Captain Beatty and Biblical Scholarship

Since I finished my PhD work, I’ve tried to start “reading” a bit a fiction for pleasure again.  That includes normal reading and also audiobooks.  I’ve been listening to Fahrenheit 451, which I remember liking in high school.  The book is eerie because in some ways one can understand the reasoning of the censors, or at least how that reasoning might cause some not to read at all.  I found this interplay between from Capt. Beatty and Montag (with Faber listening through the earpiece Montag is wearing) particularly striking:

“Stop blushing. I’m not needling, really I’m not. Do you know, I had a dream an hour ago. I lay down for a cat-nap and in this dream you and I, Montag, got into a furious debate on books. You towered with rage, yelled quotes at me. I calmly parried every thrust. Power, I said, And you, quoting Dr. Johnson, said ‘Knowledge is more than equivalent to force!’ And I said, ‘Well, Dr. Johnson also said, dear boy, that “He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.'” Stick with the fireman, Montag. All else is dreary chaos!”

“Don’t listen,” whispered Faber. “He’s trying to confuse. He’s slippery. Watch out!”

Beatty chuckled. “And you said, quoting, ‘Truth will come to light, murder will not be hid long!’ And I cried in good humour, ‘Oh God, he speaks only of his horse!’ And ‘The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’ And you yelled, ‘This age thinks better of a gilded fool, than of a threadbare saint in wisdom’s school!’ And I whispered gently, ‘The dignity of truth is lost with much protesting.’ And you screamed, ‘Carcasses bleed at the sight of the murderer!’ And I said, patting your hand, ‘What, do I give you trench mouth?’ And you shrieked, ‘Knowledge is power!’ and ‘A dwarf on a giant’s shoulders of the furthest of the two!’ and I summed my side up with rare serenity in, ‘The folly of mistaking a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself as an oracle, is inborn in us, Mr. Valery once said.'”

Montag’s head whirled sickeningly. He felt beaten unmercifully on brow, eyes, nose, lips, chin, on shoulders, on upflailing arms. He wanted to yell, “No! shut up, you’re confusing things, stop it!” Beatty’s graceful fingers thrust out to seize his wrist.

“God, what a pulse! I’ve got you going, have I, Montag. Jesus God, your pulse sounds like the day after the war. Everything but sirens and bells! Shall I talk some more? I like your look of panic. Swahili, Indian, English Lit., I speak them all. A kind of excellent dumb discourse, Willie!”

“Montag, hold on! ” The moth brushed Montag’s ear. “He’s muddying the waters!”

“Oh, you were scared silly,” said Beatty, “for I was doing a terrible thing in using the very books you clung to, to rebut you on every hand, on every point! What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives. And at the very end of my dream, along I came with the Salamander and said, Going my way? And you got in and we drove back to the firehouse in beatific silence, all dwindled away to peace.” Beatty let Montag’s wrist go, let the hand slump limply on the table. “All’s well that is well in the end.”

Capt. Beatty plays upon the cacophony of voices that a person will find if they read widely enough.  The logic runs: if the authors of the books that we read cannot agree  and can be used against one another, why read at all?  Where does all of that thought actually get us?

I know that when I read Biblical scholarship widely I often hear a cacophony of voices.  I get the sense that this is what a lot of people feel when they approach Biblical scholarship.  We must read the narrative … no, we must look for the sources … no, first we must establish the actual text we are working with … no we must look back at the text’s oral development … no, we must look at the text as it has been received by various communities. Some people abandon Biblical scholarship altogether or choose only one path of inquiry.

The reasoning sounds appealing because it is much easier not to have to think through the various perspectives we encounter when reading widely.  However, I think that Bradbury is right in his assessment of what the world would be like if we abandoned thinking through difficult matters- cold and lifeless.  In the same way, whereas some may find the cacophony of Biblical scholarship as a discouragement, it is actually a sign of life.

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