Saturday, March 3, 2012

Canon and Letter Writing

This morning I wrote a letter to a friend.

Before I even put pen to paper, I rehearsed in my mind the main points I wanted to communicate to this beloved friend. After having the general blueprint assembled, I opened the computer to type out the architecture and frame of my friend's letter. Writing it probably took about 30 minutes. Each sentence had to flow into and out of its neighbors, no easy task.

After choosing only the right words and extirpating the wrong ones, I went to put pen to paper. This again was no easy task. The paper had to be just right. Was the card I selected big enough? Masculine enough? Not overly masculine? Were the corners too sharp? Would I have to write too small? Does this card lend itself to any script or should I write a bit fancier? Do I even have an envelope for my correspondence?

With these details established I sat to write my letter. This process took about another 45 minutes. Crafting the words, drawing the shapes, is an excruciating process. What if you have a typo? Do you discard the letter and begin anew? Should you show the marks and corrections? Does the letter seem more human for that? Does the letter seem less impressive if you show that it's not hermetically sealed? Flawless?

Despite my brilliant script, I still included and omitted a few words not authorized in the blueprints. (I hope those don't sound out of place. If they're so good, so necessary for the final product, why didn't they make my rough draft?)

And then the signoff... yikes. "Grace and peace"? "With love"? "Kindest regards"? "Yours in faith"? Goodbyes are especially difficult in ink because once the words hit the page, they cannot be unwritten.

Still, nothing is more permanent then when the letter hits the envelope and my dry tongue literally seals the missive's fate. The envelope is now literally sealed, but the letter's meaning is now also sealed. Once the letter is sealed, nothing can be unwritten. Neither can anything more be written. What is in the letter is everything that will ever be in the letter. Further letters may be written, further conversations had, but this one letter, 3 Mar 2012, is gone and nothing can erase its charm or its damage. And if I never speak to this person again, this letter will be poured over, read time and again. Any meaning it had either must be read explicitly from the page or through the white spaces between characters and lines. The letter cannot say anything more than it does, but neither can it say any less.

The Christian Bible was "sent" sometime around 2nd-4th centuries of the Common Era (see Craig Allert's A High View of Scripture? for a wonderful treatment on how the Bible came to be the text we have before us). When this Letter was sent, that was it. Nothing more could be said than what the text presently says. But neither could anything less be said. The community gathered and said, Thus far and no further. The text now, thank God, will only ever say what it says; the text also, thank God, will never have more or less words than it does.

So if there is something you want to know from Scripture, we now have only these words in which to find it. Should we get angry or not? Jesus seems to say no, Paul seems to leave room for it. Should we keep the Sabbath or remember it? What's the difference? Should we pray for the salvation of our enemies or the demise of their children?

When we have only one Scripture, and it cannot be altered, lessened, or increased, the only thing we can do is become better readers of this Letter. And yet we cannot read only this Letter. By virtue of it being "sent" means that some tradition exists wherein we realized what this Letter was, and what this Letter was not.

So can you say anything from Scripture? In some sense, Yes, because Scripture goes thus far and no further. It says nothing of microwave burritos, hybrid cars, raising puppies, or even how to conduct a marriage ceremony. Yet it leaves a terrific amount of white spaces between its characters, sentences, paragraphs, and books. One rabbi argues that Scripture quite literally contains everything - math, botany, zoology, sociology, psychology, physics, magic, everything! So, if we can faithfully orbit the script as planets 'round the sun, we can move in harmony with our Letter. But, herein becomes the No, not anything can be said from Scripture: being a traditioned people means that we confess that not every orbit works, not every rotation is harmonious.

To subscribe to this Letter and not that one, means that we've submitted to a tradition, a tradition that (once again) says, Thus far and no further. So to read this Letter well means that we read it in harmony with those who've read before us, those who knew its authors, those who were shaped by the disciples of the authors. Every reading of our Letter hangs on our recognition that we are never "merely contemporary" - even if your best dialogue partner is your grandmother, from whom did she get her tradition?

No one "just reads the Bible". (If such a thing existed, we'd probably see a lot more one-handed and one-eyed Southern Baptists.) There's too much space between the script of Scripture and our lived experiences on the ground. Paul only traveled to Rome from Jerusalem by boat, does that mean if we're making the same journey, we must only go by boat so as to avoid committing heresy?

Letter writing is liberating and painful. When you seal the piece, you risk volatility and sentimentality. Perhaps the words get abused. After all, the piece does not explicitly say, No, to my present endeavor - at best it may only say be careful. Perhaps people have found the letter too much to handle, so they select the best portions of the letter and then ignore the rest. Perhaps they have no regard for the letter at all, but the letter serves as a nice vehicle in making them feel better. Maybe the letter for them is just a vehicle for endorphins. Maybe the author has pained her audience too many times, and investing any more energy into any more of her words would simply be more than a thin heart could take.

There may be nothing more freeing than our Letter. But because, to use Renita Weems words, we're so fickle, the words easily become jumbled, abused, disjointed; the script becomes a sword.

In reading any letter there are always the things we're glad it says, the things we wish it didn't say, stuff we read that is there and stuff that isn't, and then there are the things we wish beyond words that the letter had said.

So I sent my letter this morning. I can't get it back. It's got these words and not those words. I'm not sure how my letter will be received. I did my best to articulate what I thought most needed be said. I even included a few nice words that may not have needed be said.

Our Scripture says only what it does. And yet it always says more and less than we were hoping for. We don't have a great history of reading the Letter well (although some have been more successful than others). And still, that Scripture is what it is and says what it does is a gift. Thank God that it only says what it does. Thank God it says nothing less than it does. Because herein means reading our Letter is a lifetime enterprise. (For one ancient thinker, the worst possible thing that could happen would be that we'd run out of questions for the Letter!) There will always be new readings to discover, fresh applicability in every situation. Because Scripture is closed, it is now open to speak in ancient, timeless and timely words, to any and every situation (by closing it, our tradition affirmed that anything we'd ever need to know could now be found in this Letter!). And because its reading is not always easy, not only will its words form us into a certain kind of people, but the very practice of reading it well will form us into a certain kind of people: disinclined, communal, forgiving, loving, intelligent, creative, flexible, fearless, fierce, graced, and forgiven.

Thank God for closed letters. It means that we need to take every word seriously, to suck the honey and water from every single crag and character, to drink milk from every single rock and paragraph, to seek manna and quail amidst every wilderness, book, and correspondence. We can only ignore the words of Scripture to our own peril. The closed canon reminds us that God never lets go, never relents in pursuing us; God is so committed to being with us, that He'll risk giving us words that might put us at odds with Him. He'll risk giving us words that are hard and uncomfortable, unfathomable words amidst words of peace, security, patience, calm. God doesn't offer easy life, He offers full life. In His Letter is full life, even if it's not the life we were expecting.

I'll send my letter today. I hope dearly that it is fully what he expected to find. I hope it isn't at all what he was hoping for. I hope it causes him to remember our past together. I hope it causes him to think about where we are in the present. I hope it encourages and strengthens him for the future. I hope he reads it and no matter how awkward the shapes on the page might be, we're still brothers afterwards. I hope the letter further concretizes our bond.

But then again it might not. That's the risk I take with sending a letter with only these words and not those...

1 comment:

  1. After I wrote this blog, I've gone back several times and edited it. The hand-scripted word, actual letter-marking on actual paper, offers no such forgiveness. I wonder what kind of writer I'd be if all my academics, all my papers, all my blogs and letters were written in ink and paper, if my writing was unforgiving and uneditable. I wonder how differently I might communicate with others if I viewed all words as having a certain kind of unabating eternality.