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Constructing Interpretations

Image of a Bible open at a page of the gospels. Photo by Rachel Davies (cc).

Image of a Bible open at a page of the gospels. Photo (cc) Rachel Davies.

I did give the warning that ‘regular’ for me actually means ‘biannual’, didn’t I? Apologies for the long absence. We moved house, so life took over for quite a while. But! I am now enrolled on my PhD (although not ‘registered’ until I’ve submitted an extended proposal, which I’ll be doing after Christmas).

I’ve been reading about all sorts of things, some relevant, quite a lot not very relevant but interesting. My supervisor is a biblical studies person, and has an interest in the healing narratives in the gospels. Which have turned out to be complicated, between their origins and the way they’ve been interpreted over many centuries. Take the story of the demon-possessed man in Mark, for example. There’s a man living outside his village, among the tombs, said to be demon-possessed. He has been chained up at times (possibly for his own protection – he cuts himself with stones) but has great strength and always breaks free. When Jesus is in the area, the man goes out to meet him. Jesus asks him his name (‘Legion’) and exorcises the demons, sending them out of the man and into a herd of pigs. This is a story that has received a lot of attention and interpretation. Demon possession could be seen as a metaphor for several things, including community resistance to local Roman occupation (as Holly Toensing explores in ‘This Abled Body’, eds. Avalos et al), or  - in a common modern interpretation – mental illness. Whatever you decide the story is about, though, it’s important to understand the social context surrounding it if it’s going to be ‘used’ in any religious way.  As a sociologist, I have a tendency to read this episode – like the rest of the gospel – in terms of the society that produced the story, and there are lots of ways of doing that, whether it’s about mental illness or not. Toensing says it’s significant that Jesus sends the man back to his community, emphasising social support, for example, and that there’s probably also something significant there with the pigs (animals that Jewish communities would consider unclean, suggesting this was a non-Jewish area).

The most important thing for me, though, is to critique some of the ways this story has been used in the past to oppress people. Interpretations that consider mentally ill people literally demon-possessed are likely to affect their status and acceptance in Christian communities. Equally, though, an apparently more accepting, healing-focused approach may devalue those who experience long-term or severe mental health problems that don’t improve over time. And those are just the modern interpretations. I also need to look at the way ‘demon possession’ worked in the time of the Roman occupation in Palestine. Did it refer to what we now call mental illness? This is tricky, because mental illness can be seen as a modern social construction. There are probably many other categories of impairment that would also have come under the ‘demon possession’ banner – there are stories in the gospels that could be about epilepsy or behavioural difficulties. And this is all before I even start thinking about what ‘healing’ refers to in the gospels, in the context of how they were used by the early church. There should be some theology of healing in there generally, too. So this is all very new to me. Fascinating stuff, though.

We had a PhD students’ meeting today, which was very helpful. There aren’t all that many research students at my university, compared to some, which means that our research community isn’t limited to my department. It’s great to be able to talk with people from other disciplines. Today we spent a lot of time discussing the role of a researcher in a social research project. There’s been plenty written about this in disability studies, so I felt like I actually knew something. Which, at this stage of general panic and argh what’s all the this theology about and where’s the library and how do I start a literature review, was nice for me.

I really will complete the ‘Tale of Three Masses’ very shortly, although there’s one more thing I want to write about first. (And I’ll try to make “very shortly” mean sooner than “next June”.)

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