Does Not Compute


2012-11-30 – I love it when the holy writ explicitly tells you not to take things too literally. You find this in the Bible, but you also find this in the Constitution. The literalists are oblivious.

If you’ve been reading my posts lately, you know that I am working my way through the New Testament. I’m now in the book of Mark and I find a passage in Chapter 4 which Jesus takes his disciples aside and explains the nature of parables. Parables, it seems, have a surface story that is a metaphor for some deeper truth. Not everyone gets this, according to Jesus. Even the disciples were confused, which is why Jesus took the time to explain the concept to them.

And Jesus says “all these things are done in parables” and yet we have folk who think that when Psalm 114:6 says that mountains “skipped like rams” that mountains were actually jumping around like rams—like some sort of cartoon. Literalism, rather than a metaphor for a feeling of awe.

Let’s check out this phenomenon in a secular document. Flip to Article 9 of the Bill of Rights. It says: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Literalists, like Justice Antonin Scalia, have no place for this article in their constitutional philosophy. For what does it say? It says that the rights of the people are not limited by what is explicitly set forth in the Constitution itself. It says to read beyond the words and, when in doubt, side with the people.

Article 10 of the Bill of Rights is similar. It says that powers not delegated to the United States government “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The interesting thing about this clause is that it reveals what happens to literalists when confronted by language like this. They become blind to it. So-called “strict constructionist” who ignore the ninth amendment entirely, tend to be big on the tenth—but only part of the tenth. They call the tenth amendment the “states- rights” amendment. But a literal reading of the amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government also belong to the people. They don’t see the word “people” just as they don’t see the ninth amendment in its entirety. (The emphasis on the people shifted decidedly away from the states to the people, furthermore, when the fourteenth amendment was adopted. But the strict constructionists only strictly construe the parts they like. The rest is invisible.)

These folks are like computers in old sci-fi movies when they are confronted with contradictory data. They shake. They proclaim “does not compute” over and over with increasing urgency. And they finally explode. Pow! Pfft!

To me, literalism can be funny. Think about the scene described in Psalm 23:

“You prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Now consider what this means literally. You are at formal dinner with your enemies and wanting to make a good impression. You’re doing fine when the waiter comes to pour the wine and, well, keeps pouring well after the cup is full. It’s an embarrassing scene, to say the least. And really funny.

But it’s a metaphor! Cups running over, in a literal sense are a frigging mess. But cups running over in a metaphorical sense are a sign of great prosperity and happiness.

As the parable in Mark Chapter 4 says, some people get this. Some people, like the disciples, need someone to clue them in.  (Dudes! It’s a parable!) And for the rest of humanity . . .

Does not compute! Does not compute! Does not compute! Pow! Pfft!

(Or they they do the human thing and read the text according to their preconceived biases anyway and pretend that the paradox doesn’t exist.)

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