American Allegory and The Middle

If that’s what you took from it, you’re reading too much into it.”

Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream.”

Genesis 41:9-12 (NRSV)

My Master’s Degree is in the field of “Religion and Literature.” It’s a rather quixotic (and troubled) field of study these days with a cumbersome history. In many ways, Religion and Lit is a direct 20th century response to the growing importance of historical critical methods of studying religious texts, such as the Bible. In a nutshell, instead of focusing on the “historical” contexts of texts or traditions, there are other paths available through the rigors of “literature.”

I won’t get into the technical definitions of such terms as Canonical Criticism, Rhetorical Criticism, Structural (and Post-Structural) Criticism(s), Narrative Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism, Ideological Criticisms and so on… but know that theological and academic thinkers love to carve out new climbing paths on the way up to the Summits of Meanings (and in most cases that’s completely needed and appropriate). So when I refer to Religion and Literature as a ontological thing unto itself here, that’s my own approach path.

But one lesson that reading and interpreting gifts us with is the notion of meaning. Like Janus, this two faced divinity of realization tempts us towards “either or” conclusions. Whether or not Noah was an actual person who set about to collect 2 (or 7) of every organism on earth (or just the clean ones) and then build a rather large sailing vessel after hearing instructions straight from God doesn’t really interest me (though, no… he wasn’t and didn’t).

However, it’s an amazing text to interact with as it resides in the Christian Old Testament. It’s fascinating to put that version up against the others found throughout the ancient world from Mesopotamia to the Americas. Truly, the flood motif is one that echoes in the very proteins of our human DNA. But no, I don’t enjoy reducing it to a historical event. That does the text (and I would argue meanings of the text) no justice and offers no participation.

So often in my early faith journey I heard “If you don’t believe that Noah was a historical person and the Ark event really happened, you are not saved!” or something along those lines. The same is true for Adam and Eve, of course. Though I was always puzzled by whether I was supposed to “believe” Genesis 1 – 2:4a or Genesis 2:4b – 3 since there are two very different telling of creation at the very beginning. It took me years to discover the beauty of the Bible through reading it through the lens of participatory literature. And it “means” more to me as a result.

One of the reasons I still enjoy reading the Bible as literature (as well as studying historical contexts etc) is that these paths outside historical time charts and archaeological strata allows for approaches that impart reception. There’s a real sense of immediacy when reading along with a parable or a lament or a psalm or levitical code that takes us out of time and place. To me, the same is true Flannery O’Connor or Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood.

This does not imply that “truth” is absent or completely subjective. To the contrary, immediacy and participation requires much more finesse and fluidity than is normally implied when a debate turns into a “subjective vs objective” argument. Reading scripture or texts or phone books or Super Bowl commercials as literature can be a fascinating exercise that removes us from the need for concrete meaning and instead projects a wide spectrum of relationships with both our own senses and the thing we are studying. Just as in physics, the person doing the experiment impacts the outcome of the experiment whether knowingly or not.

It’s easy to cling onto notions of objectivity and “real” meaning while building up an edifice of understanding, only to come to an inevitable point when there’s a large crack in the wall that demands either reinforcing and applying more mortar to our conclusion instead of realizing the building ground was shaky and suspect to begin with and maybe the materials weren’t as strong and resilient as we first through the, so we might need to reexamine our previous work and even start over.

Simply put, participating with a text instead of simply ingesting or reading a text to decipher an author’s or editor’s intent (“intentional fallacy” of making assumptions related to the author(s) of ancient or modern texts that we can never really know or recover) doesn’t discourage search for meaning or truth. In my own experience, the best example I can give are lyrics to Beatles’ songs. I fell madly and deeply in love with the Beatles around the time of my senior year in high school and that carried over into my college years. I spent uncountable hours filling up notebooks with possible references and meanings behind the lyrics of “Hey Jude” or “I Am the Walrus” (that was fun) or “Baby’s in Black” or “Norwegian Wood” and would subject my patient but suffering friends to my extrapolations. This search for meaning into not just “what” John and Paul (and sometimes George) were writing and singing, but why. This led into me discovering the power of the internet in the mid-90’s as I stumbled upon bulletin boards of fellow seekers of Beatles writ and knowledge as well as The Grateful Dead and Nirvana. As I began my faith journey, I poured the same zeal into my own studies of the Bible and trying to understand the why and the intent of the authors and editors.

As I grew in the faith and my music tastes and my academic life, I learned of other approaches and some of the fallacies involved with authorial intent (especially with unreliable narrators such as Dylan and Hemingway). That slow boiling realization finally came to a head after I learned enough Greek to poke around the world of New Testament studies and found myself at Yale Divinity School at a time when reading the Bible through the lens of literature-approaches and post-construct (or post-modern) means was in bloom (and thanks to Prof. Bloom with whom I was able to study the great work through those lenses).

I realized that it meant less to me that Hey Jude really was written as a one-off by Paul about John’s son Julian and sentiments such as “the movement you need is on your shoulder” were lines meant to be replaced later until John insisted on their importance and instead it meant more to me how I was able to lovingly participate with not just the lyrics but also the chord progressions and climbing scales.

The same is true with something like the Bible… the words are important, but don’t miss the sound of the voice coming through the music, as The Grateful Dead would sing based on Robert Hunter’s lyrics.

In turn, the same can be thought when approaching Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl commercial for an automobile company. It was certainly well produced and visually calls out to our human need for toughness and purpose in the midst of uncertainty and cold dark winters. I was amazed that it was shot on location just a few days before the actual game and required some work to even make the show. Great art is frequently associated with constraints.

But is this great art? On one level, it speaks to a generation of Americans who look fondly at the rugged individualism of a hardened person surviving the winter clad in denim and boots and a trusty recreational vehicle (and a mug of hot coffee). The wrinkles are as much a part of the messaging as the old Jeep belonging to Springsteen or the cinematic shots of rushing water through a frozen landscape. The marriage of Springsteen’s iconic voice narration on top of this barren imagery with the score he composed for the ad spot is superb.

But like all marriages, there are points of contention.

As a baptist, one of the philosophical and theological epistemologies I cling to is the notion of religious liberty in the sense that the relationship between the Divine and a person is up to that individual. That’s not necessarily true for many of fellow Baptists these days, but as someone who likes to participate with the historical notion of being baptist, it is there in my matrix along with priesthood of all believers. A person has absolute liberty of conscience regarding their faith or choice to not pursue it, and my responsibility is to protect that liberty for all.

When I first saw the Springsteen ad and the image of the “lower 48” of the US with an American Flag draped theme superimposed by a Cross, I cringed.

The marketing message of the ad is clear… this is a chapel directly in the center of the contiguous United States and represents a call to “re-uniting” around themes that make America great after a period of divisiveness and “identity politics” that has scarred the country over the last decade. The Boss represents the Übermensch of American identity. It’s been a long and cold winter, but there will be a Spring ahead. A New Day for America.

But is that really unity? Is what this commercialization of American Civic Religion in the form of a Jeep commercial superimposed on the very center of America what we should aspire to at this time of darkness, death, pestilence, division, hunger, and ultimately a reshaping of modern life.

What about voices that aren’t the hegemonic conception of “America” in the sense of a middle-of-the-country white male? When Springsteen sifts his hands through the soil, I wonder if there’s a conception of the lives of Native People who were stripped of that land? Of course, I’m reading into the ad and adding my own value judgements about the composition of the “heart of America” that is tacitly inferred.

“Either you are with us or you’re against us!”

Take mask-wearing, for example. Large portions of our country still wrestle with the call to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing, citing preferred articles and hot takes on social media or the latest cable news bait designed to increase blood pressures and dopamine levels to sell more ads from automotive companies. Perhaps that is the cynical take here. We are discussing and ourselves wrestling with concepts of Christian Nationalism or MAGA or just a needed return to what made our country great that we’ve “read into” a car commercial. The medium subverts the message and in turn causes us to participate with commercial advertisements meant to convince our minds of an intended thought to move us further down the sales funnel at a rate of 1/1000 viewers.

But I don’t think we need to dismiss the Springsteen ad as “just” a commercial or elevate it as a “call to our consciousness.”

Clearly, it struck a nerve. I awoke this morning to a number of passionate social media friends from fellow baptists and religious thinkers and political ideologues all espousing a variety of seemingly nuanced opinions about the ad.

I would urge viewers and readers here to think of the advertisement and our participation in its messaging in a way that social media and cable news (and most preachers) don’t encourage. Despite the quick takes we’re encouraged to use based on our emotional responses, participating more deeply with a thought technology or, in this case, a framework or identity can be done so in new ways.

So I propose an allegorical approach.

Allegory may dream of presenting the thing itself… but its deeper purpose and its actual effect is to acknowledge the darkness, the arbitrariness, and the void that underlie, and paradoxically make possible, all representation of realms of light, order, and presence… Allegory arises… from the painful absence of that which it claims to recover.”

— Stephen Greenblatt

In this context of allegory, I think of Galatians 4:21-31 when Paul invokes the use of allegory to make a point about the notion of being “slave” or “free.” His use of the Hagar passage from Genesis has always been problematic for me and also caused me to cringe. “That’s not my identity!” I would think in my head as I studied this passage or came across the verses in my own journeys with the New Testament. Often, I would skip over it and leave it behind like a thing I didn’t want to deal with or acknowledge without acknowledging my privilege to do so.

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birthpangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.” Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.

— Galatians 4:21-31

I eventually read an article by Prof. Elizabeth A. Castelli titled “Allegories of Hagar: Reading Galatians 4:21-31 with Postmodern Feminist Eyes’” in the collection The New Literary Criticism and the New Testament (Trinity Press International, eds Edgar V. McKnight and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon… caveat that I studied with Prof. McKnight while at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and he introduced me to Castelli’s article here). It came to me at a time when I was reconsidering allegory as a lens of understanding and reading, and caught me off-guard in the best of ways. It’s a fantastic piece in an excellent collection of articles by new criticism thinkers.

Here is the piece of Castelli’s work that resonates with me when thinking about identity and performative assumptions in the context of allegory building…

The passage of Sarah and Hagar from their traditional narrative into Paul’s allegory is a process of smoothing over and eliding complexities, eliminating potential contradictions, and reducing them to fixed and absolute opposites. In the course of this transformation, the meanings that accrue to them are, in one sense, inverted. that is, while the traditional interpretation holds that the offspring of Sarah is the nation of Israel, Paul has argued that the rightful heirs to God’s promise are himself and the other believers in Christ. In doing, Paul has deposed the reigning interpretation and has set his own up in its place. As suggested earlier, a successful allegory displaces its antecedent, remakes its subjects, and constitutes its own independent authority. Claiming a new and independent meaning, the allegory supersedes the antecedent and replaces it. By analogy, Paul’s allegory of Sarah and Hagar enacts this process not simply on tradition of the two women but on the tradition as a whole. In superseding the claims of the traditional interpretation of their story, Paul also constructs his own new and authoritative version. Once again, the structure, form, and content of his argument intersect and reinforce one another.”

Castelli goes on to posit that Paul’s use of allegory here actually inverts his purpose of imposing an authoritative version and creates points of intersectionality and meaning for new voices participating in the story thousands of years later.

Springsteen does the same with this commercial that he evidently had a very heavy hand in conceptualizing and producing (again, it’s not dependent on his intent in my approach here). Remaking the heart of America into a place of peak-Winter introspection and then hopeful upbeat violin instrumentals at the conclusion with the iconography of the flag, the Cross, and a candle lighting to bring warmth and light to a quiet place of inner desolation and perhaps desperation (much like a cup of coffee in the morning on a freezing day), deposed the prevailing notion of unity and being “in the center” into a message of hope and determination.

Only, here in the Springsteen ad we are self-limited to a certain conception of “America” in a politico-religious sense of the idea. It’s seemingly not available to all who fall outside the manufactured marketing demographic identified as potential Jeep buyers by market research specialists working with tables and data and social media inputs that determine such things.

All are more than welcome to come meet here in the middle,” the “Thunder Road” singer says in a voiceover. “It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear.

“Now fear has never been the best of who we are, and as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few, it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, it’s what connects us, and we need that connection. We need the middle,” he says.

So where are the allegorical opportunities to subvert this hegemony if one prefers to do so?

I propose we turn to Amanda Gorman’s preceding verse from the Super Bowl that points to a similar, but different, invocation to move ahead:

Let us walk with these warriors, charge on with these champions, and carry forth the call of our captains,” Gorman said. “We celebrate them by acting with courage and compassion, by doing what is right and just, for while we honor them today, it is they who every day honor us.”

Amanda Gorman

It’s in the allegory of the champions and captains that we truly do find the courage and compassion to not push towards “the middle” but honor those who have bravely stood up and pushed us towards justice as our country continues to reckon with ourselves.