Journalism Rears Its Ugly Head

Nothing against journalists.

The “journalism” I have in mind is the perverse practice of reading the Bible as if you were reading a newspaper account. I think the Bible should be read as if it were a sermon with really terrific illustrations. [1] I want to introduce, for my own convenience, really, the Greek term kerygma (preaching) so I can use the adjective form kerygmatic as the alternative to “journalistic.”

I was taught and so was nearly everyone I know to read the Bible as if it were a newspaper. Thinking of the gospel accounts for instance, you can harmonize them so that they appear to be a single story. Then you can ask the journalistic questions even though you are asking them of authors who cared nothing about those questions at all. Or you can read each of the gospel accounts as if it were a newspaper account and say that there are contradictions between Matthew’s news story and John’s.

In every group where I have a chance to reflect on the meaning of biblical texts, I have been pushing the idea that the gospel accounts ought to be read like sermons (kerygmatically) not like newspapers (journalistically). Not infrequently, I forget to apply that teaching to myself and I find myself doing what I was taught to do. And teaching others to forego journalistic reading is a tough sell too because they were taught it, just as I was, and may have been using it all their lives.

A Kerygmatic Reading of the Birth Narratives

So it is a hard lesson to teach, but every now and then, I surprise myself by succeeding and I want to tell you about one such instance. This week, I was meeting with a group of friends and working on Matthew’s account of the Birth Narrative. This group has been running, in one form or another, for several years and everyone knows by now how I bristle at journalistic questions—questions that arise from reading the Bible as if it were a newspaper—and how firmly I rely on kerygmatic questions.

We were talking about Matthew’s use of “the wise men” and the magical star and the role judo 1played by Herod and his team of scholars. Why does Matthew have characters like this? How does he prefigure the gospel he is about to write by the stories about Jesus’ birth?  I love this picture because it shows the Wise Men following the star to Jerusalem (which they did not do) instead of from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (which they did do).

We started with Romans 1. I know there are lots of things wrong with a combination like that, but it had occurred to me the week before that Paul, in making the case that the righteousness provided by the Jesus event was necessary for everyone, needs to say that the Gentiles have their own access to the truth about God. What you really need to know about God can be readily observed in nature, he says. Here is Romans 1:19—20 in the New Jerusalem Bible.

19For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them, since God has made it plain to them: 20 ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse:

That ending establishes why Paul included a section on the Gentiles: they are without excuse. In Chapter 2, he makes the same argument, by a different route, about the Jews. They don’t have any excuse either.

What does all that have to do with Matthew’s Birth Narrative? Nothing, really, but I got to wondering whether Matthew introduces a bunch of Gentile magicians/astrologists/scholars [2] just so he can show that the knowledge of nature doesn’t get you all the way there. It got them to Jerusalem just fine, but it took more—it took the revelation of God’s intentions in the scriptures—to get them to Bethlehem. [3] There is a sermon to be had there, but I am on my way somewhere else.

Matthew is setting up a gospel that will encompass the Gentiles as well as the Jews. That is why he includes non-Israelite women in the genealogy. It is why the risen Jesus tells the apostles (28:19) to make disciples of all nations. That is what the “academics from the East” are for. All this makes sense from the standpoint of Matthew, collecting and displaying the stories he has about Jesus so that it will make the point he wants to make. Or, to say the same thing more briefly, it makes sense kerygmatically.

Kerygmatic Judo?

I know I am pushing this one point pretty hard, but I need to do that because the story I want to tell you is what happened when this group—one guy in particular—knocked the props out from under me. [4] I’m like the dog that keeps on chasing cars without the slightest notion of what he will do if he catches one. I am trying and trying to do away with journalistic reading and to establish kerygmatic (scholarly) reading and this week I experienced total victory and had no idea at all what to do.

One of the guys says, “You have established beyond a doubt (in this group at least) that “understanding these texts” means understanding them from the standpoint of the narrator. Where did these stories come from? Who assembled them? For whom? When? Why?” That’s really all I had been trying to do.

“Now,” he said, “Given that, I think it is worth our while to ask some subordinate questions, some supplementary questions. [4] Let’s pretend, for just a moment, that the Wise Men came into town and chatted with people on their way to the palace. They could have. They did need to find Herod, after all. If they did, that gives a little bite to Matthew’s account, where he says (2:3) that the whole of Jerusalem was perturbed when the Wise Men showed up asking for the new king. What new king? When? Where? What does that mean for us? Popular interest in the visitors and their message could have put Herod on the spot.

And Herod appears to have gone to some trouble not to let his own scholars, the scribes, get anywhere near the Wise Men. Herod goes to his own academics (2:4—6) and gets the scriptural account. Then he leaves the academics in the library and goes back to the throne room and sends the Wise Men off to Bethlehem.

Joseph's HouseMy approach, emphasizing the point of the story Matthew is putting together, has not raised at all the question of the spot Herod was in. That’s not what Matthew’s interest was. The journalistic account my strategic friend was using—in what looks to me in retrospect like a judo move— did raise those questions and I have to say, they are really interesting. Just how is it that “the whole of Jerusalem was perturbed?” I never wondered that. How is it that Herod never meets with his own academics and the academics from the East at the same time? Does the general upset of the city affect how he has to play his own cards?  This picture has been adapted by my son, Doug, to show how else the Wise Men could have found the house where Joseph and Mary lived.  It was the one with the Christmas lights.

All new questions to me and all questions worth wondering about. They are not, clearly, the questions Matthew was wondering about, but asking them sensitizes us to new ways of thinking through the story he does tell and that is all to the good. It is all to the good PROVIDED we don’t have to give up careful textual scholarship for casual journalistic musing.

But that is where my friend’s approach was so wonderful. He granted me everything I had been pushing so hard and so long to achieve. There is no longer a question of reading journalistically RATHER THAN kerygmatically. The scholarly reading is taken for granted. I won. So now, why not ask these other questions, given that the final rule of interpretation in our group is the scholarly one?

I don’t know. I had never won before. I have no idea how to proceed. So the group went on and indulged in a bunch of journalistic speculation and I enjoyed it as much as everyone else.

[1] There are limits. Christianity is a historical religion. It is based on the occurrence of actual events, some of which are established in the scriptural accounts. Not many.
[2] There are lots of handles you can use to pick up just what kind of people “the wise men” were. I call them “academics,” partly because they were thought to be learned and partly because they appear to have had no common sense at all.
[3] And then it took the star, again, to get them to the right house.
[4] And since I wrote that, he did it again. I wrote to him asking his permission to use his name in this essay. He gave his permission, but he also said, having read the essay, that he thought it worked better without the name than with. I agree.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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