Thursday, October 9, 2008

Of Bullwinkle, Borg and Bardolph

News flash: Marcus Borg’s mentor revealed! Left to muse idly, mid-adult study group last Tuesday evening, I was struck by the eerie parallels between Dr. Borg’s scholarly re-visitation of the Bible (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time) and a long-dusty favorite of mine, Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History. For those readers over fifty, this may twig flashbacks to those Saturday morning beauties, the precursors to ‘adult cartoons’, long scooping the Simpsons and South Park: Dudley Do-right, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and of course, Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Borg’s contention – and probably the most significant point of suasion fostering my return from the wilderness – is that the Bible is an ‘historical – metaphorical’ document. Loosely interpreted, he (and many others of us) would opt to have these manuscripts read as quasi-historical accounts (on one level) and carefully crafted messages with a meaning (on another). Most adamantly, the Book is not intended to be experienced in any literal way. Hence the fundamentalist’s reactivity to his writings.

Epiphany had (the aforesaid parallel), a bit of buffing up on Marcus’ cartoon doppelganger (thanks to Andy’s Anachronisms, if you’re interested) confirmed what I’d suspected: Mr. Peabody and Dr. Borg are one in the same. In both cartoon and academic versions, our commonly accepted accounts of history, while ‘objectively accurate’, are shown to have been in great peril of turning out otherwise – without the intervention of some Johnny-come-lately’s (in one case Peabody and Sherman; in the other, some script writers penning the various Gospels).

To prevent the myopic William Tell from splitting son’s head instead of apple, Peabody inserts a magnet in said fruit attracting the (lethal) arrow, and ta-da, history is preserved (along with son’s skull). Matthew trots out Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”, and presto, Mary’s a virgin. True – I wonder? With truth and meaning – probably. To quote Mr. Andy: “Peabody and Sherman would discover that the reality of the past was not what the history books had made it out to be . . . and take it upon themselves to . . . set things right (ed note: and here’s the kicker) to keep history on the right track”.

With Tuesday’s session focusing on both a metaphorical as well as an historical appraisal of text, a task became reading various passages ‘for their deeper meaning’. Again Peabody anticipates: no episode would be complete without the sage puppy’s (always ostensibly for the studious Sherman’s benefit) pronouncement of the importance behind the ‘historical’ event, inevitably framed as a pun. (In Tell’s episode, Peabody notes that history has honored the poorly sighted dad by christening an ophthalmological disorder after him: television.) How close is this to Borg’s plea for a more lyrical, less literal meaning behind and supplementing the historic!

OK, OK, it’s a stretch – but it got me through Tuesday.

With tongue slightly removed from cheek, a second awareness for me flowed from Borg’s commentary on the ways in which parables are received – even by our fundamentalist brethren. No one reads these so-oft cited stories as literal truth. They’re seen as allegorical references, teaching points, metaphors. We sit in our lovely theatres in Stratford, engrossed in Hamlet, watching ‘the Mousetrap’ – a play within a play, designed to ‘catch the conscience of the king’. No one argues for an instant that this contrivance, orchestrated and manipulated by Hamlet to ‘make his point’ to the guilty Claudius, is ‘true’. Neither, however, do we, as members of the audience, removed not only from Hamlet’s little drama, but also the larger play staged before us – and despite having read of the ‘historical origins’ of the tragedy – see the Shakespearean production, its ‘container’ as ‘true’. This is entertainment; this is someone’s fictional account (based loosely on historic events) designed to make a point, to comment on cultural truths, to foster our self-examination, and on and on. But it is not ‘true’; it is not history.

Why then is it so easy to look at Good Samaritans, Mustard Seeds, or Prodigal Sons and see them as fables with a moral, metaphors for our edification. And yet so difficult to look at the Biblical text that contains these stories (the gospel writers’ accounts / playwrights’ drama) as something other than historic, literal ‘fact’. How different is the task and the product of a man, some eighty years removed from an event and its players (as was Matthew), writing, recalling, researching and with an agenda from that talented Elizabethan attempting to prick our consciences, proscribing and pronouncing in his own time. Perhaps we need to consider the parallels here as well: parables to plays-within-plays; Biblical ‘casts’ to actors on a stage, speaking lines pregnant with meaning; and always we, the audience, observers of the play and seekers of the deeper truth these stories (at both levels) carry.

Postscript: The ever-vigilant webscribe, in search of picture to accompany this piece, provides a bit of support for the ‘stretch’ of linking Peabody and things ecclesiastic: cf. (
David Howard

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