The Message and the Interpretation
Copyright 2010, John Manimas Medeiros
The purpose of this "book review" is to show you how and why The Primacy of Stewardship is truly unique, unlike any other book ever written about the Gospels. The reason I am saying that my book is unique is not because I believe it will persuade prospective readers to buy the book. It is my understanding that unique books are not popular and not successful. The reason I am explaining the uniqueness of my book is honesty. If you are the kind of reader who likes the familiar, just a slight tweak to an old idea, do not waste your money on this book. You will hate it.
One Can Interpret the Message Any Way They Want:
Have you ever heard it said that the Bible can be interpreted however one wants it to be interpreted? In other words, the argument is that one can use the Gospels to defend almost any philosophy or moral viewpoint. The purpose of this essay is to prove that this is wrong, and that there is only one message that is the correct "interpretation." This is not the same thing as proving what that correct interpretation is. Different analyzers of the message find different results, but only one of them is the correct message. So long as one feels uncertain as to whether the correct message has been accurately received, one has to continue searching, continue study, consider every possible interpretation -- if the true message is deemed to be important.
The Four Parts of a Communication:
First consider the parts of any communication. While we usually think of a communication as a single event, it can be better understood as being made of four distinct events that are in a reasonable sense separate events. Which one is the communication? Which one is the message being communicated? There is an inescapable reality that tells us every communication presents a risk of misunderstanding or of miscommunication.
A helpful way to think of every communication is to consider what is happening when one is listening to a radio. The common radio broadcast is a "program" sent out or "broadcast" to multiple receivers. This is different from radio transmitters and receivers that are used for communication between one sender and one receiver, such as with a walkie talkie, or Citizen Band radio, or cell phone. Whether the "message" is the news or a description of how to maintain one's car, the radio communication is made the same way, and it is similar to two persons having a conversation.
#1) There is the sender, the radio transmitter, or the person speaking.
#2) There is the message itself, sent in the form of a code or language. There are of course rules for each code or language, such as English or French or Chinese.
#3) There is the receiver of the message, either the radio receiver or the person who is listening to the message that was sent by the radio sender or person speaking.
#4) There is then the message received or the interpretation of the language of the message that is performed by the receiver.
The subject of interest here is whether the fourth part, the interpretation of the message made by the receiver is exactly the same as the second part, the message sent. One can see readily that the process of communication can entail differences among the four parts that will result in the interpretation of the message being different from the original message sent. This is especially true in the case of two persons engaged in a conversation, or who are communicating by written notes. This problem in human communication is often demonstrated to children, as a valuable lesson, by having the children play the game called "Gossip." Approximately ten young children, or more, sit in a circle, and one is selected to begin the transmission of a story or message -- from the adult teacher or guide -- by whispering in the ear of the child next to them, say to the right. That child then whispers the message in the next child's ear, and so on until the last child hears the final version of the message whispered. Then the last child states aloud what they heard, and then the teacher or guide announces the content of the original message. The difference between the original message and the final interpretation is often deemed comical. Of course, in real life, such "gossip" is often destructive and not at all comical to a person who's reputation is damaged. We can see that in this game of "Gossip" or in the case of any voice transmission or personal conversation, the interpretation or message received is not necessarily exactly the same as the message sent. We sometimes say that a person hears what they want to hear.
This potential difference between the original message sent and the interpretation is always present. In fact, our brains interpret every oral or written message, no matter how simple a message may be, such as "lunch at 12:15 pm." Every word, every written mark, such as punctuation marks, or any change in tone or volume affects the interpretation of an oral or written word message. Let's take a look at the situation regarding a complex message, such as a political philosophy or religious teaching. Let's consider such a message to be a kind of "remote" message, meaning that it is complex, and was sent in the past, and the original language has been translated one or more times, and the exact meanings of ancient words might not even be available to us.
Six parts of an ancient or remote coded communication:
#1) There is the person speaking or writing or the original source of the message.
#2) There is an original message that we should define as the intended message.
#3) There is the message itself, sent in the form of the original code or language. There are of course rules for each code or language.
#4) There is the translation, or multiple translations of the original language of the original message. Each translation is an intervening interpretation.
#5) There is the receiver of the message, the person who is reading and studying the message that was sent by the original source.
#6) There is then the message received or the interpretation of the translated language of the message that is performed by the final receiver.
The Source is Subject to the Human Habit of Authoritarianism:
The first problem we encounter in interpreting the "message" of the New Testament (as well as the Old Testament of course) is the obsession with and enduring controversy over what or who is the source of the message. If one concludes that the source is the Creator God, then the validity of the message cannot be disputed. The Creator God is defined as the creator of the universe, an anthropomorphic being who knows everything and has all powers over the laws of Nature and whose will is supreme over all others. The message would have to be perfectly true and perfectly important if it is from the Creator God. That still does not mean that the receiver of the message got it right. Humans, the receivers of the message, are deemed to be less than perfect, and certainly demonstrate a capacity to misunderstand what is told to them, regardless of the source. Therefore, although the source of the message is naturally important to us, and knowing the source of the message would help us assign the proper importance to the message, identifying the source is not the same thing as properly understanding the message. The receiver interprets the language and meaning of the message, and therefore the message cannot be sent with perfect accuracy if the receiver is capable of misunderstanding. Therefore, all claims that the Bible or the Gospels are the word of God do not add anything to the accuracy of our interpretation of the message. We can say that the Gospels are the word of God, but that does not demonstrate to any meaningful degree that we humans have received the message accurately. We can misunderstand.
What this means is that arguments about what or who is the source of the message (the message being the Gospels) do not determine the content or final interpretation. Anyone can have pre-conceived ideas about what God, or any god, has to say to humanity, or to a particular individual or group of humans, but that is "pre-interpretation." Rational concepts or beliefs about the definition of God or what God would be likely to communicate to humans creates an interpretation even before the message is considered. This habit of authoritarianism is twofold and can "pre-determine" one's interpretation of the Gospels before one even reads or studies a single phrase. First, we practice authoritarianism by attributing the authority of the position or office to the message sent. This is simply the same thing as saying that since the message is from God -- or from the President, or from a lawyer, or from a scholar or an expert -- it must be true and correct and we have no basis to doubt the content of the message or its significance. This causes one to argue "from the source" and render an automatic interpretation "by authority" of the message, but not really a study and examination of the message itself, meaning the content and communicating language of the message. This behavior of authoritarianism actually has the effect of eliminating careful examination of the message. Who is so arrogant as to question the word of God?
The second impact of pre-interpreting the source is to add on an expectation as to what would be the logical subject matter of a message from that particular source. This is pervasive in the case of the Gospels and has controlled their interpretation continuously and in every culture since they were first written. For reasons that are psychological, or one might say for reasons that arise from the core of human nature and the human identity, people have persistently and exclusively expected the message of the Gospels to be about morality. This is based, apparently, on the profoundly conformist and universal viewpoint that if and when God speaks to us God will certainly speak to us about what is good (virtuous) behavior and what is bad (sinful) behavior and how we will be rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior. With this being the given starting point, the initial assumption, for everyone who considers the Gospels, then the content of the message is already pre-interpreted in terms of its basic meaning. All that is left are some petty disputes over the details of what is immoral and what is virtuous and a variety of opinions as to what was intended, in the original message, with regard to some interesting social concepts such as "forgiveness," "love" and "charity" and so forth.
The crucial point here is this: Although we feel like we are engaged in serious debate about the content of the Gospels, and although we see ourselves as exercising a great deal of free expression and "freedom of religion" in our many discussions of different interpretations of the Gospels; and although we have even engaged in incredibly vast and destructive wars over interpretations of the Gospels, we have not seriously questioned the initial assumption that when God speaks to us, or the source communicates with us, the subject of the communication must be morality. Therefore, although we think we have been engaged in examination of the Gospels for centuries, what we really have been engaged in is a violent dispute regarding the pre-interpretative opinion that the source of the message is the Creator God and therefore it must be about moral rules that cannot be questioned. I call this a "pre-interpretive opinion" because when we continue in this habit of insisting upon a strictly defined identification of the source, prior to examination of the message, and insistence that the subject matter of the message is moral behavior, we have in effect practically eliminated any genuine effort to examine the message itself, because the message is already pre-interpreted both as to source and as to the thematic or fundamental content. We have pre-conceived that: The message is from God and it is about morality. This makes the message already 90% interpreted and all of the appearance of bold and dramatic debate is contrived comparisons of personal opinion. That is why it has been said: "You can interpret the Bible any way you want." Because it is pre-interpreted in so far as it is about personal morality, which humans have held since the dawn of history to be a personal and private matter, not belonging to the authority of the state. That is why there are major differences between what is "against the law" and
what is a "sin."
There is a solution to this problem, which is to remove the preconception as to the source and the preconception that the message must be about morality. Before we move on to such a project, here is the time to suggest that any reasonable person look back at the list of six parts of a "remote" communication. Ask: Which of the six parts of such a message is closest to being the correct message, or the correct interpretation? I believe it is obvious to any rational person that the correct message or proper interpretation is the content of #2, the intended message that the source wanted to communicate. Whoever successfully discovers, by study and labor and effective interpretation, the intended message, has got it right. That is the correct interpretation, and all other interpretations are incorrect.
Liberate the Source and Liberate the Subject and Theme:
First, one has to free oneself from the authoritarian habit of focusing on the source as the basis for the authority or validity of the message. We often attribute validity to the source, as when we say about an idea or a story: "Consider the source." But in reality, in terms of what is a scientific method, the source does not in itself confirm or discredit the authority of a message -- except perhaps in the case of "God." This is why I say: "The truth is the same no matter whence it came," and "Whoever speaks the truth speaks from the highest authority." Experts are often wrong. Scientists sometimes rather candidly acknowledge that from the viewpoint of what science is, experts are always wrong, because their knowledge is from the past and will soon be revised in the future. And, infants and uneducated adults can speak profound truths, and understand fully what they mean. Thus, the truth is the same no matter whence it came.
The Five Possible Sources of the Message in the Gospels:
This means that the source of the Gospels does not in itself necessarily confirm the validity of the message. However, the source is important. Still, we do not need to establish the source beyond reasonable doubt in order to proceed to examine the message in a scientific manner. Toward the purpose of having us study the Gospels scientifically, let's say that the Gospels are a message that is probably an important message, and that we do not know the source precisely, but we can list five possible sources:
One: Jesus alone, charismatic person and profoundly skilled philosopher and observer of human behavior, who by himself provides the parables and wisdom that constitute the entire message that we have received as the Gospels.
Two: Jesus not alone, but still a charismatic person and profoundly skilled philosopher and observer of human behavior, who by himself with a special educational and training experience, provides the parables and wisdom that constitute the entire message that we have received as the Gospels. This means he probably traveled and studied and practiced during the eighteen years of his "absence" (from age 12 to 30) in many lands, possibly Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Rome, and possibly even China, Tibet and parts of North Africa such as Ethiopia.
Three: Jesus not alone, but still a charismatic person and profoundly skilled philosopher and observer of human behavior, who by himself with a special educational and training experience, provides the parables and wisdom that constitute the entire message that we have received as the Gospels. This means he probably traveled and studied and practiced during the eighteen years of his "absence" (from age 12 to 30) in many lands, possibly Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Rome, and possibly even China, Tibet and parts of North Africa such as Ethiopia. And further, thirdly, the body of knowledge he came to master -- the message -- was not the result of any single ethnic or national tradition or sect but was in fact the accumulated record of wisdom and knowledge from the Gnostics and Greeks and Eastern cultures which represented a universal collection of the wisdom and knowledge of humankind to date. This option best explains the universal quality of the Gospel message that lifts it above the traditional sectarian or tribal religion of the Hebrews, even though Jesus was biologically and by cultural heritage a Hebrew.
Four: Jesus was a messenger from a superior extraterrestrial humanoid species that was sent on a mission to provide the human species with important information about what it means to be a technological animal, or intelligent species, and what are the traits and obligations and the possible destinies of such a species on a water planet like Earth.
Five: Jesus was God, or the Son of God and the Holy Spirit in a Holy Trinity, and in any case Jesus was essentially the "incarnation" of the divinity that created the universe and came to us in the form of a human being, Jesus, in order to tell us what we needed to know, or to tell us what He, God, considers to be good behavior and bad behavior so that we could be a loved and approved by God instead of being sent to bed without dinner or sent to Hell without any hope of salvation and reconciliation with God.
So, one can see immediately that the only two possible sources of the message that have been given a chance over the past two thousand years are One and Five: either Jesus is just an ordinary human being who happened to be a really good moral philosopher or He was God. And because people get stuck on this debate, and have not been able to get unstuck from it, the entire message of the Gospels is validated or discredited, or treated as being of minor or cosmic importance, based entirely on this pre-conceived conclusion as to the source. AND, in order to study the Gospels objectively and scientifically, one must liberate the source or be liberated from it and begin one's study with the open minded and open ended premise that there are at least these five major possible sources, and it does not matter which is the true source. What matters is whether the message is credible. And how will we go about evaluating the credibility of the message itself, without reference to an established source?
The Second Most Likely Theme and Subject Matter of the [Liberated] Gospels:
In order to liberate the subject matter and theme, or be liberated from a pre-conception that it must be about morality, we have to simply cancel that assumption out -- accordingly as one's mind is capable of doing that. Teachers of meditation, whether Buddhist or Zen or Hindu or Sufi or other invariably describe meditation and the search for enlightenment as beginning with the step of "clearing one's mind." It has been said that one cannot begin meditation properly until one's mind is "empty." It is my understanding that one of the great teachings of the Buddha (I cannot cite the source here) is that the Buddha said that in order to achieve enlightenment one must be able to go beyond one's own experience. That is an astounding concept! It is wonderful to be human and possess intelligence and therefore learn from experience. But how can I learn from an experience that I do not have? Well, I am going to leave that specific challenge up to each individual reader. However, since people have regarded the Gospels strictly as moral philosophy ever since they have existed, it follows logically that the most likely alternative pre-conception of the subject matter is that it is not about morality but is instead about ordinary factual information, or about science, is itself actually scientific information about the real, physical universe. It might be therefore, information that we need, what we need to know about who we are and what our destiny might be and what rules of the universe or natural laws are going to determine the outcome of our journey as a species. Even if it were God speaking to us, is this not a likely purpose for a message from God? To tell us what we need to know about Nature and our place in Nature.
Where Does Liberation of the Gospels Lead?
This is what I did. I detached myself from the source and began my study with the open ended assumption that the message was valuable and important, but that it could have come from any of the five main possible sources. In all five cases, the source is worthy of consideration and possesses sufficiently valid authority to be seriously examined. I detached myself from the persistent pre-conception that the Gospels are about morality and about rewards in an imaginary heaven and punishments in an imaginary hell. Instead, I began my study with the assumption that the message was from a source interested in us, the human species, similar to the way that we are interested in the welfare and preservation of the blue whale and mountain gorilla and dolphins and especially beautiful owls, fish or butterflies or medicinal plants. That is sufficient cause for the source to desire to communicate valuable information to us. I also assumed that instead of being about morality the message is in fact science. The message of the Gospels is a message intended -- the intended message -- to convey to us important facts about who and what we are, our place in the universe or in relation to the whole of Nature, and the possible outcomes of our journey in this universe as a species of technological animal or intelligent species.
So there you have the reasoned explanation of why I wrote The Primacy of Stewardship: The Handbook for Christians Who Believe in Democracy, and HOW I studied the Gospels in order to produce this book as the results of my labor. To the best of my knowledge and belief, no one has done this with the intensity of scientific objectivity and care that I have. This makes my book unique and of great interest to those who like a fresh and different viewpoint, and worthless to anyone who prefers the comfort of familiar ideas.
The author, being college-educated but ever respectful of learning from life, married and raising children, completing a career as a religion teacher and social worker, and having considered information from history, psychology, physics, mathematics, biology and brain development as well as world religions, searched the Gospels three times for the main message and those concepts that are consistent with modern science and consistent with the main, unified message, and found what is accurately defined as The Primacy of Stewardship, from the evolution of life to the next successful evolutionary step in human development, instead of self-destruction.
My book is my report of conclusions following a soundly designed scientific experiment. If another person follows the same experimental procedure, searching the Gospels for the main message and for concepts that are consistent with modern science, and consistent with the initial assumption that the purpose of the message is to tell human beings what they need to know about who and what they are, and what the human destiny can be, you will get the same results. You will come to the conclusion that the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of life in the universe, and good stewardship is the character trait that the human species must have in order to survive and thrive indefinitely. In the real world, "indefinitely" is the equivalent of "forever." The message you are looking for is the message intended to be transmitted by the sender. Believing that the sender intended to transmit valuable information to you, set morality aside and examine the message with an open and adaptable mind. Follow the path of the truth wherever it leads.
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