Mark 12:17

December 28, 2011

Last night I took Eleanor and Huw to Stratford for the RSC production of David Edgar’s Written on the Heart. It’s in the repertoire until early March so if you get a chance I recommend it. At the heart of the play is a constant dialogue between the spirit of Tyndale and the Bishop of Ely (see picture) who chairs the committee involved in the production of the King James Bible in 1611. Tyndale translated all of the New Testament and most of the old before he was “mercifully” strangled before being burnt.

The play rests on the age old dilemma between reform and the political realities of compromise. It also brilliantly demonstrates how language can gain huge contextual significance very quickly with the list of debates around which the play centres. Congregation or Church being one of the more obvious ones, charity or love a more subtle one. It is cleverly done, with humour and if you want an illustration of the limitations of algorithmic interpretation of language there is no better one than this play.

One of the ironies that are well illustrated in the debate between justification by faith or works. At the time of the reformation the concept of justification by works, was linked with the concept of purgatory and the corruption associated with selling of indulgences and the like. Rejection of works and the assertion of faith alone was thus a revolutionary act. In the 1960s and 70s Liberation Theology in part rested on a reassertion of the doctrine of justification by works and a validation of the role of religion in politics. In those days we took the strong position (and I still hold this) that all action was political, including inaction. By then justification by faith alone and excessive reliance on a particular interpretation of Mark 12:17 had resulted in an acceptance of any civil authority and our goal was to challenge that, to engage religion in the achievement of justice.

The point I am making here is that context transcends hermeneutics although it does not replace it (there are limits to my flirting with post-modernism here). We have to understand not only what is said, but how it is being said, by who and in what particular context. Words that gain symbolic meaning can also be repeated without understanding by adherents of a particular cult or faction event those articulating them may have no real knowledge.

The other revolutionary aspect of the play is the emphasis on literacy and an interesting twist here. The Bishop of Ely’s servant girl saw her Grandmother burnt, but has been taught to read and write by her father. She acts as a conscience, a protagonist in the tradition of the common man, for the Bishop. Again there are some twists on this. Literacy is key to the overcoming of tyranny, as is the ability to publish and to have access to material. At the time of the reformation this movement became focused on the need to read and understand the literal truth as laid out in whichever translation of the Bible you read. Again this was a rebellion against the catholic tradition for which the teaching of the Church overtime was a part of revelation. Again in the 70s that which had been the antagonist of revolution in the 17th century became the means of justifying revolution in a later period.

In a way, it is a pity that the legitimate revolutionary fervor of the reformation gave rise to the cult of the individual and the tyranny of calvinism. To pin a revolution on a religious text may make things easier, but sustainable?

Whatever language however will always be key, but human understanding of language in context is vital. We cannot live by algorithm alone…

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