Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mental Illness and Bible Formation

During my time in seminary, I was asked by an instructor what kind of a visual I might produce to explain the formation of the bible. This is the kind of question that gets me totally stoked in the course of a discussion. Primarily because I tend to think in analogies. So, this was right up my alley. The images that struck me was a cosmic ransom note.

Now, I know a lot of people who hold to the notion of verbal plenary inspiration. I wonder if they've ever read The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Code of Ur-Nammu, the Annals of Merneptah, or any number of other historical texts that predate not just the old testament, but the Torah as well by over 1000 years.

So, here we have a new text (the bible) that is made up of bits and pieces of multiple older texts (all the parallel stories that predate the bible). It's like God (if one believes that God is the author of the bible) or the authors of the bible cut out bits and pieces, single words or sometimes just a letter from any number of newspapers or magazine articles and created a new document. Getting the visual, oh kind reader?

That was the image I had during my first semester in seminary.

I found a new image during my last semester.

I have two marvelous friends who both love games. Board games, card games, checkers, chess... The more people playing, the more fun they have. These are the friends who introduced me to Bananagrams. I was already familiar with the concept from Speed Scrabble. The competitive nature of these games, paired with my, at times frustratingly, large vocabulary made them games to which I naturally gravitated.

However, on the non-competitive side of things, and just ridiculously good fun when you have a large gathering, is Telephone Pictionary. This might be the most hilarious game I've ever played, and one that can be enjoyed in my family, because there are no winners or losers. Just really, really ridiculous fun. Additionally, learning Telephone Pictionary gave me a new mental image for the formation of the bible.

In Telephone Pictionary, everyone gets a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Each person writes a sentence on the top of his/her paper. Then, everyone passes the paper to the person on their left (if play is going counter-clockwise) or their right (if play is going clockwise). It is best to alternate from one game to the next which direction you are passing so as not to always end up having to interpret the sentence of the person to one side or the other.

After passing the paper, everyone draws a picture interpreting the sentence. Then, they fold the paper back so that the sentence is hidden and pass the paper, showing only the picture, to the next person. Now, everyone writes a sentence interpreting the picture that has been passed to them. Play continues in this way, with everyone receiving only a picture or a sentence to interpret through a sentence or a drawing, until each paper is once again in the hands of the originator.

This game is hilarious! Seriously. It does, however, require a minimum of 5 people to be truly effective.

Generally, by the time the originator gets his/her own paper back, the interpretation of the original sentence has become so convoluted, no one really knows how the original sentence read. Unfolding the paper and discovering how each step newly interpreted the previous step, and how each step was one step further removed from the original author's intent is really, really delightful.

Telephone Pictionary is the framework I use for thinking about the formation of the Bible. The original author(s) wrote something. It had a particular meaning in a particular culture. The meaning was pictured in the minds of the original readers in a way that might have been pretty accurate to the authors' intent. Over time, as the stories have been told, new layers of meaning have been applied. Over time, as the stories have been told, in new places, in new cultures, in new languages, those stories have been removed step by step from the original meaning of the text.

Ultimately, I think we might have a document that does not much resemble or effectively communicate the intent of the original authors. This isn't to say that the Bible is of no use to us today. The whole point of interpreting the Bible is discerning what these stories mean for us today. How do we, as a community in a new culture, speaking an entirely different language, make meaning from a text that is so far removed from its origins? That is, maybe, the best part of writing sermons.

I have some access through other sources to a cursory understanding of the cultures in which these texts were written. Sometimes, in the course of daily reading or intentional research, I'll come across a single sentence that illuminates a small aspect of 1st century Palestine, and it'll deepen, enrich, and transform my understanding of a given biblical pericope, making it alive and applicable in ways that light my faith on fire. It's fantastic!

But images of biblical formation aren't the point of this post. Which might seem ridiculous given the amount of space I've used to describe those images.

Nope, the point of this post is to process some of what I'm feeling about living with someone who is mentally ill.

I live with someone who does not communicate effectively. I do not know how much of this is a result of the mental illness and how much of it is a learned trait. In terms of communication, the individual in question is engaging in behaviors that mimic those which were modeled for him in childhood by his father, but with distinct differences.

Both the father and the son, at times, speak in riddles. Puzzles. Code, if you will, to which they alone (most of the time) have the key, and which they believe they alone (all of the time) can decipher. In the case of the father, there is a distinct attitude of intellectual superiority. It is an attitude that communicates a desire to frustrate and confuse others. For example, a note might be left on the refrigerator attached to a $5.00 bill. The note, however, will be written using only the first letter of each word.

For example:




For those of you who don't read this type of code, it translates:

Dear Daughter,

Please buy one loaf of seven grain bread.


Any guesses out there as to what happens when the daughter to whom the note was addressed actually takes the $5.00 and returns home with a loaf of seven grain bread?

The father in question gets a look of disappointment that his note was understood and the request granted, and he then pouts for the rest of the evening.

It's a bit different in regards to the son. In the case of the individual with whom I live, there is no indication that the purpose of speaking in code is done to frustrate others. In fact, the person who gets most frustrated tends to be the individual himself. It's like he's speaking in a different language.

He makes statements or asks questions that do not provide enough information. When asked for clarifications, or when a person repeats what they understand him to be communicating and asks if they have it right, he insists that they are making it more difficult than necessary. He insists that he asked a simple question or made a simple statement. Except his understanding of "simple" often does not take into account culturally relevant understandings.

For example:

Today, he said, "I'm going for a four mile walk around [town]. Who wants to go with me?"

Now, the cultural understanding of "around [town]" is "from place to place in"; i.e. a four-mile walk around town would be a four mile walk from place to place in town.

This is where the confusion came in for me: the town in which we live has a 1/2 mile circumference. I wish I were kidding.

In trying to get a clear picture of where he would be walking, so as to be better prepared to decide whether or not to join him, I responded, "You're going to walk around town eight times?"

Him: "No. I'm going for a four mile walk around [town]."

Me: "Okay, but its only a half mile walk around [town], so, how..." interrupted by...

Him, yelling: "You're not listening to me! I said I'm going to walk around [town]!"

Me: "Okay, but..." interrupted by...

Him, yelling: "Look, as far as I know, if I take the blacktop, to the highway, turn right, walk up to the next gravel road, turn right, walk to the intersection of the next gravel road, turn right, walk to the next intersection, I'll be back to the blacktop, at which point, I'll turn right, and when I get home, I'll have walked 1 mile in each direction, and have walked four miles around town!"

Me: "Oh. So, you're going for a walk in the country..." interrupted by...

Him, yelling: "Just forget it! You never listen to me!"

I sometimes feel like I've been hijacked to crazy land, handed a ransom note, and the only way out is to interpret the note without any kind of a key. It's like trying to divine the intent of the original biblical authors without knowing biblical Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and without any training whatsoever in ancient cultures. Sometimes, it just can't be done.

Not without a lot of yelling.

And see, that's the part that leaves me needing to blog about my frustrations. Not the fact that I've been hijacked to crazy land and constantly have to expend significant amounts of mental and emotional energy to understand anything this person says. It's the fact that because of his mental illness, he's volatile and unpredictable, with a history of violence.

Now, he hasn't demonstrated a tendency toward physical violence since he got clean and sober. So, I don't have any concerns for my physical safety. I just sometimes wish I could finish a sentence, to ensure that I understand what he's trying communicate without being interrupted and yelled at. Or, alternately, that he just wouldn't talk to me at all. Because, honestly, it's exhausting. And some days, I just do not have the energy.

Of course, I've told him this. Nothing changes. My only option, some days, is to stop what I'm doing and physically remove myself from an area. This is particularly frustrating if I'm trying to get work done on the computer or in the kitchen. Sometimes, I just can't stop working on a sermon--because I'm under a deadline. Sometimes, I just can't walk away from the kitchen--because if I leave a dish unattended it'll burn, and if I stop the process with the intent to return later, it'll be ruined. Something are just time-sensitive. And sometimes, I'm just tired.

And those seem to be the times when he comes in, most anxious, most unwilling to take "no" for answer, most unwilling to respect boundaries. Those are the times when I cannot give 100% of my attention and energy to figuring out what he's saying without asking any kind of clarifying questions. Those are the times when I need to remind myself that no matter how tempting the activity he's proffering might seem, "No," is always the best, most appropriate response. Because if I can't figure out immediately what he's talking about, asking questions might clarify things, but I'm going to get yelled at in the process.

Biblical interpretation and Telephone Pictionary are way more fun.

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