OR THE LIBERAL'S LASSO

by Ryan Ross

Prologue

There were three directors working in three different theaters. Each one wanted to stage a performance of the same script: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

Boston

The director in Boston held auditions and chose his cast. At their first cast meeting he explained his approach to the actors.

"Expect radical revision of the script," he said. "Shakespeare lived four centuries ago. There are things in his scripts that audiences of that day could accept but that modern audiences cannot. To make Romeo and Juliet relevant to modern theatergoers means to stop treating the script as if it were sacrosanct and start using our own ingenuity.

"First of all--the tragic ending has to go! It's far too romantic and corny for anyone today to find it believable. As you can see, I've written a new ending. Romeo and Juliet will finally get married after all, over their parents' wishes. Then, in the new final scene, we will re-visit the couple fifteen years later. Their incompatible family backgrounds will have caught up with them and they will be in the middle of a divorce, fighting over custody of their three children. This will be much more realistic.

"Since my re-write of the ending makes the play longer, I've also cut the play in other areas. The Franciscon friars, Laurence and John, have been changed into psychoanalysts. Tybalt's role has been eliminated entirely, as has the role of Juliet's nurse.

"Since modern audiences don't like poetry in plays, I've re-written the entire script in slang prose. No one believes people walk around spouting poetry, and no one can seriously believe that a couple so young as Romeo and Juliet could be so eloquent. I think you'll find the new version much more true to life: Romeo will speak in the accents of a Brooklyn cab driver and Juliet will be played as a Valley girl.

"In this way," he concluded, "we can finally make Shakespeare's characters real for modern audiences!''

The play was performed. Some people liked it, but most people didn't. And the people who were seeing Romeo and Juliet for the first time were appalled that Shakespeare could have written a play so mundane, despairing, and of such poor literary quality.

Birmingham

The director in Birmingham held auditions and chose his cast. At their first cast meeting he explained his approach.

"You know, "he said, "there's just a whole lot of people that think they can do anything they want with Shakespeare's script. But not us, brothers! Not us! For us, the script will be the authoritative pattern! We will respect it. We will honor it. We will not add to it nor take away from it. We will perform the script and only the script!

"This means that we will add nothing that is our own interpretation. Understand me, brothers: any action not expressly authorized in the script is forbidden on stage! That means no tears, no laughter, no gestures, no movement, no facial expression, no changes in the tone of your voice--Nothing!--unless the script specifically calls for it. Shakespeare was a great playwrite. His work does not require any sort of arrogant 'assistance' from any actor. It is living and powerful all by itself.

"You've noticed by now that I've chosen an all-male cast. There's a good reason for this, In the great playwrite's day, all the roles were played by men. Therefore, we must do the same! Some people would like to see a female actress playing Juliet--but it's presumptuous to think we can improve on an arrangement used by the great playwrite himself.

"There will be people in the audience who won't like our performance. They will revile us and persecute us. But don't let it cause you to shrink back! What truly matters is what the great playwrite would think! I'm sure he would praise us for letting his work speak for itself, unencumbered with foolish 'interpretation.' He would say, 'Well done!' and would reject all the other performances as being false to his intentions.''

The play was performed. Some people liked it, but most people didn't. And the people who were seeing Romeo and Juliet for the first time were appalled that Shakespeare could have written a play so stiff, monotonous, and lifeless.

Fairfax

The director in Fairfax also held auditions and chose her cast. At their first cast meeting she explained her approach.

"I've been thinking a lot about how this play can best be performed," she said. "There's no question that we should begin with respect for the script. Shakespeare was a genius who knew what he was doing. This masterpiece is still being read and watched after four hundred years because it presents us with memorable characters, beautiful poetry, and noble ideas.

"Still, the script is only a script. It does not become a true play until it is performed. Shakespeare knew this. He knew that real people on a real stage would have to bring his scripts to life by using their own minds, hearts, and skills. And he knew what anybody knows: that these factors would be different for every troupe that performs the work.

"So we will trust the script and treat it fairly. Although we will have to supply most of the stage action ourselves, the script will always be our guide. All of our actions, expressions, and emotions will be in response to it. The result may not be the only way to do Shakespeare, but it can be a valid way to do Shakespeare. It will have integrity.

"Now, about a few specifics...I've secured the best edition of the script available. There are places where the dated language will be unclear to a modern audience where it was quite plain in Shakespeare's day. In these places, we will have to help translate the meaning of the words for our audience. In most cases we can make it clearer with the right vocal inflection or with stage action. In other cases we may have to use a modern word to replace the archaic word. This is OK, as long as the meanings are equivalent and the rhyme and scan of the poetry is unaffected. The point is to serve the dramatic interest in the story.

"You've also noticed that female actresses are playing female roles. I know that some troupes use all-male casts because Shakespeare did. But I'm convinced that our audience would find a boy actor playing Juliet to be a major distraction. They would miss the meaning and the beauty of the play. The play isn't about a boy actor playing Juliet. It's about a girl named Juliet. This is what we will show.

"Our task is to make Juliet and all of these characters live. All of our efforts will serve this end. We will plan, calculate, and rehearse. Still, the characters can only live through you--the performer. So maintain your spontaneity, your personal response to the play. If the character in you wants to laugh, laugh. And in the death scene, if you feel like crying...cry."

The play was performed. It was applauded by nearly everyone. (The few who didn't like it really didn't like Shakespeare plays to begin with). The people who were seeing Romeo and Juliet for the first time were profoundly moved by the experience. They came back to the theater again and again, bringing their friends with them.

PART ONE: THE DILEMMA

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.--Hamlet

Many people believe there are only two ways to interpret the Bible. One way is to use The Liberal's License. The other way is to use The Legalist's Lens.

The people who use one of these methods generally assert that the other method is the only alternative. Since the other method is considered to be self-evidently unthinkable, they insist that no real choice exists. The method they use must, by necessity, be the only true method of Bible interpretation.

Let's take a closer look at each approach.

The Liberal's License

He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat.--Much ado about nothing.

The Liberal's License begins with a big assumption:

Scriptures are unreliable

That is, not everthing the Scriptures say is true. Therefore the interpreter's job is to determine how much of the text has validity and how much of it is useless. This method emphasizes the indispensability of the interpreter while it says that the text is dispensable.

This approach was most evident in this century in the "Search for the Historic Jesus." Liberals, operating on their Big Assumption, thought that some things the Gospels said about Jesus were true and that other things were not. They decided to look for the "historic Jesus"--the man who really existed--behind the "classical Jesus"--the mythological religious figure.

It out - Herods Herod. - Hamlet

Their difficulty was this: there were no historical documents that described Jesus in any detail except for the Gospels. They had no objective way of determining which parts of the Gospels should be considered "historical" and which should be considered "myth." Each interpreter was on his own. Most of them rejected the miracles as being myth. But some said Lazarus was historical and some disagreed. Some said the Lord's Prayer was historical and some disagreed. Some said the Beatitudes were historical and some disagreed...and some said some Beatitudes were historical and some weren't, and they disagreed over which Beatitudes were which. In the end, no one could agree on the "historic Jesus" at all because, without a trustworthy text, they had no basis for agreement.

So quick bright things come to confusion.--A Midsummer Night's Dream

The most important thing to notice about the Liberal's License is this: it is impossible to use it consistently. People who use the method have to employ it arbitrarily.

It is not consistent to say, as the Liberal does:

"The Scriptures aren't reliable, so don't believe that stuff about Mary being a virgin. But you can believe that Jesus' Mother was named Mary." But, if the Liberal were to try to be consistent, he would be forced to say: "The Scriptures aren't reliable, so don't believe that stuff about a virgin birth or Mary or Joseph or Jesus." If the Scriptures cannot be trusted, then they simply cannot be trusted--in any case. The Liberal then has no rational basis for faith in any Jesus, historical, classical, or otherwise. This demonstrates the Law of Liberal Lunacy:

To Be Really Consistent Is To Be Irrelevant.

Few Liberals push it this far, however. Most find a comfortable set of inconsistencies and live with them. It is the only way they can continue to believe in their method.., and, after all, nobody wants to be a Legalist.

THE LEGALIST'S LENS

For I am nothing if not critical.--Othello

The Legalist's Lens begins with its own Big Assumption:

Scriptures are Law

That is, not only is Scripture reliable and trustworthy but it also makes things mandatory for the reader to do. Corollary to this is the Legalist's Law of Silence or Law of Exclusion: anything not authorized is forbidden. The whole Big Assumption, with its Law of Silence, has been summarized by T.H. White:

Everything Not Mandatory Is Prohibited

This is the logical consequence of Legalism's Big Assumption: the Bible is Law. Its purpose is to authorize things.

The Legalist has no real place for an interpreter of Scripture. The text is believed to tell the reader clearly what to do, and, through its Law of Silence, what not to do. The reader is to obey, not to interpret. So this approach presents us with an indispensable text, but with a dispensable interpreter.

We have seen this approach used in the "Restoration movement" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since creeds and denominational manuals of discipline were not Biblically mandated, they were prohibited. They were regarded as sinful. The idea the Restorationists put forth was that the Bible alone should serve as the Manual of Discipline. In this way, denominationalism would be transcended and everyone could unite.

I am tied to the stake, and must stand the course.--King Lear

Very soon these people discovered that they didn't all understand the Bible alike. They agreed that denominations were wrong. But more questions came up. If the Bible authorized mission work, did it authorize a Missionary Society? If it authorized the Lord's Supper, did it authorize multiple cups? If it authorized meeting, did it authorize a meeting house? If it authorized a meeting house, did it authorize a vestibule, a baptistry, classrooms, or a kitchen? If it authorized training teachers, did it authorize training them in a college? If it authorized singing, did it authorize instrumental accompaniment?

On horror's head horrors accumulate.--Othello

In each case, some Legalists held the practice to be authorized while others condemned it for violating the Law of Silence. In each case a division resulted and a new sect was born. People who accepted a practice were labeled "liberal" and people who condemned a practice were labeled "anti." Division reigned instead of unity. It still does.

But yet the pity of it, Iago! O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago! - Othello

The most important thing to notice about the Legalist's Lens is this: it is impossible to use it consistently. People who use the method have to employ it arbitrarily.

It is not consistent to say, as the Legalists does: "The Scriptures never authorize an instrument, so instruments are forbidden. Nevertheless, if an apostle told people to greet each other with a holy kiss, I may shake hands instead." But if the Legalist were to try to be consistent, he would be forced to say: "The Scriptures never authorize an instrument, a vestibule, a handshake, or women wearing anything except modesty and good deeds and maybe a veil. Therefore all these things are sinful."

In fact, he would be forced to say "Galatians was never authorized for anyone outside of Galatia to obey. Therefore it is sinful for anyone to do so. The same holds for Romans, Titus, Phillipians..." After all, if Scripture is Law, forbidding everything it doesn't authorize, then it is--in any case. But if the Legalist took it this far, he would have no Scriptures left to be Law.

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?--Macbeth

This demonstrates the Law of Legalistic Lunacy:

To Be Really Consistent Is To Be Irrelevant.

Few Legalists push it this far, however. Most find a comfortable set of inconsistencies and live with them. It is the only way to continue to believe in their method...and, after all, nobody wants to be a Liberal.

LIBERALISM AND LEGALISM COMPARED

The wheel is come full circle.--King Lear

We have seen that the Liberal and the Legalist have little regard for one another because they begin with different, opposing expectations. We have also seen that in spite of this, the two have a great deal in common:

1. Both make a Big Assumption. In spite of all difficulties, this Big Assumption is never questioned. Arguments are over how consistently to apply it, never over the Assumption itself.

2. Both must apply their Methods inconsistently. The Liberal who says Scripture is not reliable is sometimes forced to say that parts of it are "authentic." The Legalist who says Scripture is Law is often forced to say parts of it are "non-binding."

3. Neither has an objective basis for the inconsistencies. The Liberal is unable to say "Here's how you tell an authentic Scripture from a spurious one." The Legalist is unable to say, "Here's how you tell a Binding Example from a Non-Binding Example." In each case, the interpreter is the sole judge.

4. Both methods cause division. The Liberals thought the "historic Jesus" would be a unifying concept and then they divided over it. The Legalists thought having the Bible as their only Manual of Discipline would be a unifying concept and then they divided over it.

5. To use either method consistently destroys the need for it. A consistent Liberal who admits a Scripture is unreliable has no reason to apply any of it. A consistent Legalist who admits that Scripture never specifically authorized him as a recipient also has no reason to apply any of it.

The Liberal and the Legalist take roads heading in opposite directions, but these roads eventually meet on the other side of the globe. Both disdain for the text and worship of the text destroy the text.

And where two raging fires meet together, They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.--The Taming Of The Shrew

That is why both wish to go only part of the way down the road. Both instinctively sense that to really commit themselves to the path they have chosen will be to make their religion a book closed even to themselves.

And thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ, and seem a saint when I most play the Devil.--King Richard III

Editor's Note: Be sure to save this to review before studying "Part Two: The Fairness Method" which will appear in the next issue.