What sense can you make of this dialog?
JOE: They say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
MARY: Why is the Aurora Borealis visible only in the far north?
JOE: I am convinced we will have a Republican president after the next election.
MARY: I should probably have a mammogram.
JOE: Oak trees are strong and brown. Birch trees are weaker, and have white bark.
MARY: Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.
When I took an acting class in college, the professor gave us an exercise based on dialog much like the above. He paired us off and gave each pair a full page of non sequiturs. Each pair was supposed to take a week to figure out how to present the dialog in a way that made sense. We were allowed to repeat words, but not omit or reorder any. When the class met again, we were to act out our interpretations in a convincing way.
My partner was totally stumped, as were most people in the class. However, I took up the challenge and managed to cast the dialog as being about a visit to the dentist, even though dentists were nowhere in the original. (There was a sentence about a proctologist, though!)
I was able to give every syllable an interpretation that made perfect sense. Not only that, but I was sure that I had found the only solution to the puzzle. When other students assigned a different meaning, I had to give them credit for trying, but I thought they had not fit their interpretation to the text as well as I had.
In fact, had I not known that the dialog was designed as nonsense, I might have marveled at how cleverly its true meaning was woven into seemingly unrelated content.
That experience is what came to mind when I read the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. To hear American politicians talk, the Islamic State is not Islamic at all. They are just a “death cult.” The Atlantic‘s article argues very effectively for a more sobering view:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Yes, there are alternate interpretations of Islam. As Graeme Wood points out toward the end of the article,
There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam.
[The are] committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.
In practical terms, then, one fundamentalist group is attempting to take over the world, while the other peacefully devotes itself to a life of prayer and scholarship. Two groups have the same view of their holy text, but reach opposite conclusions about how to live.
It would be easy to laugh at the ridiculous Muslims, but we in the Christian West have not been without diversity of interpretation of our holy text, the Bible.
One thinks of Christian pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, while other Christians, equally devoted to the scriptures, decry that practice and focus instead on prayer, asking God to stop abortion by changing people’s hearts.
Or, on a less violent level, one is reminded of Bible-believing Christians who preach that God will heal all who ask in faith for a miracle, even as other Bible-believing Christians caution that such prayers are presumptuous.
How can people who agree on a simple, common-sense, literal method of interpreting a holy text reach opposite conclusions based on it?
Surely part of the answer is that all scriptures have some passages that point one way, while others tend toward the opposite.
However, the acting exercise also taught me that if even a nonsense dialog can be wrestled into meaning something consistent, surely a relatively coherent book like the Bible or the Koran can be made to say things that the original authors did not have in mind.
More than that, it taught me that when someone thinks he has found the only sensible interpretation that takes the entire text into account, it may be because of his cleverness rather than because the text actually speaks with a unified voice.