The Exegesis Industry

Imagine a page of text transcribed from a plain-spoken speech, outdoors, to a simple audience, which a reader with no other beliefs to defend would interpret without reaching for a dictionary.   Imagine, then, this page of plain text produces entire professions, entire industries, books literally 1000 pages long, all to tell new generations why it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean.

The Sermon on the Mount, of course.   It is punctuated throughout by the simplest  imperative mood.    In no other specimen of human speech would you wonder what in the world that imperative mood might mean.   If your human boss said to you “you heard x, but I’m telling you y”, you would hardly be puzzled at his profundity and reach for the logic manual.   Yet Christian clergy are brilliant at long, convoluted, smug theories why, when Jesus said “But I say to you…”,  He actually meant “Don’t feel bound by what I am about to say.”

It’s just the most clear example of what much of Christian theology through the centuries represents:  human ingenuity in the service of the avoidance of any degree of cognitive dissonance.  Obfuscation.  Not the obfuscation usually charged by our critics, which I suppose would be something like “You’ve covered over a perfectly useful nihilist  universe with obscurantist meaning.”  —  —   No, the obfuscations in making texts not say what they plainly say — so that they don’t conflict with other texts.

In this case, I’m so tired of gymnastics like “the law-gospel distinction”  being used to protect me from the horror of any behavioral pressure at all, as if the “gospel” carries no behavioral weight.    You guys can be oppressed by Jesus’  plain words all you want.  They actually sound like good news to me, even when I can’t figure out to do them.


The tone of orthodoxy, as represented in the great creeds, is the refusal to lessen cognitive dissonance via a rationalizing formulation.   So, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we reject both confusion and separation.   That this might feel like an affirmation of contradiction is not important.   This refusal (to make reason the systematizer of dogma) is consistent throughout the series of dogmatic questions the church answered, one by one, in the first 5 centuries.

I’m a Protestant.   But I cannot shake the impression that Luther reduced his cognitive dissonance over faith and works by simply reducing the canon.   The majestic grace passages are now the canon of the Protestant churches; all other NT passages are simply formed into new shapes that fit around the canon.  Instead of affirming all texts equally, and accepting, in fidelity to revelation, whatever dissonance results, we made a new, tighter canon.  A few paragraphs now interpret all the others.

All behavioral expectations are now “law” — meaning, second-class canon.

Read Protestant blogs.   Notice the rhetorical tropes that keep the dissonance down to a manageable level:

  • Theological argument by means of the  “I need” statement…”I need a gospel that…(doesn’t require anything of me)”
  • The pre-emptive suicide strike:  “I’m so bad…”   This usually starts an “I’m so bad..” CONTEST, which is suffused with the transgressive thrall one usually finds among adolescents at slumber parties.

“Grace” and sarcasm are both handy exegetical tools for managing dissonance.

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