Text and Antitext

There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in. — Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Sometimes we speak of those whom society neglects or rejects as being “marginalized.” It’s a revealing term. The margin is, of course, the area outside of the text. To be marginalized is to be written out of the text, out of the common narrative. It is to be subtracted, or excluded from the outset; to be relegated to the periphery; to be defined as an inessential footnote, even a meaningless mark. One may be noticed, but only as an adjunct to or distraction from the text, always and only in context of the narrative. Because the text, the narrative, defines reality for a society – not only explicitly, but, more importantly, in an implicit and therefore pervasive and immensely powerful way – to be marginalized is, effectively, to be made unreal.

Like the Ancient of Days in Blake’s wonderful illustration, the common narrative, that which we hold together, takes a compass to the face of the deep, to the surface of what looks like primal chaos. With that compass, it circumscribes, from infinite possibilities, a more manageable set. All outside the circle is declared void; all within is arranged in patterns or subsets, named, assigned to categories of meaning. We who are created by and absorbed in the narrative call this circumscribed set “the world,” “the universe.” We believe that the circle is somehow all-encompassing, that its area comprises all of “what is.” We believe so because the narrative, of necessity, tells us so. The narrative is, after all, our Father God. What he has included, we include; what he has marginalized, we marginalize: otherwise, we could find ourselves in the primal chaos. And so we who are on the inside gratefully accept the circumscription of his compass. We thank our God for enclosing us within the circle of meaning. And if we should see a crack in the wall that surrounds us, we automatically repair it, because living inside the circumference of what we hold together is how we “hold it together” in the face of chaos.

But sometimes we encounter one who calls all of that into question, someone who bears the name of Christ. He is not a reviser of narratives, nor is he the bringer of a new, competing text: he is himself the Anti-narrative, the Antitext. If we attend to him, we soon sense that he will break the circle beyond repair. So we turn away, tame him into objects and images, or replace him with a narrative-friendly dead ringer (Antichrist, a.k.a. religion and spirituality), because we are instinctively afraid. For we know that the text, in creating and sustaining the universe, creates and sustains us. If this new man destroys the narrative, we will no longer know names and places. Chaos will claim us. We will perish.

But we cannot wholly avoid him. Even if we succeed in blocking his presence in our hearts, his words won’t pass away. And although those words have been woven into the common narrative and thus rendered popularly impotent, they still harbor a ray of light, a spark of power. Now and then, some of us are curious about what his light might reveal as it filters weakly through cracks in our enclosure. Venturing trust in his wisdom and power, we stop patching the cracks awhile, and they widen. And when in his brightening light we see and feel the oppressive nature of our constructed, constricted universe, we are open to his offer of hope for a real world without walls, without margins – a world beyond the text.

Paradoxically, then, he raises us out of the text by means of words. According to our scriptures, Jesus the Antitext relied on story as a primary teaching tool. He used narrative against itself – that is, not to take a stand in one place or another within the circle, but to deconstruct the circle itself and thereby to bring down the walls, indeed the entire world, in which we and our marginalized exist.

A case in point is his story of the rich man and Lazarus. It goes something like this.

The rich man lives in a gated estate, surrounded by a wall. He has everything he could want and more, including a social subnarrative that not only justifies his manner of life but praises him for it, even decrees it a sign of divine election. Just outside his gate, relegated to the margin of the text, lies the beggar Lazarus, bleeding and starving. The rich man, who never leaves the estate, knows that someone is suffering out there. But that anonymous someone is beyond the pale, outside of the narrative that both creates and justifies his condition; ironically, the wretch’s failure to be included confirms the narrative’s determination that his reality is defective. The rich man feasts with a good conscience. Although I believe that I, being morally superior, would occasionally toss a piece of bread over the fence, he doesn’t do even that. Lazarus dies and is carried away by his kind; as is usual in our world, justice is relegated to the (marginal) hereafter. Life goes on.

For millions or billions of people who hear that story, life within the narrative does indeed go on. Where else could life take place? But for some, those for whom it serves as a visitation of judgment here and now, the story breaks the narrative world apart, revealing that its life is death. As the story goes on to make clear, Lazarus, socially marginalized but spiritually innocent, dies in and into life; the rich man, socially accepted and admired but spiritually guilty, lives in and into death. Ultimately, implies Jesus, turning the common narrative upside down in a Zen-like trope, Lazarus is real and the rich man is not.

When we Friends sit down together for worship, we form a smaller circle within the narrative circle. Comfortable there, we may be tempted to celebrate the place we’ve staked out, which seems morally superior to others, within the universe of the text. But sometimes, allowing the text to subside into silence, we hear the weak cry of Christ’s Lazarus who lies bleeding at our gate, and our hearts begin to crack, to break open. It is then that the light shines in, the light known to the world as Christ. It is then that, if we can find the courage to stop making repairs, the power of the light will widen the cracks and shake the foundations until the wall begins to come down. Waiting through that awful experience in faith, in trust, we enter the sacramental heart of Quaker worship. Our world and our identities having been deconstructed by the light, crucified by the power of love, we are buried with Christ in spiritual baptism. Living now in Christ, no longer in the text, we are “raised a spiritual body,” formed and fed not by words but by the silent life and power of God-who-is-love. In this new being, which no words can wall in, we know experientially the truth of the apostle Paul’s observation that “the text is of killing, but the spirit makes alive.”

When there is no text, there is no margin. No one is encompassed within, and no one is written out. In the life and freedom of Christ the power of love, all are included.

5 thoughts on “Text and Antitext

  1. Thank you for this. You’ve addressed a point that must be the prophets’ primary message: human beings are meant to order their lives not by cultural standards but by the law of Life. It’s a message that is repeated over and over again in Scriptures. One short, clear example is the exchange between Jesus and the woman at the well on the topic of worship. The woman presents two different cultural standards: “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus first denies either of these cultural forms, then identifies the ignorance behind their enactment, and finally describes the true worship: God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:20-24). It’s a hard sell, particularly to those in a religious community, where people often congregate primarily for the purpose of benefiting from a (sub)culture. Jesus’ fiercest opponents were the managers of the cultural scene.

    • You’re welcome, Friend. And thanks for tying that Johannine story in. Interestingly, I’ll be leading discussion on “Quaker worship” next Sunday, and I’ve been preparing a presentation that is based on that story. It may develop into a future post here, possibly a sequel to the current one.

    • The story of the Woman-at-the-Well is one of my favorites, because she represents one of the most marginalized people of that time, a woman of tarnished reputation and of a despised people, the Samaritans. In those times only men could initiate a divorce, so her marital history would indicate that she had been dumped by five men. She braved the heat of the day to fetch water, avoiding the social contact typical for other women. Jesus went way beyond the cultural margins of a good devout Jewish man to take time from his prayer hour to not only acknowledge her existence and speak to her, but to drink from her pitcher and discuss religious matters with her. Given the cultural context, not only the dialog, but the setting and characters of the store bear witness to the radical, beyond-the-margins nature of Christ’s message.

      • Your point about divorce is important and, in my experience, seldom heard. “You have had” indicates completed action, and the word “husbands” (implied, I see from the Greek, but unquestionably implied) seems to indicate legality, so popular assumptions such as that she was a serial sinner or prostitute are most likely to be very wrong. (By the way, after five attempts at marriage, just living with someone seems quite understandable.) It doesn’t seem to be noticed much, either, that Jesus does not advise her to repent — and noticing that would make the story more difficult to fit with the normal Christian moral narrative. Without demanding repentance — indeed, approving her for her honesty — Jesus does not withdraw the offer of the water of life. Further, he teaches her true worship and reveals himself to her as the Christ. Unable to produce a male to hear the message, she is nonetheless chosen by Jesus for direct revelation and the offer of salvation.

        Thanks for leading me into those investigations. I’m sure this will improve the presentation I’m working on.

  2. Your prose is compact, spare and economical. The definition of margin and “anti-text” were illuminating for me. The spirit is alive for me in these texts. Thank you!

    The discussion reminds me of comments Wess Daniels made at Quaker Heritage Day on 2/12/2011 at Berkeley Friends Church. He held up Jesus as a better model of missionary than Paul. “He didn’t proselytize, he invited people in. He redrew the lines of who’s in and who’s out, and he didn’t try to ‘convert’ anyone.”

    Your post and these comments illustrate that, it seems to me.

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