The wrong Jesus analogy

Along with Romans, to aid myself in taking it apart and putting it back together, I'm reading textlinguistics, or discourse analysis, or New Rhetoric, or whatever you want to call it (a field in which you can't swing a dead cat without hitting Stanley Porter). And I've also been reading Roland Barthes for some time, so when I come across a chapter on la mort de l'Auteur, I'm understandably interested. The chapter that inspired what follows is Anna Mae Olbricht's "Constructing the Dead Author: Postmodernism's Rhetoric of Death," and it's a good piece. She uses the Jesus analogy in an interesting way to make the integration between PM lit-crit and Biblical Studies, and then deals ably with its problems. But she raises to the front of my mind several problems with the Jesus analogy in this particular bit of postmodern rhetoric.

It seems inevitable, in Biblical Studies, that we get the Jesus analogy when we talk about the death of the author, and it's just as easy to misuse as the same analogy with the death of God. Hell, I made the same error myself, several times, when studying Nietzsche. It's entirely understandable, even if it misses the point. We have a God who has died, and is risen (and will come again). And from the death of God to the death of the Author in the contemporary hermeneutical landscape isn't too far a stretch at all, because the assumption that God is the author remains live in the field (whatever it actually means in practice). It embraces this problem with a confounding assumption that when we say Jesus is Lord, and God, that we can destroy the hypostasis in favor of a functionally monadic deity. That God died and now lives, that the Author died and now lives, and that Meaning was never in question through the entire process. It's altogether too facile and unfaithful to use Jesus to save us from uncomfortable postmodern ambiguity and uncertainty, and I don't think Jesus is on board with the attempt.

The Jesus analogy really bothers me here. The death of the author is the birth of the reader, as Barthes said, which is profoundly important when we integrate his desire for writerly texts over readerly ones. There is play in the text which is frozen by elevating some particular view of the author, and further restricted by enforcing the passivity of the reader. We kill the author to define her our own way, and kill the reader to enforce that definition. We become the author, the authority, this way. A second death of the author is necessary, a death of our asserted, appropriated authority. This death is the birth of the reader and the rebirth of the writerly text. And shall we inscribe the passion play over this drama? And how shall we?

How shall we, especially when the first act is forgotten? Hamlet's father died before the curtain opened, and do we see his ghost, or do we allow the new king to be our sovereign? But the first act is not forgotten -- God remembers. The Hebrew scriptures record many, many deaths of God in order to assert human authorship. The Pharisees know all too well that God is not present, and desire that he should become so, that they should write his presence back into the life of the nation by their lives. We moderns who talk about creation as the definitive action of God, about God as the person of the Father alone, and about that God's action as utterly completed under the past perfect tense, know it too. But we have all made this dead God ourselves, and determined to call Him the Author. As Barthes knew, it is much easier to speak of an Author definitively when that Author is dead, finite, bounded and completely knowable. Likewise to speak of His Oeuvre, of "the sacred page," when it cannot be surpassed.

But we killed Jesus because he dared to show that the real author is alive and continues to work, that even the texts we canonize are writerly and open, and that the reader must be free within the joyous play of those texts. Jesus was not the author, but pointed to the one who is, and refused to accept the title himself. If we assert that same living God as author, whom Jesus called Father, we must assert that we do not know her. Hidden precisely in revelation. We hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes -- and how should we ever say that it stops?! It is this way with everyone who is of the Spirit. We must not permit ourselves to worship the creature, or the revelation, or what we might manufacture from them. We must not allow the simple, absolute, determined meaning to become our idol. The real author always escapes our grasp, because she stands over and outside of us, in the very same moment as he stands in our place, and lives in us.

If there must be an hypothesis of God's authorship of scripture, it must be useless to us for the determination of texts in advance of our need of them. If we trust too much in them, we will find that all texts are sinking sand, not solid rock. And perhaps there must be such an hypothesis, if only to hasten the second death of the human author and the destruction of the rigorously constructed meanings that replaced him. But it is not the job of God to point us to the text, but of the text to point us to God.


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