Category Archives: Literature and Theology

For Your Reading Pleasure…

I (Joel) have been invited to participate in a new blogging community called Flux of Thought. There you can find brief discussions on theology, philosophy, political theory among other related things.

You can read here: Flux of Thought

You can follow the blog on Twitter here: @fluxofthought

I’ll still be writing and posting at A Church Unbound as well since FoT is going to be made up of much shorter posts, and I can’t help but be long-winded sometimes.


Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: Kurt Vonnegut’s Theology of Suffering

**Update** I recently changed the subtitle of this from “Kurt Vonnegut’s Critique of the Theology of Culture” to what you see now. Two notes on that: 1) I think stating what I see happening in Vonnegut’s work (particular Slaughterhouse-Five here) in the positive rather than the negative gives a better sense of what is at work theologically. “Theology of Culture” is sort of hard to pin down. 2) Vonnegut never developed a theology of anything–that should go without saying–but I think that what he is getting at in much of his work speaks to an idea of a theology of suffering that is far superior to much Christian thought on the subject.
Below is my final paper for a seminar I took at Fuller last quarter called “Theology and Culture.” This was probably one of my most favorite papers to write because I feel like I was finally able to connect Vonnegut to theology in a meaningful way. The argument I put forth would certainly be contested by many current Vonnegut scholars, but I think this gets at the heart of what I see Vonnegut’s work doing. Even without the theological articulation, I think the argument still stands.
This is probably the longest piece I’ve posted here. Here’s a short abstract:
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five critiques a social imaginary that acknowledges only the good life and not only ignores the tragic, but condemns it as a means of achieving the good life. Thus, it serves to critique a theology of culture that would see “God’s good purposes” in everything, including the tragic. While, the paper does not dive into lengthy explanations of theodicy, more classical models of God’s action in the world (Augustinian blue-print models, etc.) are what the novel is critiquing. In other words, when bad things happen, there is no necessity to explain such events in terms of God’s will or action. Sometimes horrible stuff just happens, and it’s not to achieve a greater good or make someone stronger or test someone. It’s simply because the world is broken. Much of Vonnegut’s work makes the case that to sweep tragedy under the rug, so to speak, by viewing the world through the “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” lens is in fact a greater, more damaging tragedy.
           Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s fall on the steps of his New York City brownstone, which ultimately led to his death four weeks later, Vonnegut scholar Robert Tally, Jr. writes that “[p]ointing out the absurdity of everyday life was perhaps Vonnegut’s greatest contribution to American literature.  Whereas Hannah Arendt had marveled at the banality of evil, Vonnegut duly recorded the banality of … well, everything.”[1] This certainly is an appropriate starting point for understanding Vonnegut’s work. Vonnegut’s prose is deceptively simple, almost childlike at moments, and yet it simultaneously reveals, with great accuracy and often to the great embarrassment of the reader, the most prominent vices of American culture. However, only in recent years has Vonnegut criticism turned to the redemptive quality of his work. Indeed, there is still resistance to such readings, as Tally himself demonstrates, concluding his reflection with, “Yet Vonnegut gets the last laugh, as both his detractors and his admirers are fooled into imagining, respectively, an overrated hack or a undervalued genius, whereas Vonnegut remains what he always was: a tragicomic performer, as willing to tell a story as he is to take a tumble, and always just for the hell of it.”[2] Many critics agree with Tally that Vonnegut cannot be dismissed as a hack writer, a blip on the screen in the grand scheme of American literature, nor can he be lauded as a writer with a profound message that transcends generations—that his genius and place in the history of American literature is as the author who defied all categories.[3]

I would resist this notion. While it is certainly problematic to place too much emphasis on the “morality” of Vonnegut’s novels (or the genius of them for that matter) because such a reading is in danger of ignoring the actual cynicism of the real-life Vonnegut, we must recognize that there is a redemptive quality that speaks both to theological anthropology as well as a theology of evil. In the midst of the tragedy of Vonnegut’s novels, particularly the middle and later works, emerges an understanding of humanness and culture that can fruitfully be put into conversation with theology. In this paper, I will be offering a close reading of Vonnegut’s sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in conjunction with an understanding of the relationship between theology and culture as presented by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and James K.A. Smith. The violence of Slaughterhouse-Five, presented to the reader through the technique of defamiliarization, serves to gesture toward itself as absurdity, to the point where the text becomes saturated with the absurd and the horror of war is equated to the death of bottled champagne. Juxtaposed to this violence is the recurring sentiment that life can and should be viewed in the totality of its most beautiful moments. Taken together, these two elements can operate as a critique of a theology of culture that would claim the world as wholly sacred, addressing any notion of the profane with violent hate or complete desensitization, resulting in the oppression and death of others in order to uphold the ideology of the world’s sanctification. The novel thus vacates God from a culture of totalizing beauty and places him as necessarily present in the profane-made-sacred.


I will begin with an overview of the theories of the theology of culture that I will employ in the paper. First, a word on the general project of reading cultural artifacts theologically. I concur with Vanhoozer and Smith that culture, in its broadest sense is a gesture toward the good life.[4] In this view, the products of culture are intended to move us closer to our own (or our broader society’s) notion of what the good life is. That is, we desire the good life, as Smith points out, and engage with the cultural products we believe will get us there. When we believe strongly enough that certain cultural artifacts will produce the good life, our engagement with them can quickly become ritualized. Smith uses the example of the mall. If desire is at the core of what it is to be human, then the mall as a cultural text has quite a bit to say to us. We can see that every store as well as the concept of “the mall” as a whole institution affects what we desire and who we should then be. Retailers want us to believe that their products will make us better people, will finally grant us the good life that we’ve sought after so desperately and that without their product, we run the risk of missing out on the good life.

I will not be discussing worldviews, then, as they relate to culture; rather, I will follow Smith when he writes, “In order to recognize the religious power and formative force of the mall, we need to adopt a paradigm of cultural critique and discernment that thinks even deeper than beliefs or worldviews and takes seriously the central role of formative practices.”[5] In relation to Vonnegut, my method will be to extrapolate the ways the novel speaks to the formative practices that have created the theology of culture described above in order to demonstrate how it offers a critique of both the practices and the theology they produce. Vanhoozer is helpful in this regard. It would be easy to restrict a reading of Vonnegut solely to “cultural hegemonies” particularly because the novel is so overtly against war, capitalism, and the American Dream as ideologies. While such a reading is important as a preliminary understanding of the way in which the novel itself engages with and is shaped by the culture of its time, it will also be valuable to put the novel in conversation with theology. Vanhoozer writes: “To understand a cultural text truly thus requires putting it into theodramatic context—reading it in light of the control-script; viewing it thrice over in terms of creation, fall, and redemption.”[6] Thus a situating of Vonnegut both within his cultural milieu as well as within this theodramatic framework will be necessary. That is not to say that other, similar texts of its time do not speak to us theologically—only that I see Vonnegut’s work, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five saying something different.

Vonnegut in the Context of Anti-War Fiction

            Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s most famous work, is an anti-war novel, and along with Cat’s Cradle, is usually compared with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Historically, both Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse fall between the two, Catch-22 published in 1961, Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse in 1963 and 1969, respectively. One of the key characteristics of all four is that each narrative is massively fragmented in some way in order to explore the utter meaninglessness of the atrocities committed during war. Catch-22 is told from multiple perspectives and jumps back and forth in time. Cat’s Cradle is broken up into 127 chapters, though it is fewer than 300 pages. Slaughterhouse-Five relies even more heavily on time, incorporating the actual time travel of the main character, Billy Pilgrim, as the reader is left to try and piece together Billy’s life and more importantly, his experience in WWII and the firebombing of Dresden. Gravity’s Rainbow has close to four hundred named characters, and even though the reader primarily follows Tyrone Slothrop, Slothrop’s story is erratic, disjointed, and ultimately the validity of certain aspects becomes questionable in the reader’s mind. The novel is also broken up into four parts and 73 ‘episodes.’ By the end, it seems the only character story the reader can trust is that of the V-2 rocket, named 00000, as by the end, it is the only “character” left from the beginning.

Ultimately, this fragmentation points to the loss of meaning, just as Modernist texts do, but the novels go further to subvert any attempt to try and re-establish or recover meaning because they suggest that there is actually no meaning to be found and that such attempts are absurd.[7] In Pynchon’s and Heller’s work, the reader is confronted directly with a complete loss of meaning without any hope for discovering it. The arc of the V-2 rocket itself in Gravity’s Rainbow represents an utter hopelessness, an inevitability of meaningless violence. Yossarian of Catch-22 deserts at the end of the novel because he cannot cope with the meaninglessness of war. He says, “Let the bastards thrive since I can’t do a thing to stop them but embarrass them by running away.”[8] There is an acceptance of this loss, almost a reveling in it especially with Heller.

Vonnegut’s relationship to these authors is complicated. There are certainly shared elements, particularly the loss and satirizing of meaning in the face of unspeakable atrocity. However, with Vonnegut, as I shall demonstrate in this paper, there is also a gesture towards a solution—a redemption. This gesture does not come in the form of a modernist hero or glimmer of hope; rather, it comes through facing and accepting the profane for what it is, thus allowing oneself to find the sacred beyond the profane. Much of Vonnegut’s middle work supports this reading. Sacred and satire are held in tension together. The human attempt to create meaning often results in absurdity in Vonnegut’s work; however, the destruction of life is clearly a terrible thing to Vonnegut. The refusal to recognize the “constructedness” of reality and meaning is what becomes the primary target of satire. In the face of such a disturbing, absurd destruction of human life, what do we do? This is the question raised in Slaughterhouse-Five right from the beginning.


            At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator describes Billy’s job as the chaplain’s assistant and says that he played a small organ and was in charge of a portable altar. The narrator then provides the reader with this seemingly unnecessary information: “The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey—and said so.”[9] The effect of this is a “profaning” of the sacred with the purpose of demonstrating that objects are made sacred and are not inherently sacred. This is a constant subject of concern for many of Vonnegut’s narrators, and the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five is no different. Behind this concern for the construction of the sacred lies an even greater concern for Vonnegut: That everything is ultimately meaningless and uncontrollable. The narrator, toward the end of the narrative, writes of the novel itself, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless play things of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”[10] There is an important affinity here, expressed well in this passage, between Vonnegut and the work of atheistic existentialists particularly the work of Albert Camus (namely, the concept of the absurd.) However, there is also a vital difference, which will be important for the theological case that will be made later.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the conditions that constitute the absurd: “The world is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”[11] Camus is pointing to the immensity of the universe and not only the inability of our narratives to account for it or contain it but the desire for them to do so. When one recognizes this immensity and sees the failure of our human constructs to explain it, one experiences the absurd.

Vonnegut’s treatment of death in Slaughterhouse constitutes a response to the absurd. Camus gives other practical examples: “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them. [. . .] A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive.”[12] For Camus, both man and nature “secrete the inhuman”[13] at times. When one stands at the edge of Niagra Falls, for example, one may be taken by the immense beauty of nature but may also suddenly realize that this same nature could also utterly destroy the human body. This realization of human frailty in the face of the immense universe constitutes the absurd. Camus’ solution to experiencing the absurd is to invent meaning. The power of Sisyphus,[14] says Camus, lies in the fact that he would not succumb to death, but persevered though his situation was unbearable and maddening. In that way, he defeated the gods who sought to defeat him. In the same way, human beings must continually overcome the inhuman that becomes unveiled in the universe, especially in our own selves, by creating meaning and identity for ourselves. While the creation of meaning is positive for Camus, Slaughterhouse-Five wants to draw our attention to the problem of treating made meaning as inherent meaning. This isn’t to say that meaning creation is bad—only that it can be bad and often is. The primary mode of meaning creation satirized in Slaughterhouse certainly is, as we shall see.

Furthermore, for Camus (and others such as Jean-Paul Sartre) the creation of meaning is strictly a human affair for oneself. That is, Camus is interested in “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal.[15] In other words, Camus is not interested in an exterior transcendent, but an interior one—man’s own transcendent self, his goals, etc.[16] There is a clear distinction on this point between Vonnegut and the atheistic existentialists that will be helpful as we turn to the theological significance of the novel. Man’s own transcendent self, for Vonnegut, is what gets in the way of creating the sacred because Vonnegut sees that quite often the creation of the sacred according to man’s own goals is precisely what constitutes the absurd. Recall the organ manufactured by the vacuum cleaner company or consider the monograph of Howard J. Campbell in which he describes what it is to be poor in America:

It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. [. . .] Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.[17]

Here we have quite a negative view of a transcendent ideal (that to be rich is to be wise and to be poor is a crime) that humans place upon themselves. Vonnegut’s work does point to a transcendent “part” of human beings, but questions whether or not that transcendence is given by man to himself. In contrast to the above passage, consider this passage from Breakfast of Champions where artist Rabo Karabekian describes his most famous painting:

‘I now give you my word of honor [. . .] that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal—the “I am” to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.’[18]

One could argue that this awareness is exactly what Camus is talking about: our ability to recognize the absurdity of our situation and continue on in the face of it. However, Vonnegut’s work pushes against the notion of a self-dubbed sacred humanity and instead points to sanctification coming from the o/Other.

This also pushes against the idea that our response to horror should always be to make positive meaning out of it, a point explored at great length shortly. Ultimately, what matters to Vonnegut are the human beings who are caught in the “amber of the moment”[19] not the “why” that humans want to attach tragedy. “There is no why,”[20] I would argue, is an appropriate theological response to tragedy.


Before I begin an examination of the novel, I must first define one technical literary device that Vonnegut employs throughout the novel, which is vital to an understanding of the effect that the novel produces. Defamiliarization is a term coined in literary studies by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, in a 1925 essay entitled “Art as Technique.” There, Shklovsky writes, “as perception [of an object or concept] becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. [. . .] all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic. [. . .] In this process [. . .] things are replaced by symbols.”[21] In other words, we cease to see the meaning or implication of objects—they are reduced to their utility. Shklovsky continues: “By this ‘algebraic’ method of thought [referring to the unconsciously automatic transforming objects into symbols] we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics.”[22] Defamiliarization occurs when we are brought abruptly out of this mode and forced to see the object in a new light, reevaluating its details and gaining a new, more detailed understanding of it.[23] The effect typically forces us to see how objects were at one time assigned meaning or new meanings that the object perhaps did not have before.

In Vonnegut, we see this occur surrounding moments of death, particular because of the use of the phrase “So it goes” following most deaths in the novel. Death becomes defamiliarized particularly because the phrase follows and draws our attention toward not only natural deaths but “deaths” that turn to satire (i.e. the death of champagne or water.) Death is not only reduced to neutral phenomenon, but the process of defamiliarization seeks to reduce those who die to the level of neutral object, or as the narrator of Breakfast of Champions says, “machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.”[24] This forces us to see those moments as terribly cold or callous, thus calling our attention to the ways in which we make death meaningful—which, in this case, turns out to be affirmed by the novel.

Vonnegut’s use of defamiliarization is often complex and thus difficult to understand. It is not enough to say simply that the intention behind the technique is to satirize that which is being viewed through defamiliarization. In some sense, the neutral response to death is an object of satire. Satire is often critical sometimes even polemical, and the equivocation of dead champagne to dead people is a clear example of this. However, satire also always contains a kernel of truth. That is, there is also a sense in which Vonnegut’s use of this technique reveals the way things actually are. While we may not respond to the “death of champagne” in any classifiable way, Vonnegut rightly points out that there is a certain ambivalence when it comes to the death of human beings, particularly when that death is on a horrific scale. When death is defamiliarized, our attention is drawn to the artifice of meaning; however, a response of non-meaning is also criticized. The two are held in tension together.

Theodrama. So it Goes.

Our task now is to examine the features I have described above within the context of the theodrama of creation, fall, and redemption as described by Vanhoozer. Slaughterhouse-Five presents the reader with a tangled, yet theologically appropriate vision of creation and fall. That is, the novel holds a dual vision of creation as valued yet also fallen and tragic. At the beginning of the third chapter, the narrator relates the following episode that illustrates this tension well:

His bandy legs were thrust into golden cavalry boots which he had taken from a dead Hungarian colonel on the Russian front. So it goes. [. . .] One time a recruit was watching him bone and wax those golden boots, and he held one up to the recruit and said, “If you look in there deeply enough, you’ll see Adam and Eve.”

Billy Pilgrim had not heard this anecdote. But, lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.

Next to the golden boots were a pair of feet which were swaddled in rags. They were crisscroseed by canvas straps, were shod with hinged wooden clogs. Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy.

The boy was as beautiful as Eve.[25]

The interplay of the perfect boots, where the boots came from, the innocence of Adam and Eve become quickly smashed together in the image of the teenage boy, feet wrapped in rags stuffed into wooden clogs, yet beautiful. Beautiful and broken at the same time. His location further compounds this. He is a teenage boy at war, most likely destined to die. His beauty becomes conflated with Ronald Weary’s “cruel trench knife” as the thieving corporal calls it “a pretty thing.”[26] The clear lines between innocence and violence that were being drawn at first are broken down so that the beautiful is no longer pure—it “secretes the inhuman.”[27]

There are many more examples throughout the novel where beauty and horror, humanity and inhumanity, sacred and profane become blurred. Theologically, this seems to be an accurate depiction of our condition as fallen human beings. In other words, our ability to produce or experience the beautiful or the sacred is always going to be mediated by our brokenness. We do not have the ability create or experience these things without the aid of God nor do we have the ability to experience or create them the way that God would without the transformative power of redemption. The picture that the episode above paints is one of broken beauty. Innocence that is slightly off-center. It is beauty that is in need of redemption.

However, our brokenness and, more specifically, the results of our brokenness cannot always be described theologically. That is, although brokenness and tragedy point to the necessity of redemption in the theodrama, the causes of and God’s action in specific moments of tragedy and brokenness do not need to be explained in terms of God’s theodrama apart from the more general sense of the Fall of creation—which brings us to the crux of the theological force of Slaughterhouse-Five. To do so is to create a naïve theology of culture in which all tragedy is ultimately positive and all victims are ultimately made objects of God’s plan rather than subjects acting in it.

This point will require further explanation. One of the most central moments in the novel occurs when Billy Pilgrim is struck with an epiphany as his wife is asking him about the war: “A crazy thought now occurred to Billy. The truth of it startled him. It would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim—and for me, too. [. . .] “EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING HURT.”[28] Why should this be “true” to Billy Pilgrim? Looking broadly over the entire novel, it should not be. The epitaph is true only for a dead Tralfamadorian—the extra-terrestrials who kidnap Billy Pilgrim to put him on display in their zoo. When Billy asks his zookeeper how it is their planet can always have peaceful days, the alien responds:

“Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments [. . .] That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”[29]

The only response Billy can muster is “Um,” and it is completely appropriate. Although this Tralfamadorian worldview is what ultimately spawns Billy’s epiphany, this is not and can never be Billy’s experience. Like the Tralfamadorians, Billy is “unstuck” in time, traveling sporadically from one moment in his life to the next. However, unlike his alien hosts, he has no control over where he will go or what he will see. Instead, he is always reliving the most beautiful, horrific, and mediocre moments of his life. Thus, the thought that everything is beautiful and nothing hurt could not be an accurate description of Billy’s life. He has to instead take every moment as it comes again and again—as we all do.

The novel ultimately critiques this worldview through the defamiliarization and satirizing of a neutral response to death through the phrase “So it goes.” Like the epitaph, this phrase is also connected to the Tralfamadorian worldview. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator relates a letter to the local newspaper that Billy had written describing his inter-galactic friends and in particular, their views of time and death: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.’ ”[30] We can see how this worldview, which Billy Pilgrim attempts to adopt, ends up becoming a critique of itself through the devices of defamiliarization and satire.

Theologically speaking, this is a worldview that would mold all aspects of culture to be a part of “God’s will.” Under this view, the statement “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” entails, theologically, that God be present in all events, both beautiful and tragic, for the ultimate purpose of good. In other words, even the most horrific tragedies, the bombing of Dresden to put this in terms of the novel, are explainable ultimately in terms of God’s greater good. Such a view, however, is inconsistent with Vanhoozer’s notion of theodrama because it does not allow for a robust understanding of fall and redemption. If even the “most fallen” of human endeavors and events ultimately serve God’s good purposes,[31] then the act of redemption, though still present and necessary, is severely twisted since it suggests that God will use human fallenness in his act of redemption rather than ultimately transforming that fallenness.

We can also put this in conversation with the desire for the good life. The novel critiques this theological view in relation to the good life in a number of different ways. First, if this sort of theology of culture is adhered to as a means of achieving the good life, then it will have great difficulty engaging with and discerning between institutions as means to achieving the good life. A theology that sees everything as beautiful can hardly see anything as ultimately bad. Thus, when Smith discusses the ways in which particular institutions such as consumerism, patriotism, and education come to shape our identities, one could ultimately argue from the “Everything is Beautiful” position, that these institutions cannot negatively form our identities because God will ultimately use them for good. Returning to Howard Campbell’s monograph, we can see how works and ends up creating a narrative of oppression against the poor:

“Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. The inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.”[32]

This belief among both the wealthy and the poor is what serves to create the immense oppression that Campbell describes in his monograph—and seeing things this way has formed a certain kind of person. Comparing the Tralfamadorian way of seeing things to the way that Smith talks about formative practices, we can examine the ways in which such a theology would shape our desires and our identity negatively in relation to Christ-like Christian practice.

The desire that drives the Tralfamadorians is the good life achieved by only existing in the good. The joke of this part of Vonnegut’s novel is that the Tralfamadorian social imaginary sounds so good—who wouldn’t want to live that way? Much like the promises of consumerism, which Smith describes, such an imaginary could never be realized, and Vonnegut makes it very easy for us to see that since the Tralfamadorians are nothing like us—they are time traveling aliens. That Billy Pilgrim believes he can adopt their social imaginary is a part of his tragic nature. The novel then calls us to question an imaginary among human beings that would attempt to ignore the bad and only see the good—or see the bad as good or neutral. It allows us to see how destructive that actually is. Vanhoozer summarizes this well when he writes that “theology and understanding alike are short-circuited if we are not able to discern (1) how our faith is affected by the world we live in and (2) how we are to embody our faith in shapes of everyday life.”[33] We are not living in the world if all tragedy is beautiful—if all bad can be explained in terms of God’s greater good. Rather, the brokenness of the world must be engaged on its own terms, apart from God’s action in order to arrive at the most robust understanding of God’s transformative redemption. We pass through the profane to arrive at the sacred.

Conclusion: Cross-Pressure in the Immanent Frame

I’ve suggested that the novel critiques a vision of the world that would see only the most beautiful moments, ignoring or attempting to destroy those that are not. Much of Vonnegut’s work struggles with this conflict between wanting to acknowledge the beautiful and not allowing the beautiful to dominate our vision. Another way of articulating the situation that Billy Pilgrim finds himself in over-against that of the Tralfamadorians is found in Charles Taylor’s notion of the immanent frame. For Taylor the secular distinction between the transcendent and the material is ultimately an immanent frame: “the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a ‘natural,’ or ‘this-worldly’ order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent.’ ”[34] Billy’s desire to see everything as beautiful is in, many ways, an appeal to the transcendent. The Tralfamadorians have the ability to “transcend” time in that they can choose “when” they look at—they defy the metaphysics of presence, able to be present in any moment. Billy’s condition is misleading both for him and the reader in that he is still immanent despite his ability to travel through time. It really is no ability at all since he has no control over it, as discussed above. Thus, the tragedy that Billy must continually relive is simply a part of the structures he lives in. He cannot escape, and his attempt to ignore those moments is reflected in the objects of the more overt critiques the novel makes against American culture in general.

Taylor’s notion of cross-pressure in relation to how both believers and non-believers exist in the immanent frame together is also helpful in further understanding the dilemma that Slaughterhouse presents. Taylor writes that “those who want to opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in its scientistic-materialist form, or in a more spiritualized variant, feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of self transformation beyond the everyday” and continues, arguing that on the opposite end are those “haunted by a sense that the universe might after all be as meaningless as the most reductive materialism describes. They feel that their vision has to struggle against this flat and empty world; they fear that their strong desire for God, or for eternity, might after all be the self-induced illusion that materialists claim it to be.”[35] Vonnegut situates his characters right in the middle of this tension.

Billy himself is flat, without an identity,[36] and the novel ends with a question, “Poo-tee-weet?”  which signals the absurdity of attempting to draw meaning from something as horrific as the bombing of Dresden. The theologically minded reader feels the burden of the tension. Such a reader senses that Billy Pilgrim is in the first position, but Billy has already lost the world of beauty despite his desire to be Tralfamadorian. Furthermore, such a reader will identify with the second position in the face of the atrocity that the bombing of Dresden presents particularly when the response of both characters and narrator is one of indifference. If, however, we read those moments of indifference as satirizing such a response to atrocity, then the novel points us to a theological position where our response to tragedy is to understand it on its own terms and situate ourselves in the hope of God’s redemption.

by Joel Harrison


Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage   International, 1955, 1991).

Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961).

Smith, James K.A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation             (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009)

Tally, Robert T. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies   vonneguts-last-laugh-guest-post-by-robert-t-tally-jr.html> 15 March 2012.

Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007).

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends          (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007).

Vonnegut, Kurt, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973).

—, Slaughterhouse-Five ((New York: Random House, 1969).

            [1]. Robert T. Tally, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies> 15 March 2012.

            [2]. Ibid.

            [3]. The fashion among Vonnegut critics has often been to see him as one of his own tragi-comic characters, either Pilgrim or Kilgore Trout or another, who are always depicted in a “me versus the world” sort of way.

            [4]. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007) 45.

            [5]. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009) 24.

            [6]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 41.

            [7]. A term to be defined and discussed at length later.

            [8]. Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961) 462.

            [9]. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Random House, 1969) 31.

            [10]. Ibid., 164.

            [11]. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1955, 1991) p. 21

            [12]. Ibid., 14-5.

            [13]. Ibid,. 14.

            [14]. In this myth, King Sisyphus is punished for his trickery against the gods by being made to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.

            [15]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 60.

            [16]. See Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialism is a Humanism.

            [17]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [18]. Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973) 226.

            [19]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 77.

            [20]. Ibid.

            [21]. V. Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique,’ J. Rivkin and M. Ryan (ed), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Blackwell Publishing: Massachusetts, 1998) p. 15

            [22]. Ibid.

            [23]. Jamie Smith uses this technique when describing the mall at the beginning of Desiring the Kingdom, 19-22.

            [24]. Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 225.

            [25]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 53.

            [26]. Ibid., 54.

            [27]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 14.

            [28]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 121-2.

            [29]. Ibid., 117.

            [30]. Ibid., 27.

            [31]. This is, of course, also ignoring any complex discussions of theodicy.

            [32]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [33]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 16.

            [34]. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007) 594.

            [35]. Taylor, A Secular Age, 592-3.

            [36]. This is because identity is formed through the achievement of goals over time. Billy is unable to do this given his “unstuckness.”

Grace as an Experience of the Sublime in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

A brief note about the essay:

Flannery O’Connor is arguably the most important American author of the 20th century, and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is certainly her most widely anthologized and popular story. Part of the power of O’Connor’s fiction is her ability to embed single moments of grace in the midst of Southern Gothic settings, among grotesque characters. In this story, the moment is pervasively obvious, and as I argue here, is a moment of sublimity, crashing into the life of one of the characters.

O’Connor, who was a devout Catholic, was deeply concerned with “waking up” Christians just like me–a seminary student raised in a Christian home. She despised sentimentality. She believed that Christian living was extreme, on the fringe of impossible. It is with that in mind that I set out to explain how grace in the story enters in as a moment of awe-filled terror, which is exactly how O’Connor thought it should be perceived.

* * *

            Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” finds its thrust in character—particularly the grandmother and The Misfit—set against an atmosphere and plot both ominous and tragically fatalistic. The grandmother’s character reaches its fullest point of development at the climax of the story, right before her death as she is finally able to experience and extend grace to The Misfit—her only genuinely positive act in the story. This moment is cast in sharp relief by The Misfit’s misunderstanding and rejection of the grandmother’s gesture. Grace is etched out within a negative space in the story: it emerges under the atmosphere of fatalism, and it is lacking in the grandmother and her family as well as in The Misfit’s rejection of the grandmother’s extension of grace. This paper will demonstrate that in that final climactic moment, grace finally appears as presence rather than absence—a transcendence that cuts into the story, breaking through the darkness that pervades it. That it is rejected and is the final cause of the grandmother’s death does not point to the destruction of grace, but rather to its sublime[1] and divine power. The awe-filled terror of grace is its radical power to utterly transform one’s life.

From the beginning of the story, grace is encountered as a lack in the characters. No member of the family makes any attempt to try and understand one another. They are spiteful toward each other. Characters outside of the family, such as Red Sammy and The Misfit, are similarly lacking grace. No character interaction shows any amount of grace until the grandmother’s extension of it to The Misfit at the climax of the story.[2]

The pervasive atmosphere of fatalism is established in the story through foreshadowing and almost obviously fatalistic plot points made through the grandmother’s own selfish choices, reminiscent of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.[3] Furthermore, the encounter with The Misfit is foreshadowed from the very first page when the grandmother points out that he is reportedly headed to Florida, just like the family, thus bringing the ominous presence of The Misfit into the atmosphere of the story. Once the climax looms on the horizon, the reader is left to wonder if it were ever possible to avoid what happens to the family—that perhaps a moment of grace that could have rescued the family from their fate was never possible.

When grace does enter the story, at the climax, it is quite pronounced due to its juxtaposition to the extreme moments of absence that pervade the rest of the narrative, particularly the moment of the reaction against grace on the part of The Misfit. The grandmother selfishly and inanely babbles to The Misfit about what a good person she knows he is in order to save herself, bizarrely unconcerned with the systematic murder of the rest of her family (15). She speaks to him about prayer, yet is unable to mutter a single meaningful word of prayer, instead using the name of Jesus as a curse (18-20). She even doubts Jesus’ divinity and power (22). Yet, as her conversation with The Misfit brings him to the height of an emotional pitch, somehow she is able to truly see past the horror of who he really is as opposed to merely searching for what she thinks he wants to hear (telling him he is a good person, etc.) She reaches out to touch him and says, “ ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ ” (22). It is a moment of clarity, according to the narrator. Rather than being concerned for her own life, the grandmother is genuinely concerned for The Misfit. As soon as she touches The Misfit, however, he recoils in terror, “as if a snake had bitten him” (22) and instantly shoots the grandmother. It is this precise moment that the power of grace is revealed. The Misfit experiences grace as the terror of the sublime.

The Misfit’s reaction seems to be informed by the complete absence and rejection of grace in his own life experience as well as in his understanding of Jesus’ life and sacrifice as a part of the construction of his own internally consistent code of conduct. He tells the grandmother that he does not remember why he was imprisoned—that he did not do anything wrong, yet his imprisonment could not have been a mistake because “They had papers” (19) on him. He sees this as analogous to Christ, yet he claims Jesus had it even worse since there were no papers on him. The free grace given through Christ is not considered at all; rather, The Misfit sees Christ’s execution as yet another instance of the force of law subsuming an individual and rather unfairly by The Misfit’s understanding of law. It is because of this that The Misfit believes there is no sense in obeying the law since “they” will get him anyway, regardless of the crime committed or if any crime was committed at all. Furthermore, The Misfit is far more concerned with the reality of Jesus’ miracles, particularly the raising of Lazarus from the dead, than any potential implications or Jesus’ own resurrection and its implications. It is not by grace’s saving power through faith but by eyewitness and empirical certainty that The Misfit considers he could be saved—a mere lip service paid to that possibility since he cannot go back to witness those events. Paradoxically, however, The Misfit does seem to recognize some form of grace. When the grandmother suggests he should pray because Jesus will help him, he agrees that Jesus would. However, he then says, “ ‘I don’t want no hep [sic] [. . .] I’m doing all right by myself’ ” (19) indicating a rejection of grace rather than an ignorance of its existence or the feeling that it has been denied him against his will.

The Misfit rejects the help of Jesus because grace has no part of his code. He needs to see the absence of grace in the law in order to justify his behavior. This foreign character of grace in The Misfit’s mind is what causes his encounter with grace to be experienced as a moment of transcendent, terrifying sublimity. The Misfit shoots the grandmother in reaction to the sheer terror of the possibility that her grace would collapse the internally consistent moral code he had built. It cuts right through it. It would have the ability to utterly change him, if he would only become like a child again. The sheer immensity and power of such a thing is terrifying—that something such as grace, which The Misfit holds as unnecessary and even detrimental could actually completely transform him and take away what he holds most dear. Ultimately, The Misfit is able to retain his code. He sees the grandmother as having been a horrible person, saying after he shoots her that “ ‘She would of been a good woman [. . .] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’ ” (23). In this, he is able to explain away her extension of grace—it came only as a result of trying to save herself and thus was not actual.

The terror of the sublime comes as a result of experiencing something so much more immense and powerful than oneself, where one is at once overcome with an awe-filled terror. Such experiences are terrifying particularly because one is so strongly confronted with the possibility of death—the most radical transformation of all—that the reality one is confronted with could so easily crush the viewer.[4] It is this possibility that confronts The Misfit in the form of grace. The Misfit is terrified because he cannot fathom the possibility of having his code collapse around him. Yet in this moment, the reader can see across that horizon. For a split second, the reader’s vision aligns with the grandmother’s, seeing The Misfit as a child of God, potentially leaving his life of crime behind, accepting the free gift of grace offered him. His terrified reaction reveals the transcendent power that God’s grace has. The climax gives the reader a brief glimpse into the reality of grace. The Misfit was looking for a human kind of reality—empirical proof, enclosed systems of conduct. The reality of grace is that it can come crashing into our lives, disrupting everything, bringing us to our knees in awe-filled terror of infinite possibilities—new and utterly transformative, but unknown.

by Joel Harrison

Work Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Orlando: Harcourt Press, 1955. 1-23.

[1] I use the sublime in a specific, technical sense throughout the paper referring to an effect of both terror and awe produced by the sheer immensity of an experience, as defined by Edmund Burke (1756),  i.e. the first hand viewing of extreme natural phenomena (standing at the edge of Niagara Falls, coming face to face with a ten-foot wave, etc.) See Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

[2] Some examples include the grandchildren caring nothing for anyone but themselves and being rude and disrespectful toward the grandmother; Red Sammy treats his wife as an employee and both he and the grandmother resent anyone who does not meet their criteria of “good.”

[3] The grandmother brings her cat against Bailey’s wishes; she manipulates the children into forcing Bailey to visit a plantation she mistakenly thinks is in Georgia, but is in Tennessee; upon realizing the mistake she has made, she starts, causing the cat to jump on Bailey which in turn causes the car accident; she foolishly blurts out the identity of The Misfit when he and his accomplices come upon the family.

[4] Death in this sense is not simply ceasing to breath, but a complete and total destruction of the body, like an ant being smashed by a finger—a death that points immediately to the infinitesimal smallness of ones existence.

Returning to the Tool Shed: An Argument for the Use of Multiple Hermeneutical Tools in Biblical Interpretation

There is something about the nature of Scripture that seems to distinguish its study from the study of other texts—literature, history, philosophy, scientific theories, etc. The distinction comes from our beliefs about these texts. One may say a work of literature or philosophy is “divinely inspired” in a figurative sense, positing its brilliance, but when one claims divine inspiration with regard to Scripture, one is invoking a very different, special sort of classification reserved only for religious texts—that the text has an actual connection to the divine. The task of interpreting these texts then becomes difficult since there is a desire to derive the best meaning possible if not the absolute meaning in order to use the text as a guide for living, while the tension of what method will best serve that purpose seems to detract from the possibility of being able to arrive at such an interpretation at all. As a result, there is a debate in New Testament studies over whether or not historical-critical methods should be favored over others that find their source in literary theory. However, if we are interpreting faithfully within a particular interpretive tradition, or, to take this further, if we accept a tradition in which multiple methods can be used faithfully, then the question of method itself will only enhance our ability to arrive at the best interpretation.

In this essay, I will explore Nancey Murphy’s argument for speech-act theory as the best postmodern account of language and the most fruitful, holistic tool for biblical hermeneutics, affirming much of what she has to say, but arguing that speech-act theory alone is not adequate for all texts or all interpretive goals. I will explain what the contributions of the tradition of literary analysis are to hermeneutics and demonstrate how that tradition can provide an acceptable general understanding of how scholars should approach biblical hermeneutics. However, because of Scripture’s special status, it must also be protected from the hermeneutical “freedom” that literary criticism seemingly affords the scholar. Through these explorations, I will argue that the most fruitful way to approach a text is through searching for and understanding first what use a particular method will have in the interpretive task because not all methods are useful at all times. We must ask whether or not a method or methodological question is doing work for us in trying to understand what a text is doing. Therefore, the biblical scholar or theologian must be open to a hermeneutical tradition that allows for a multiplicity of readings to form the most useful understanding of the text.

Postmodern Analytic Philosophy of Language

Nancey Murphy approaches the problem within the realm of the philosophy of language, positing that the late modern epoch was comprised of referential and [secondary] expressivist theories of language and that these migrated over to the way scholars spoke about religious language as well. Referentialists, such as John Locke, or later, logical positivists such as A.J. Ayer, posit that language is understood in terms of reference; that is, words refer to actual objects in the real world. With regard to religious language, there is a split. For conservatives, the referentialist argument is transferred directly to the Bible, and the authority of Scriptural language is affirmed; everything the Bible refers to must have an actual referent. However, Ayer argued that both ethical and religious propositions only express the feelings and attitudes of a speaker. In other words, such propositions are not factually meaningful at all. Therefore, when one makes a statement about what is ethical or who God is, he or she is merely expressing a feeling about those things, not making a statement of fact.[1]

Murphy makes the case that while both of these theories may contribute to our understanding of language, neither alone is adequate to provide a holistic account of language. She turns to J.L. Austin and speech act theory to provide this. Austin argues that language is best understood in terms of what it is doing. This raises a two-fold question: What is the speaker attempting to do with the language, and what does the receiver do with language? These too can be divided further into the conditions necessary for a “happy” speech act: (1) Both parties must share a common language. (2) The speaker’s statement must be made in a way that is conventional within the common language (a command, request, promise, etc.) (3) There must be a state of affairs existing that make the statement comprehensible. (4) The speaker must intend to perform the act with the proper attitudes and affects and the hearer must understand the speaker to have these attitudes and affects.[2] Through an analysis of these conditions, one can determine the meaning of an utterance. This is particularly important for statements, which, apart from their narrative context,[3] are seemingly meaningless.

Post-structuralism and Literary Analysis

As Murphy points out in her book Anglo-American Postmodernity, speech-act theory is not the only postmodern theory of language available to us. Because the focus of this paper is not to argue that one approach to language in general (or the text for that matter) is better than another, it will behoove us to avoid a long explanation of poststructuralist thought when it comes to the philosophy of language. Rather, it is mentioned here to illustrate another point—the use of philosophy as a hermeneutical tool. One of Murphy’s aims in chapter 7 of AAP is to argue that deconstruction does not offer an adequately postmodern account of the meaning of language, and that speech-act theory does. Whether one is better than the other as a philosophy is a moot point, however, when it comes to each one’s use as a hermeneutical tool.

Literary criticism has a recent history (within the last fifty years) of utilizing theories, from fields in which these theories are perhaps viewed as long dead, insufficient for, or merely a part of the history of the discipline. Psychoanalytic criticism, for instance, primarily utilizes Freud (the concepts of the Uncanny, the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.), Jung (archetypes), and the work of Jacques Lacan (the Real, the Symbolic Order). One of the reasons that these theories are used is because Freud, Jung, and Lacan themselves used literature to illustrate points about their theories—they analyzed literature using their theories as tools to unpack meaning from the text.[4]

That is not to say, however, that theory is the only way a literary scholar can or would approach literature. Indeed, history is often an important if not more advantageous tool to pursue in certain cases.[5] It is this notion of tool that is important in the development of the argument here. At stake is an important distinction between “tool used to describe a state of affairs in the world”—a theory would be a better word—and “tool used to interpret a text.” Speech-act theory and deconstruction are both of these. Both fall under the category “Philosophy of Language,” and it may be very true that speech-act theory is superior when both are used in the first sense above. However, if we look at both as hermeneutical tools, we are drawing a very different comparison between the two. Before we get to that point, we must first establish the difference between the practical use of language and narrative.

The Action of the Text

There is a third component to our original question above regarding what texts do. Austin and others of the analytic tradition are concerned with how language is understood practically; therefore, the analysis of what language does only includes questions about speaker and hearer (or writer and reader.) However, if we are asking what the text is doing, then we are granting a certain amount of autonomy to the text itself. Literary scholars are typically concerned with texts in this way—with what they do apart from any specific author/speaker or reader/hearer.[6] As a starting point, think about the “universality” (or timelessness) of certain narratives—Greek myth, Grimm’s fairytales, or particular plays of Shakespeare.[7] The important question to ask is why any of these that come to mind have achieved such staying power. They do not have devout religious followings, at least none that are taken seriously. While we can certainly analyze them in terms of how they were received in their own context that is most likely not the reason most people are familiar with them.

Literary scholars would argue that these texts themselves do things: have certain effects on readers, illuminate aspects of the human condition, draw attention to paradoxes—the list is potentially endless. The important point to note, however, is that in contrast to Austin’s speech-act theory, the original conditions of the act (i.e. the author’s intentions, the speaker’s apprehension of those intentions) are not necessary in order to derive a meaning from the text. One could certainly turn to such things (as one would pick out a particular tool for a task) in search of further explanation of something within the text; however, this is but one method. We know from our own readings of these types of texts that we are able to draw conclusions about them without this information.

Consider Stanley Fish’s dissection of a famous John Updike sentence describing the home run Ted Williams hit in his last at bat in 1960, It was in the books while it was still in the sky:

‘It was in the books’ is metaphorical. Updike imagines, correctly, that this moment will be memorialized in stories [. . .] and he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park. Indeed, in this sentence the ball never does get out of the park. It is ‘still in the sky,’ a phrase that has multiple meanings; the ball is still in the sky in the sense that it has not yet landed; it is still in the sky in the sense that its motion is arrested; and it is still in the sky in the sense that it is, and will remain forever, in the sky of the books, in the record of the game’s highest, most soaring achievements. On the surface ‘in the book’ and ‘in the sky’ are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously.[8]

First, let us acknowledge, and rightly so, that the sentence is not intelligible unless we understand its context: My explanation of what Updike was writing about is necessary. However, Fish’s explication of the sentence is only dependant upon the historical information provided above in so far as it tells the reader why the sentence should have any force in the first place.[9] One could perhaps make the claim that all Fish is doing is detailing Updike’s intentions—certainly Updike was attempting to achieve a particular effect, and Fish’s explanation only proves that the effect was achieved.

Suppose, however, that the effects Fish details were not Updike’s intention. What would happen if one found an interview in which Updike claimed he had no specific intention in mind when he wrote the sentence, that he was merely describing what he felt at a particular moment, but intended no specific effects upon readers? The answer is simple: nothing. We can imagine such a scenario, return to Fish’s explication, and still see for ourselves what Fish is arguing and how it applies. The historical information gives us the weight of importance upon the sentence. If this authorial information were actually available, we may then say that perhaps Updike’s sentence is a failed speech-act with reference to Fish, but that seems to matter little if Fish’s analysis of the sentence achieves its own goal, which in this case is to explain why the sentence has struck readers as particularly poignant.

Speech-Act Theory in Biblical Studies

As I have argued, speech-act theory provides a compelling and adequate account of the philosophy of language and does achieve important work when it comes to the analysis of a text. Let us now examine some specific uses for speech-act theory in Biblical studies. Through that analysis, I will make a case for why speech act theory is relevant in interpretation. In the next section, I will explore some important functions of literary theory in biblical hermeneutics.

Murphy makes the important point that the Scriptures come from a tradition of use; that is, they have informed Jewish and Christian practice for millennia, so to attempt to remove them completely from that context would be erroneous.[10] It is with that in mind that we turn to Paul’s brief letter to Philemon. In this epistle, Paul is writing on behalf of a slave, Onesimus, who was imprisoned with Paul, and whom Paul claims to have become a father to. The thrust of the letter seems to be a request to allow Onesimus to return to Philemon without punishment: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[11] Many contemporary Christian readers, however, have struggled with the inclusion of this letter in the canon because it seems to condone slavery. It seems that Paul has convinced Onesimus that he must return to Philemon because he is a slave.

However, if we use speech-act theory to understand Philemon, these objections are easily resolved. Although elsewhere I have minimized the interpretive import of authorial intention, it becomes far more pertinent with regard to Paul’s epistles. We have an historical figure, widely recognized as a leader in the church, writing a letter of instruction (a conventional way of speaking both in his language and in English) in a language we have access to in order to study it and understand its idioms and specific conventions, to another person whose character is fleshed out by historical context. While a full analysis of the text here would detract from the main argument, we can see how an attempt to come at Paul’s intentions and purposes in writing the letter and Philemon’s potential uptake using historical information would help to bring us to a more holistic understanding of the text, one that tries to understand what the use of the letter was in its context rather than merely using the appearance of the word “slave” to draw hasty conclusions. From that understanding, we can then, in a contemporary setting, come to understand what the letter means for the church today in terms of our own practices.

Gaps in Speech-Act Hermeneutics

Let us turn briefly to a biblical example that demonstrates an instance where speech-act theory may be partially useful but does not carry the force that it does when examining a genre like the epistles. Consider Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[12] Some scholars have made the case that we can say it was the author’s intention to include the phrase “the Son of God” at the beginning of the gospel narrative with the explicit purpose of stirring things up among Romans who were followers of the Imperial Cult (the belief that the Caesars were deified in death.)[13] However, it need not have been the author’s intention for that effect to be actual in history. We know from historical context that the Romans worshipped the Caesars as the true sons of God and to claim anyone else was a deity was indeed a heinous crime. Thus, we can deduce from that information that Mark 1:1 perhaps did have the effect of causing some turmoil among Romans of that day. [14]

We can ask the same question about authorial intention here as we did with Fish’s analysis of Updike’s sentence: If we were to somehow discover that the author of Mark did not intend to incite turmoil among Romans, would that change our historical understanding of the appearance of the phrase “Son of God” in Mark 1:1? It most likely would not. Again, to then point to the verse as a failed speech-act does little for us on the interpretive front. Whether or not the author intended the effect, our deductions from history tell us the phrase most likely carried it. Why then an insistence on authorial intent in this case? It seems that New Testament studies in particular has been dominated by such methods because of the erroneous belief that if one could come to understand the actual meaning of the text, through understanding the author’s original intentions, then one would have the literal divine meaning of the text—God’s words unadulterated. That is, one would be able to establish an appropriate foundation for understanding the text if one could gain access to authorial intent. To be fair, most scholars of this school today would never go so far as to say that they could ever come to understand exactly what the intentions of a Biblical author were since we indeed are not even sure who wrote many of the New Testament texts (let alone the Old Testament texts.) The fact remains, however, that there is a foundational sense in which scholars seek for authorial intent. Let us turn now to a study of how speech-act theory and literary theory can work in conjunction.

The Parable of the Great Banquet

In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who planned a great banquet, invited many friends, yet all he had invited were unable to attend. Upon learning this news, he sent his servants out into the streets to bring in the poor, widowed, blind, and lame to come to the banquet. The rich man asked his servants to compel people to come inside so that his house would be filled. The parable is about hospitality. Jesus frames the parable before telling it:

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”[15]

Luke’s narration is important, and we can use speech-act theory to get a better understanding of just how radical Jesus’ words are. We learn from historical analysis that to host a party was a respected, honorable ability since it meant that one had enough money to share what he had with others. Therefore, to offer a criticism the way Jesus does here would have been highly unusual and most likely offensive to his host. We also know from context that there were severe class distinctions among people in the ancient world. For anyone of stature to open his home to any passerby including the poor, crippled, lame, and blind would be absolutely out of the question. It would be possible to take this analysis further, to examine the Koine Greek Luke is writing in, to explain in detail the social and historical conventions, but the point is made that those elements aid us in understanding the text.

Now consider an understanding from a deconstructive point of view. Derrida, in his later work, wrote a lecture on the concept of The Gift.[16] It is a paradigm of an impossible aporetic situation, even though it seems quite simple. Suppose A gives x freely to B, but imagine the chain of consequences the act of the gift incites. B now feels obligation to return the gesture by giving a gift to A. However, it cannot be just anything. B must attempt to match it in value lest B make A look bad or make herself appear cheap. If A refuses the gesture, A is either being rude or A is attempting to raise herself in appearance, emphasizing A’s own giving nature. We can imagine a number of scenarios in which gifts are given and in each the true nature of The Gift is always thwarted, always reduced to an economy of gift giving—an economy in which The Gift can easily become a burden. However, this is not to say Derrida argues that giving The Gift is thus impossible; rather he argues that The Gift is itself the impossible. The aporia, the impossible, “is never the end of action in deconstruction but the start, the condition of possibility of a genuine action, one with teeth in it.”[17] That is to say that the moment we think we understand the genuine action of gift giving, is the very moment we lose it because it is aporetic—the impossible we continually pursue.

Let us now apply this to what Jesus is saying about hospitality. What he presents is a scenario that represents the impossible. When we are attempting to be hospitable, we extend invitations to those we know, which are really a matter of selection; not only do we not want certain people we know already to not be invited for various social reasons, but we would not ever conceive of inviting strangers into our homes. Even given Jesus’ instruction and parable, following through is difficult. However, if we view the scenario as the impossible, then we are acknowledging that we will never be able to achieve exactly what Jesus is calling us to in this story—and that’s a wonderful thing. Seeing hospitality in the same way Derrida describes The Gift, allows us to keep after a genuine living-out of the parable. It reminds us that in our brokenness, the moment we think we have solved the mystery of Jesus’ hospitality is the exact moment our hospitality ceases to be genuine. We are broken, but we have the ability to never stop pursuing genuine Christian living.


Certainly the implications I have drawn out of the passage above using deconstruction could be reached using another method—but that is rather the point here. Deconstruction does provide a conceptual framework for understanding the practical implications of Scripture. One may say that another conceptual framework can do the exact same thing and illuminate something else that deconstruction cannot. That is wonderful. One may look at this second framework and see a way in which a supplemental method, historical-critical understandings or exegetical work, can tease out even more important implications from the text. Even better. One of the most important contributions to method that can be gleaned from the tradition of literary studies is the multiplicity of methods. Murphy is on the right track with her appropriation speech-act theory to biblical interpretation because she recognizes the importance of understanding the full context of Scripture—it cannot just be either referential or expressive. However, speech-act theory itself is but one method of analysis and to limit ourselves to it would be to limit our understanding of the text.

Finally, we must emphasize the fact that the argument here is not that any reading goes. Murphy turns to Stanley Fish on this point, who emphasizes the important influence interpretive communities have upon the interpreter. One way to state the point would be to say that one can certainly make an attempt at any reading he or she wants, but whether or not that interpretation is validated is dependent upon the practices of particular interpretive communities.[18] Thus, one must still justify an interpretation using the means available. This is also particularly important when it comes to biblical interpretation since we are not merely interpreting narratives, but attempting to live by them. We must carefully weigh what methods are useful while being open to the possibility of learning something new from a method previously unconsidered.

by Joel Harrison


Caputo, John D. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.

Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.

Murphy, Nancey, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2007.

[1]. Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), 11.

[2]. Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2007), 114-115.

[3]. Murphy draws upon Alasdair MacIntyre for this notion and cites an example in which one person approaches another at a bus stop and informs the latter of the common name for the wild duck. MacIntyre’s point is that without the proper narrative context, one is forced to begin imagining scenarios in which such a statement would be intelligible. In other words, to make the statement intelligible, we must put it into narrative context; otherwise, it is without meaning.

[4]. This is rather obvious with one of Freud’s most famous theories, the Oedipus Complex, coming directly from his analysis of Oedipus Rex. C.G. Jung used myths and allegories to talk about archetypes. One of Lacan’s most famous lectures was on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” One could also open the table of contents of the Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism and skim down the list thinkers who fit this category—Marx and Derrida for example.

[5]. For example, Alexander Pope’s long and heated rivalry with then Poet Laureate Colley Cibber illuminates many of Pope’s poems.

[6]. This is not to say, however, that this is all literary scholars are concerned with.

[7]. We will concern ourselves with fiction at the present moment and move into a discussion of Scripture later.

[8]. Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 9.

[9]. In fact, one could easily write just as much as Fish about the history of baseball, the importance of Williams’ career, the difficulty of being able to hit a home run, the chances of that happening in one’s final trip to the plate, all in order to help us better understand what Updike is talking about in this sentence. But an explication of the text itself is needed to explain why this particular description as opposed to any other carries the effects that it does.

[10]. Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 151.

[11]. Philem. 15-16 (NRSV).

[12].  Mark 1:1 (NRSV)

[13]. Craig Evans, Lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary, New Testament 1, Summer 2010.

[14]. This information alone is not particularly interesting by itself, but could potentially be used to begin to make a larger case for understanding Mark’s reception at the time of its circulation.

[15]. Luke 14:12-14 (NRSV).

[16]. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). The summary that follows is indebted largely to Caputo’s summary of The Gift here.

[17]. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 71.

[18]. One could also turn to Alasdair MacIntyre and his work on traditions and practice for this point, though to do so here would perhaps be to large a departure from the task at hand. In short, MacIntyre argues that a particular practice must meet certain criteria such as complexity, internal and external goods, and standards of excellence. The last criterion is particularly relevant in the argument against “anything goes” textual relativism. As long as a method is meeting its own tradition’s standards of excellence, then it should be accepted.

Authorship, Truth, and Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

Jonah, the narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle informs the reader in the fourth chapter that the first line in the holy book of his religion, Bokononism, reads: “ ‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’ ”[1] The Books of Bokonon, a clear parody of the wisdom books of The Bible and other religious texts, is presented to the reader throughout the plot of the novel, which is centered on the destruction of the world via a chemical weapon known as Ice-Nine, as a means of satirizing religion and attempting to point to its futility and the ways in which it fails to create relevant meaning in the face of Armageddon because of the apathy it creates in its members through fatalism. This, however, is not to suggest that the novel’s thesis is that faith itself or the text of a religious practice are inherently destined to fail in this respect; rather, the novel points to an existential conception of faith and the texts of religious practice, that those who practice decide how to fill those artifacts with meaning. Although The Books of Bokonon is meant as a parody of the wisdom books, an examination of the parallels and differences between it and the book of Proverbs will shed some light on the nature of Biblical wisdom, its “true” implications for how we as Christians live, and also some helpful ways Proverbs allows the reader to reconceive the critique of religion found in Cat’s Cradle. In this paper, I will examine what it means for wisdom to be “true” which will include a discussion of authorship and natural theology within the context of each text and comparing the two texts to see how the concept of “truth” in wisdom developed affects our reading of them. I propose that “truth” in these texts is a completely subjective term, though not relative, and exists outside of authorship, explicit or implied, and that this conception of truth in Proverbs will lead us to the conclusion that wisdom literature in general is reflective of natural theology.

The authorship of the book of Proverbs is certainly questionable for a number of reasons. It was long thought that Solomon, who in 1 Kings 3 requests the gift of wisdom from God and is granted it, was the author of Proverbs. This is a point of contention between scholars who primarily seem to hold that Solomon, while he may have written some of Proverbs, did not write all of it, and may have merely been a collector of wisdom even, not the creator of it. But how important is literal authorship to a text? Michel Foucalt argues in his essay entitled “What Is an Author?” that the presence of the author’s name on any text “is functional in that it serves as a means of classification [. . .] [T]he name of the author remains at the contours of texts—separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence.”[2] We may be able to read a particular author without looking at the cover to see the author’s name or the title of the text and still be able to discern merely from the style who the author is. The boundaries that give shape to a text and act as markers of difference to distinguish one particular text from another are varied. Style and even character names can act as markers. The title of a text is a more obvious mark of difference distinguishing different texts written by the same author as well as other texts. It is sometimes difficult, however, to conceive of the author as being a marker, that is as not being an active agent of meaning creation in a text. However, once a text is penned, the meaning of it is out of the control of the author completely. The label of Solomon, then, as author is nothing more than a function of the context of the book itself. It acts as the title does, helping to classify the text as a book of wisdom, but separating it from the other books of wisdom not penned by Solomon. It too is only a marker of difference. Having this understanding helps us in discussing the question of “truth” with regard to Proverbs because the book seems to share common origin with books of wisdom from other cultures, which will in turn further clarify the absence of the author in the creation of meaning for the text.

The book is not the only of its kind from the ancient world. The Egyptian scribe Amenemope supposedly wrote his Instruction of Amenemope sometime between the 14th and 11th centuries, BCE, well before Solomon supposedly wrote Proverbs. If we compare the two texts, we can see some distinct similarities and even moments where the two share almost the same language. Proverbs 22:22 reads, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate”[3] while Chapter 2 of the Instructions begins, “Beware of stealing from a miserable man / and raging against the cripple.”[4] The similarity between these and multiple other verses and lines further suggests that the proverbs from both texts are perhaps “without” author and origin, that is their authorship is unknown; the proverbs themselves become mythemes in that sense because they are repeated across cultures. They are ubiquitous. If we were to argue for any origin for the Proverbs, it seems it would make the most sense to say that they find their origin in human experience itself. Though they may not be ubiquitous across all cultures, the fact that they cross the line between Hebraic and Egyptian cultures is enough to see that there are certainly some shared experiences across differing cultures.

In contrast, the proverbs of The Book of Bokonon do have clear authorship. The founder of the religion is still alive, though no one is able to find him until the last page of the novel. The writings found in this text differ from Proverbs in one way worth noting. They tell their own story of how they were written. In other words, they contain elements of meta-writing that describe the reason for why they were written. For example, “I wanted all things / To seem to make some sense, / So we all could be happy, yes, / Instead of tense. / And I made up lies / So that they all fit nice, / And I made this sad world / A par-a-dise.”[5] This suggests two important details about wisdom literature. First, it questions the nature of “truth” in wisdom. Bokonon admits that his wisdom is “fabricated”; he even gives a name to it, foma, which is defined as “harmless untruths” on the title page of the novel.[6] This then raises the question: In what way is Bokononian wisdom not the truth? Toward the end of the novel, the narrator recites this passage: “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”[7] The reader can certainly see the “truth” in such a statement. But within the context of a text that begins by telling its reader everything that follows is a lie, the presence of “true” wisdom seems paradoxical. If the wisdom is still applicable, is useful, then the meaning that we can pull from the author’s claim that everything in the book is false is two-fold. First, this further establishes the fact that authorship is only a function of the text—the author has no real power over the establishment of meaning in a text—his or her name only adds dimension and shape to the contours of the text, as Foucalt suggests. Bokonon’s statement regarding the falsity of the text becomes overridden by the fact that the statements found within the book are actually useful and contain “truth” to the extent that the reader can understand how they apply and are drawn from real life experience, much like Proverbs. The statement of falsity is rendered false, and the power of the text over the author is upheld. However, that is not to say necessarily that the “truth” of Bokononism is the same as the “truth” found in Proverbs. There are important differences.

If we compare the wisdom of Proverbs and Bokonon, these issues regarding truth will be further illuminated. The “wisdom” of Bokonon is highly subjective in that it takes “objective” facts regarding human and gives them “theological” content. The narrator tells the reader:

‘If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons,’ writes Bokonon, ‘that person may be a member of your karass.’ At another point in The Books of Bokonon he tells us, ‘Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass.’ By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free-form as an amoeba.[8]

Later, the narrator goes on to explain the importance of the karass and cites wisdom from Bokonon regarding how one is to handle his or her karass when he or she encounters it. All Bokonon has done is taken a very mundane detail about life—the fact that sometimes people end up in our lives for no particular reason—and turned it into the corner stone of his religion by placing it in the context of and along side other wisdom statements and by claiming that God created these groupings of people for a special reason. It becomes wise to the narrator by association, and the reader’s focus is then drawn to the people with whom the narrator becomes involved.

While Proverbs perhaps is not quite this extreme, the proverbs of Bokonon defamiliarize us with proverbs in general, pointing out to us their construction, and making us aware of what they are at the most base level. The book of Proverbs, in many ways, is also making observations about certain details, though they are not as mundane and inherently devoid of meaning as the ones Bokonon picks out. Proverbs 22:17-19 provides the theological content for the “Sayings of the Wise” spread over chapters 22-24:

The words of the wise: Incline your ear and hear my words, and apply your mind to my teaching; / for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips. / So that your trust may be in the Lord, I have made them known to you today—yes, to you.[9]

Here, the theological content is delivered before any observation is made, but the overall effect is essentially the same: Obey these things because they are of God.  We can look at the wisdom that follows this instruction to see how this works: Proverbs 23 begins with the following advice:

When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, / and put a knife to your throat if you have a big appetite. / Do not desire the ruler’s delicacies, fore they are deceptive food. / Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. / When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.[10]

In light of the Bokononian proverbs, we can see how the wisdom of Proverbs is similarly constructed. In the Bokononian proverb, we have first an observation about human relationships, particularly ones that are seemingly devoid of meaning, followed by a declaration that God has fashioned such relationships with a purpose, thus delivering not just some kind of existential meaning, but theological implications as well. However, there is a key difference with Proverbs. In these passages from Proverbs, the reader is first given the theological content—your trust is in the Lord if you follow these—and then we have the observation and advice, which, unlike the Bokononian proverb, would still be true outside of any explicit theological context. While the implications of the Bokononian proverb do have importance for the narrator and others in the novel, anyone who rejects Bokononism would immediately be rejecting the notion of karass and the idea that the random people we become tangled up with carry some kind of meaning for us. In that sense, Bokonon’s claim that his book is actually false is true because one must submit to the constructed theological reality created by Bokonon in order for many of his Proverbs to have any meaning.

The perhaps “higher truth” of Proverbs coupled with author functionality in a text further illuminates the ubiquitous nature of the book and leads us further to some interesting theological conclusions. Returning to Bokonon’s statement at the beginning of his religious text: If even a statement regarding falsity given by the author of a text is unable to render the text false, then the reader of Proverbs only need concern him or herself with what is actually being said in the text. Some may worry that if the book of Proverbs is not connected explicitly to Yahweh, to the exclusive history of Israel, then that my raise certain questions about the God-breathed nature of the book. How can this be the word of the God of Israel if the people under the gods of Egypt or elsewhere are writing such similar things? However, since we cannot discern the authorship of the text, since it does indeed seem mythological in nature, is mythemic, then the “truth” of the text or rather its Truth as God’s Word should not be an issue.

Furthermore, this perhaps points to wisdom literature as part of a natural theology. We have already seen that the wisdom in Proverbs transcends its theological content; that is, it does not need theological implications in order to be true. This suggests that the one true God is present in all things good and is able to inspire general revelation within varying groups in order to achieve his purposes. The common human experience I alluded to earlier could be further defined in terms of natural theology: God is present in wisdom that proves to be useful, edifying, and good. This must be the case for a number of reasons. First, there is no other way to theologically explain the origin of a book like Proverbs as God-breathed if by that we mean that the explicit and ultimate origin of a text is God not that God appropriated and transformed something else. It seems as though even if Solomon did “write” part of the book, the proverbs he wrote down were most likely picked up from somewhere else. It is quite possible he was more of a collector of proverbs rather than the creator of them. If this is the case, then the origin of the Proverbs is most likely not exclusively tied to the Hebraic tradition, but was transferred from another culture. The conclusion must be that God was at work in that other culture in order to eventually bring its wisdom to his chosen people. If everything is God’s creation, it should not be surprising that he can be at work in it in a variety of places.

by Joel Harrison

Works Cited

The Instructions of Amenemope. <; 4 May 2010.

Foucalt, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

New Revised Standard Bible. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing, 1963.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1963), p. 5.

[2] Michel Foucalt, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter Memory, Practice, Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977), p. 123.

[3] NRSV.

[4] The Instructions of Amenemope. <; 4 May 2010.

[5] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 127.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 281.

[8] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 2-3.

[9] NRSV.

[10] NRSV.