If you’ve been playing along at home, you know that theology has been a big part of my life. While I have an interest in ritual and liturgy and preaching (it would be hard for a speechwriter not to care about preaching!), my real enthusiasm is for the Bible as a work of literature: a collection of texts written over centuries, redacted, reconfigured, redacted, translated, redacted, mistranslated, and canonically debated…yet still, somehow, managing to survive in remarkable intactness. And not only survive, but inspire more research, fervor, disagreement, fellowship and compassion in the western world than any other written material.
You’ll notice that in the collection of verbs above, I used redacted three times. That was on purpose, and not because I’m middle-aged. Redaction has a bit of a different emphasis than editing. When someone sends me a draft to edit, I’m looking for grammatical errors, syntax problems, organizational challenges. In a speech, I’m also looking at whether one statement rolls logically into the next, whether the emphases are properly placed to convey meaning, whether all of the words can be spoken aloud without sounding stilted, or, in the case of words like “sects,” homophonically distracting.
[I just made that up, y’all: “Homophonically distracting.” I’m going to add it to my growing list of potential band names: Gestational Diabeetus, Tangled up in Talmud, Rejected by Porpoises and now, Homophonically Distracting. Please weigh in if you have a preference, remembering that Wilford Brimley probably gets a cut if we go with the first one.]
Redaction includes all of those editing processes, but goes a bit further, to also employ intentional acts of inclusion or exclusion, based on the redactor’s objective. This might include taking an existing document and echoing words and phrases from other documents, deleting portions that don’t advance the author’s agenda, or reworking existing material to make it better serve the writer’s intention.
For example, if I’m running for office and begin my speech with My fellow Americans, I’m invoking a whole host of presidential speeches, and hoping that makes me seem more authoritative, and vote-worthy, to you. Or, I might pick a phrase from another powerful text, like Let justice roll down like waters (which was borrowed from the Bible), calling to mind MLK by using a phrase that is closely associated with him. (The really polished politicians make these “echoes” seem personal and inspired and incidental. They never are.) If I’m writing a speech, I might scroll through work I’ve done previously and select a segment or two that can be reworked to support the aim of my client, and include that. Or the client might submit a draft for me to slice up, and then recraft into something that will play in Peoria.
You get the drift: Redaction can be pretty heavy-handed.
In the Bible, redaction is rampant, and has its own school of criticism, called, cleverly, Redaction Criticism. A redaction critic might look at the differences in the Gospels, and ask why Matthew included, excluded, or rearranged material from Mark. Or, the redaction critic might look at 1st and 2nd Chronicles and attempt to discern the author’s motive for reworking Samuel and Kings in specific ways.
Redaction criticism is fascinating, because it drills down to motivation. In the case of the Old Testament, for instance, what’s so unusual and important about God creating with words and breath? Well, if you know that in the other creation myths circulating at the time, the gods also created — but required a battle, the help of other gods, or at the very least, a sex act, to do so — you start to get at what the author wanted us to understand about his God.
Here’s the catch, though: Redaction criticism requires you to get comfortable with the fact that understanding the original context of a text may force you to reevaluate what you thought you knew about its meaning — and this is difficult for people who’ve not yet challenged the interpretations they grew up on. Furthermore, redaction criticism forces you to accept that human hands shaped the texts we have now (sometimes repeatedly, and very often indelicately), and that those human agents were serving agendas that were not just theological, but also cultural and political.
Peeling away the layers, as redaction criticism does, can set you ping-ponging between belief and unbelief in a very profound (and headache-inducing) way, by challenging all of the things you took for granted.
All that being said, it’s my belief that redaction criticism is the means by which we get closest to authorial intention.
Think about some of the arguments you’ve had, and how often they came down to a misunderstanding of someone else’s intentions, or about the distinction our legal system makes between what is intentional and what is accidental. Intention — and the changes it leads to — matter!
Would you understand your chosen politician’s message differently, for instance, if you knew that the hearty Greetings, my fellow Americans! was originally Listen up, you illiterate baboons? Or that Scarlett O’Hara’s light-hearted Fiddle-dee-dee was originally Damn you all to hell; I hope you rot? Or that Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart was actually penned as Vampires in Love? (That last one is apparently true.)
The point is, works of literature are like human beings: just as a person chooses to remember or forget certain experiences or thoughts or words (and decide how much, if at all, to let those same things affect him or her), what an author chooses to conceal or reveal, retain or exclude, or act on or redirect, indicates something about his values, and what she wants to say to, and about, the world. And, as with getting to know our fellow humans, peeling back the layers in literature — particularly the Bible — may cause shock, dismay, joy, and confusion. Sometimes all at once.
Maybe understanding what other people wanted to say about God isn’t important to you, and that’s fine. But I think there is something significant to be learned about God (and about ourselves, for that matter) in hearing other voices and opinions, and understanding other traditions and agendas and intentions, even when doing so challenges what we believe.