Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hyperbole and prayer

A couple of infidels over at Hallquist’s blog have commented on my rejoinder. They fail to grasp the nature of hyperbole. I, of course, don’t expect them to be reasonable. But for the benefit of others, I’ll say a bit more.

1) Communication involves shared assumptions and expectations. A writer or speaker leaves many things unsaid. He counts on the cultural preunderstanding of his audience to make allowance for what he didn’t say. As Robert Alter explains:
A coherent reading of any artwork, whatever the medium, requires some detailed awareness of the grid of conventions upon which, and against which, the individual work operates.

Let us suppose that some centuries hence only a dozen films survive from the whole corpus of Hollywood westerns. As students of twentieth-century cinema screening the films on an ingeniously reconstructed archaic projector, we notice a recurrent peculiarity: in eleven of the films the sheriff-hero has the same anomalous neurological trait of hyperreflexivity–no matter what the situation in which his adversaries confront him, he is always able to pull his gun out of its holster and fire before they, with their weapons poised, can pull the trigger…Now, eleven hyperreflexive sheriffs are utterly improbable by any realistic standards.

Much of our pleasure in watching westerns derives from our awareness that the hero, however sinister the dangers looming over him, leads a charmed life, that he will always in the end prove himself to be more of a man than the bad guys who stalk him, and the familiar token of his indomitable manhood is his invariable, often uncanny, quickness on the draw. For us, the recurrence of the hyperreflexive sheriff is not an enigma to be explained but, on the contrary, a necessary condition for telling a western story in the film medium, as it should be told.
The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, rev. ed, 2011), 55-57.

BTW, when I was a kid I used to watch The Rifleman, with Chuck Connors.

Now, Alter doesn’t say this because he’s trying to protect the reputation of Scripture. Alter’s a liberal. But he’s also a consummate literary critic.

2) When Jesus says God will give us whatever we ask for, that’s hyperbolic. That’s a sociolinguistic convention. Any rationale Jew would understand that. Consider the alternative:

i) “If God will give me whatever I ask for, then can I ask God to give me nothing that I ask for.”

But, of course, that’s a contradiction in terms. So that interpretation is self-refuting.

ii) “If God will give me whatever I ask for, then I can ask God to annihilate himself.”

Two problems:

a) That's a blasphemous prayer. So God wouldn’t answer a blasphemous prayer.

b) It would contradict the promise. For if God committed self-annihilation, then he wouldn’t exist to answer any more requests, pace the promise that he will give us whatever we ask. So that’s another self-refuting interpretation.

iii) “If God will gives me whatever I ask for, then I can ask him to make a yoyo go up and down at the same time.”

Since up and down are opposite motions, even omnipotence can’t make a yoyo go up and down at the same time. That’s a pseudotask.

iv) “If God will give me whatever I ask for, then I can ask God to renege on the Abrahamic covenant.”

Although that’s something which God could do, in the sense that God has the ability to do so–that’s not something God would do, given his character.

v) “If God will give me whatever I ask for, then I can ask God to strike my parents dead by a lightning bolt.”

Although that’s something God could do, that’s not something God would do. For I have a divine obligation to honor my parents. Therefore, God will not comply with a prayer that defies his own command.

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