Quote Culture

Ever since childhood I have loved Greek mythology. The stories of gods, monsters, strange lands, heroic deeds and tragic fates captured my childish mind. When I grew older and I was able to appreciate the deeper messages that were hidden in fantastical form it recaptured my imagination afresh. So about a year or two ago I got myself a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, slowly working through the old classic collection of these wonderful tales. In the introduction, Thomas Bulfinch explains beyond reading for personal pleasure, he wanted to get the average person acquainted with these stories so that they will able to recognise them when they are referenced in modern works of literature. Especially when you read the great poetic works of European literature, allusions to these stories are sprinkled generously throughout. It is therefore much more difficult to appreciate them when you do not what they are referring to. It is not like the modern phenomenon of hiding Easter eggs in films where things are just mentioned for fan service. Knowing the original story is essential to understanding how that particular reference is used in the new medium.

Reading the introduction to the volume there were obvious parallels, which I recognized, between how new literary works reference the old and the way the New Testament uses the Old. It also made me think of how we reference things in general in this contemporary world of 140 characters. I think part of our inability to understand how scripture references itself is partly due to our quick quote, sound bite culture. The problem, and I am guilty of this too, is that we quote things without being properly aware of the original body of work that it was in. We therefore do not know its context so when we repeat it in its decontextualized form, its force of meaning is dissipated. Sometimes we end up actually misquoting the author by using it incorrectly. Of course there are standalone aphorisms and maxims but knowing the origin and history of quotes and references certainly enhances how you grasp it. You are able to fully engage with the idea that the reference summarily represents and deliver its full force when you mention it in the present.

In our present world of over information, we wish to say so much but it has come at the expense of the full development of the idea and openly engaging with that. The volume of words has increased but the quality of what is being said has diminished. Words end up becoming perishable commodities. As I said references are supposed to be summaries, they are not there to replace the larger thought and dealing with what it means. This requires knowing the origin of the reference and tracing how it has been used.

Broadly speaking, words themselves are references because they simply refer to things. Our inability to properly appreciate and use quotes and references is a sign of a deeper problem of how we use language in general. Words are supposed to stimulate thought not truncate it. Unfortunately that is happening a lot, especially in the West. The chief example of this is the buzzword. A buzzword is micro-condensed one word summary of a concept. It is very dangerous when we use them in political discourse but sadly it has already become mainstream. When that happens we use  words to describe people or things not because they are true but because it is fashionable. If public discourse (or sometimes the lack of it) measures the pulse of a society then we do have a lot to think about.

We need to go beyond quoting something just because it makes you feel good, it reaffirms an unexamined belief, or because it was said by someone famous. A lot of the quotes you see bandied around on social media have the thin veneer of profundity but when pressed further they fail. I have noticed that even speeches are designed to be quotable not wise and true. I really love it when things are said with eloquence but verbal aesthetics can never be a substitute for truth. The words we speak must represent the truth not just fact, how things ought to be and not just the way they are. Speaking with integrity means we need to take responsibility for what we say, including the things we quote. Again, I am not saying we cannot give solitary quotes. What I am saying is that should not be the only thing that we do. Referencing someone does not mean you have no responsibility in uttering it. A playback device is not responsible for the sounds it make. A person has to at least make sure they repeat what the individual said correctly. Not only that, they should fairly represent the person’s thinking behind their statement. This is not to say references cannot be readapted for new situations but there must be some continuity with the original idea.

Let’s take the oft quoted line “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” for example.  The first part of it “power corrupts” is more frequently repeated. In that form it would seem as if power is a bad thing and some people believe that to be true. The system is always out to get them. Well the original quote is from Lord Acton who said,

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

Though the idea certainly did not originate from him, his way of stating it is perhaps the most popular. In context he was making a historical observation about political power and the morals of writing about the Inquisition. Since he said power tends to corrupt, he did not think power was inherently a bad thing but he knew from the testimony of history that it came with its many temptations which many great men have fallen to. In this case, knowing the exact quote and its context greatly enhanced our appreciation of what was said offering us a fresh perspective on an old saying.

For the Christian words and how they are used are very important. The Bible is after all integral to the Christian faith. I earlier described the New Testament as similar to any literary work that references earlier texts. This means understanding how references work in literature is very important in understanding the Bible. Unfortunately we have imported deficient modern quote culture into how we read, understand and use the Bible. We are fairly good at quoting verse but know far less about the chapters and books that give them contextual meaning. Recently for example, a friend of mine in a discussion raised “give and it shall be given unto you” (Luke 6:38) as a possible proof text for a guaranteed principle for divine blessing. I asked that we should look at the original passage for contextual meaning. Lo and behold, contrary to popular opinion it had nothing to do with the offertory or fund raising but rather justice and mercy. It was pretty obvious but the reason why we constantly miss is as I said, we want to reaffirm the things we agree. It also helps when it you do it be referring to an authority. Like I earlier said, this still does not take away our responsibility, especially when we claim we are saying the word of God.

I said that a quote draws on prior material so to better understand the reference, it is good to be familiar with the source material. This is precisely what happens in the way the New Testament uses the Old. In fact it happens throughout the Bible when one part of it references another. So when Matthew said Jesus did one or thing another to fulfil something in the scriptures, you have to go back and read the full passage that was referenced. For most of us, when we see the margin notes tell us what was being quoted, we do not bother to follow up on it. That literary technique is known as metalepsis. Margin notes are not enough to tell the reader where a reference to another part of the Bible can be found. Especially in the New Testament there is phenomenon called figural interpretation which uses a a form of typological references that are temporally bound. Along with metalepsis and other literary devices, they are part of an approach to understanding scripture which Dr Hays has described as reading backwards. The Bible demonstrates intertextuality, that is, one part of a text referring to another part of text in a way that gives added meaning beyond the immediate context. This means in reading the New Testament you have to go back to the Old and you like wise need the Old to understand the New. This reversed approach is what he calls reading backwards. (Go here for a full presentation by Dr Hays on this.)

The New Testament does not just give rote repetitions of the Old as bare proof texts. It creatively references the earlier material to further illuminate it and the new material. Every citation or allusion to the Old Testament in the New is also a reflection on those scriptures. The way the Bible quotes and references things should inform the way we use the Bible today. We need a disciplined reading of scripture, one that does not quickly forsake contextual meaning but embraces the text’s creativity and stimulate our imaginations. However, this skill is not only needed for the Bible but for all kinds of literary work. We should value full fleshed out thoughts over quick quotes. Though these quotes are convenient we should not mistake a summary for the entire book. We should not judge what we read or hear by how great it sounds or how quotable it is. We should rather look for the substance behind the words.


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