Because what we choose to measure defines what we think is worth monitoring and managing as a society.
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Robert Kennedy, 1968, University of Kansas
As an interpretive strategy, ‘mirror reading’ is controversial but hugely significant.
Qmran_mar_morto by shi_dolcelei, on Flickr
In a nutshell mirror reading is about reasoning from solution to plight. If I tell you I’m taking cold and flu tablets, then it’s not usually too much of a leap for you to reason that I have a cold (or the flu).
Of course, like all tools it must be handled carefully. The all too common failure to show discernment in applying mirror reading goes a long way towards explaining the flak it tends to cop. There’s always a danger of reading too much in: e.g., because I’m talking cold and flu tablets it doesn’t mean I have a cold and the flu.
And you’d want to test your (hypothetical) reconstruction by looking for confirming or falsifying evidence in the present, or turning to your sense of my character built up from past experience, etc. I could be taking cold and flu tablets because I like the buzz or because I have a headache and have run out of regular painkillers.
This is particularly important when it comes to the Bible. On the one hand, when we start asking why Paul places so much emphasis on unity in 1 Corinthians, for example, we might be able to imaginatively reconstruct all sorts of ‘plights’ that help explain it. But we need to exercise cautioun and hold our conclusions with a degree of strength (or tentativeness) reflecting the weight of available evidence.
What we see in our mirror reading, we often see dimly.
On the other hand, we can’t dispense with it — especially when we’re dealing with the concrete historical situation into which the book or letter we’re reading speaks. As far as I can see, the only alternative is a functional docetism in which we try (vainly) to strip back the time-bound historical aspects of the text to expose the ‘timeless truth’ we imagine lies behind it.
What’s the attempt to reconstruct authorial intentions other than a sometimes disguised exercise in mirror reading?