The Master Plot of Scripture

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by Randall S. Frederick

I recently found myself guest lecturing on Levitical ethics at Azusa Pacific University. Afterwards, a student tried to engage me, referring to “the master plot of scripture.” I’m sure this is a sexy idea to a lot of people, especially those in Pauline studies or comparative religions – the idea of all-encompassing arc under which we can neatly tuck the mythologies of our texts, regardless of practice. The elusive-to-some, clear-to-another “Master Plot” of a text.

Underneath it all, are we not always-ever looking for some key, some crimson cord by which we can “know” certain things and can assemble the story of our faith in light of such a “master plot”? My fear is that we do this not so much for narrative purposes in an attempt to place ourselves within the story so that we may embody it or live out the mythology, but rather that we look for the lowest common denominator. The reducible substance of an irreducible concept or “plot”. We do this, I imagine, for sociological, even political, purposes more than anything else. Indeed, a confusing tension exists between the hierarchal use of “master” and the literate use of “plot” as we have been trained to locate the primacy of capital-T “The” and capital-T “Truth” in bold and underlined words, italicized definitions, and the infrequent marginal note. “The Truth” is the pursuit of all cultures, but it takes a broad mind to accept that truth can differ and be nuanced across cultures. When we seek a Master Plot, in some sense, we are also seeking to make other readings and cultures subject to our own – or at least there is an inherent risk in this which might explain why we are so resistant to “an other’s” reading. How we read is often political, and in the end we are never so ready to admit how wrong we are, to subject ourselves to another, in light of a better interpretation as we claim we will be.

When I completed my first graduate degree, my thesis relied heavily on the work of Joseph Campbell. His tripartite archetypal “hero’s journey” of separation, initiation, and return was a wonderful umbrella under which many a novel and film has fallen. While I felt, and continue to feel, that Joseph Campbell astutely noted a recurring pattern in mythology and literature, I am by no means convinced that he has the final word. There were many outliers in my research, characters whose journey was not so easily reducible. In Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler is textually not a primary character; he spends half the story outside the story, without explanation – a problem it took seven decades to “resolve” with a sequel. Despite his long absences, Rhett functions as a secondary protagonist – indeed, his mockery of social structures and subversion of blockades makes an excellent complement, even parallel, to Scarlett O’Hara’s experience so that it could be argued Rhett and Scarlett are truly the same character or “destined” for each other despite the conclusion. This sense of destiny prompts the reader to anticipate their eventual romance and feel the weight of tragedy in their relational conclusion. But academia would have a hard time “locating” Rhett because he and Scarlett are so terribly similar despite him not being a steady, consistent protagonist. Indeed, an absent protagonist is one of the major reasons why the third season of Showtime’s hit show Homeland got off to a rocky start – Brody was gone and Carrie was institutionalized. What can of theater can we have without a readily identifiable protagonist and antagonist – a “white hat” and “black hat” locked in battle? While these examples may fall under much criticism for being too general, or read incorrectly, even an example of an educated white male privilege in media – indeed, that Campbell was white, male, educated, and privileged, has been the major criticism of many an academic – the point here is that his work is believed by many to be a Rosetta Stone by which we may unlock the plot of many a narrative except that while his work unapologetically claims to provide a master plot or schematic by which we may locate and name “good” and “bad” texts, it fails to do so. Indeed, that Campbell insisted that he had provided such a key has caused many readers to force readings that are not supported and cannot be supported by the text, and which (following this to it’s sequential end) causes a reader to close themselves off to other readings. That is, compelled to believe that a story must follow Campbell’s schema, his work becomes the only “map” we use and, once lost, rather than say the map is wrong, we say the terrain is wrong. Rather than reaching the superiority of an educated white male, our search for a “Master Plot” is itself an admission that we are unable to see nuance all around us. The world is too much. There is too much datum to consider. So we must begin to reduce it all, simplify, quantify and qualify, and only then might we have “accurately” arrived at a “True” meaning.

It could be said that Jesus, for example, fails to complete the hero’s journey. While his birth could be said to be a separation from his pre-existent home in Heaven and that beginning of his public ministry after the death of John is his initiation into a new realm, what good does his return to Heaven do anyone? According to Campbell, the return to the point of origin must involve the bestowal of some boon or “gift” for those the protagonist departed from originally. Following Campbell’s model, we might “force” a reading, but even in “forcing” this reading, Jesus’s return to Heaven means that he gave a gift to God, rather than giving the gift of life to humanity. Even if we extend the parameters of the story to include Jesus’ return to the seaside to meet with his followers, what was the point of leaving Heaven in the first place? His return from Heaven to Earth for the second time means that his first journey was both pointless and fruitless as he could have done the same thing in the first visit as he does with the second. Again, this is how we are “supposed” to read the Gospels if we follow Campbell’s mandated “Hero’s Journey.” But lest I be accused of hammering Jesus down to make an example of him, what of the Buddha? The Buddha’s separation from his father’s home and initiation in the life of an ascetic wanderer leads to enlightenment? Does his public teaching constitute his “return” to the house of his father? Or must we expand the concept of “home” to include an entire region? And if an entire region, which one – Nepal or India? Already, we have enough questions for a conference and have not even begun to address ourselves to whether there are other ways of reading the lives of Jesus and the Buddha that do not involve a tripartite “master plot” by which we may understand their lives and teachings. Though narratives are helpful and integral to the recycling of our respective faiths and traditions, they are not, nor should they ever be, the sole key to understanding. That we locate religious figures and even ourselves within subjective concepts of “master plots” necessitates that we strip those figures of their inherent sacredness. Our traditions insist that we uphold things as they are, as we have always known them. We must restrict them from becoming too radical lest they do something we disagree with and find heretical when it comes to rules or codes, prophecies, and poetry. Narrative, while a fine art, is not the same kind of art as poetry which relies on nuance, passion, layers of meaning both in and outside of the poem itself including but not limited to the empowerment of a reader to “see” between the lines and infuse their own experience to make it meaningful. In this way, Frost’s divergent roads may very well be historically and factually true – that is, locatable on a map, visible to the eye, and readily known by its neighbors – but their “realness” becomes all the more authentic when we, those of us at another point on the map and living in a different cultural context, find ourselves at a similar meeting of paths.

While most of us would be disinclined to claim our own reading is the authoritative one, the ironically erstwhile-yet-always-current “master plot” which so many seek is an ever-present elusive pursuit. It is the Moby Dick of religious studies – to find it means destruction of everything, but to deny our compulsion to find it would be to be untrue to who we are. It is made all the more manifest when we speak of some key, some map, some schema, some location that we should get back to and reconstruct without consideration of where we are today. That is, to speak of keys and maps is to hide our true intentions. They are only whitewashes, new vocabulary to hide what remains underneath – the relentless quest. It is a quest made all the more ironic when and where we “forget” or outright reject the notion that what we are doing is built upon not a love for text, but the pursuit of science. Put another way, we are tempted to read an Austen novel today and point out the gross patriarchy of Pride & Prejudice or the way women are depicted as nuisances, but they are nuisances we are still sympathetic towards today and there is a measure of solidarity to be found when we see patriarchy in a piece of Victorian literature – we are not alone, and what is has always been. But, canonically, these would be bad readings. To say this in a graduate class on literature would be an exercise in failure to stat true to the traditions of the text – how we have always read them. In literature studies “reader response theory” is a way to read a text, but it is considered a “bad” way because it is the entryway to a world of dissecting which will, ironically, always lead us back to the way things are, and have ever been. That is, a scientific method exists even in literature. We can play with the text, even (if we are skilled) rearrange it, but we must always put things back where they belong when we come to the end of the school day. To read Austen in light of a contemporary patriarchy, or to suggest that women are still annoying is to fail at the reading.

And in this judgment lies a sad reality – the world has evolved, and our canons have not. We have been so keen to preserve and protect them from the movement of time, to insist that the text never evolve, that we have ensured our beloved’s death as surely as Annabel Lee. On this, I am sure, we would agree.

Naturally, we begin to make a particularization between “then” and “now” because we are dealing with descriptive rather than prescriptive issues here. But undergirding both the descriptive and prescriptive is the idea of what reality looks like, some “master” or primary way by which we should read both texts and reality as if texts and reality are the same thing. With such a tool, we might reconcile all of life, time, science, and experience, thus completing Einstein’s quest for a unifying theory of the universe. But why would you want to? I suggest it is because science and mathematics have taught us to reduce and solve. We have been indoctrinated towards discomfort at unresolved questions about both the cosmos and the mythos. Now, lest I be misunderstood, I am not suggesting here that we should shrug off mathematics or science. They are fields for which I have the highest respect, and I have enjoyed many conversations with my friends in the all of their progeny – medicine, astronomy, mechanics, and engineering to name a few. No, what I am getting at is the ever-trotted out notion that science and literature are no more the same than mathematics and religion. We may share space, we may share vocabulary, but they are fundamentally different. For example, in a recent lecture, a peer of mine was asked why philosophy and math “are not the same thing? You say, and you have written, that both use logic. Why then are they not the same thing, if they are both built on logic and reason?” Naturally, my peer was stunned at such an elementary misunderstanding. Yet the plasticity of language allows for variations in how we express “logic” and/or “reason.” Sadly, the nuance is lost. And while I could stop here with such an example, I wish to press a bit further to say that we do this very thing with religion. We look at other fields which use a scientific method to reach conclusions and we say, “Ah, yes. If religion is a hearty and robust ‘science’ or field of study, we should be able to apply the scientific method to religion as well!” without pausing, even momentarily, to note that the scientific method – like Campbell’s model of heroism –  cannot be applied universally. That is, the nature of The Odyssey is not for the hero to get home, island to island until he is there. The Odyssey is meant to arouse our pathos, even remind us of those times where we have also just wanted to go home. After the war, after the trauma, we want the comfort of home – our spouse, our child, something familiar. The journey was never about mapping the terrain of the Ionian Islands and to make such a claim would be met with a similar response to the question of why math and philosophy are not the same thing since they both use the word “logic.” First, there would be stunned silence, then there would be a tight grimace of those nearby as they try to process how to explain such a fundamental misunderstanding.

As Alistair McIntyre suggests, we are always-ever arguing over how best to read texts as long as there is a living tradition. It is only when something is dead that we are able to dissect it and locate the all-determining reality of a thing.

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