Shortly after moving to this side of the Smoky Mountains (the Tennesee side rather than the South Carolina side), I began to notice that the local dialect differed from my own. It was rounder, somehow, less nasal, but still with very strong “r’s.” Local phrases could also be puzzling. “I don’t care to,” for example, is used to mean, “I don’t mind.” It is deeply counter-intuitive, and sounds as though it means just the opposite. My wife had a somewhat embarrassing encounter when a local woman in a girl scout volunteer meeting kept responding to requests with, “I don’t care to.” My wife almost blurted out, “Then why not keep your mouth shut!” As it was, her polite nature prevailed and the faux pas was avoided. I’m not really sure you can have a faux pas in Appalachia. Here, we just say, “I messed up!”
That phrase, “I don’t care to,” if taken at face value, and in its literal meaning, surely cannot mean, “I don’t mind.” And yet it does. Indeed, locally, it’s considered quite polite. But context is everything. A phrase that would seem to have an obvious meaning everywhere else, might mean quite the opposite in the right setting.
It is possible to assume that things mean what seems most obvious. But such is simply not the case. I started my academic life as a Classicist (Latin and Greek). Studying documents that are two or three millennia old requires the assumption that you do not understand what you are reading. Homer’s heroes are nothing like Brad Pitt and the men of the movies. A good scholar sets aside his expectations and learns to listen. The consciousness of a Mycenaean Greek is not that of a modern Greek, much less that of an American suburbanite. When I read their word for “tree,” I think, “tree.” But my concept of tree is not at all theirs. Their trees can have an almost divine status. Our modern consciousness has little room for such a notion.
In my book, Everywhere Present, I describe the contrast between our modern spiritual concepts, particularly the “disenchanted” version of nature that we inhabit, and the spiritual understanding of the classical world. I dubbed our modern world as a “two-storey universe.” Modernity relegates spiritual things to a second-storey, the world of ideas. The world we live in is empty. There are still “single-storey” Christians where the distinction between material and spiritual is almost nonexistent. The first time you encounter one, their attitude towards the material world probably seems superstitious. But a modern person’s notion of “superstition” is simply a comment on the nature of his consciousness, not the nature of the world.
Human consciousness has changed in many striking ways since the time of the New Testament, to say nothing of the Old. To a certain extent, this means that we almost never read the Scriptures in a literal manner (certainly those who read them in translation do not). I highly recommend the works of Owen Barfield (one of the Inklings) on the nature of language and consciousness. Poetic Diction is perhaps the first, then, Saving the Appearances. Lighter reading is his History in English Words. But in all, he does a masterful job of demonstrating the nature of language and consciousness.
The study of Scripture is not exempt from this reality. The “mind of the Apostles” is not an idle notion. That mind belongs both to the first century, to the Hellenistic culture of antiquity, to a Galilean Judaism, and to a unique phronema made possible through the gift of Christ after His resurrection. All of those realities were manifest in the life of the primitive Church. Not only are those realities made manifest in the life of the primitive Church, but they also formed and shaped the liturgical ethos of the Church as well. Fr. Georges Florovsky described doctrine as a “verbal icon” of Christ. I would extend this thought to say that the liturgical life of the Church in its fullness is the most complete icon of Christ that we have. Doctrine should not be considered apart from worship. Doing so distorts it. Orthodoxy is right (ortho) glory or worship (doxa).
The most radical changes that have occurred in Christianity have always been associated with changes in the shape of worship. There is an ancient rule, lex orandi, lex credendi, the “law of praying is the law of believing.” The abstracting of doctrine allows Christians to imagine that the shape of worship is malleable without consequence. History has proven otherwise, time and again.
In reading Scripture, a consistent mistake is to imagine that the meaning is in the text. This is never the case when we read anything. In High School, I found reading Shakespeare to be somewhere beyond boring. I labored over the assigned texts, finding occasional familiar lines, but experiencing an opacity that stood as a barrier. “Why does anybody like this stuff?” I wondered. But in 1968, Zeffirelli produced the film version of Romeo and Juliet. It was an epiphany. Plays are not written to be read – they are written to be played!
The Scriptures are no different. When the Church considered the “canon,” the question was never an abstraction about the text. The authoritative question was centered around what was read in the Church. The gospels are liturgical texts. The epistles are expressly written to be read in the Church. The concern about Revelation was the fact that it was read in so few Churches (had it not been read in the Church of Rome, it would probably not be in the New Testament today).
Reading in the Church will seem unimportant to many, inasmuch as Church has become little more than an audience. Indeed, for those whose experience is a product of the repeated deformations of liturgical life, most of what I am saying will seem absurd. The Reformation restricted meaning to the text itself, separating it from the Church. One immediate result was the fragmentation of the Church (a process that has continued unabated). The text is everything; the Church, incidental.
The liturgical life of the Church, in its fullness, is drama, worship, instruction, character formation, sanctification and illumination. It is more kinesthetic than intellectual. It is of note that the Revelation of St. John describes a liturgy in heaven. Heaven is always depicted in a liturgical form. The liturgy of the Church is a living icon of heaven itself.
A great difficulty in explaining this is the tendency in our culture to reduce everything to text, or a set of ideas. Peyton Manning (a hero in Tennessee), is said to have watched football films for hours every day, analyzing them, studying them, raising the level of his game. I could imagine studying such a thing, and learning the “x’s and o’s,” but never like Peyton Manning or anyone who has actually played quarterback. He “reads” the game in a manner that cannot be expressed as an idea.
The fullness of the liturgical life is just such an experience. Indeed, the liturgy is not restricted to the Church service. The life of fasting, prayer, the giving of alms, are also an integral part of the liturgical life. I would recommend reading Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath to see a study in the destruction of the liturgical life in the context of a single English village over the course of the Reformation. The same Scriptures continued to be read, but the result could never be the same.
The life of the Church is, and always has been, the gift of God. Without it, the alien ethos of the world itself becomes the mind of faith.
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:20-21)