such things – you are resisting the saints! And it is equally impossible to help someone whose heart is in delusion to understand that such a collection can be false – primarily because it was assembled by a false heart.
The Scriptures are abused in the same manner. It is terribly frustrating to be confronted with a vast collection of verses gathered in the service of a false teaching. The same thing was confronted by the fathers early on. Fr. Georges Florovsky gives this summary of an account by St. Irenaeus:
Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems (the ψηφιδες) were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed — λυσας την υποκειμενην του ανθρωπου ιδεαν. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — λυοντες τα μελη της αληθειας. Words, expressions, and images —ρηματα, λεξεις παραβολαι —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the υποθεσις (hypothesis), is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).
The true “hypothesis” must first be found in a pure heart. How can a heart that cannot see God proclaim God in the truth?
If all of this pushes us towards silence, then well and good. “Even a fool is considered wise when he remains silent.” But it should also push us towards God and the purification of the heart. Only the path of true repentance founded in love, meekness, and kindness, can find such purity. When words produce anxiety, fear, shame, condemnation, and sadness then we should pay attention to their fruit. Perhaps the words are “true” but they are not God’s words-for-you.
A word spoken in due season, how good it is! (Prov. 15:23)
Christ warns us about our words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mat. 7:21). Christ means to draw us into our hearts, into the reality of our communion with Him. We do not find Him in the “letter of the Law” but beneath the letters where He dwells in richness. Even in the words of the saints, what is true must be found within the same heart that spoke them. There are no short-cuts to knowledge, to truth, to beauty or goodness. They only come in true union with Christ.
The Fathers of the 7th Council declared, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Everyone who writes or speaks is an iconographer. Either we make present what is declared in heaven, or we reveal the opposition that is found in our heart. There is only this.