This month’s Backstage Graffiti will, of course, be about hermeneutics and exegesis. I mean, how could it not be?
I first encountered these terms when I was a regular participant in an email list created by the Association for Mormon Letters. (I was kind of entrapped by this group, having initially joined because I thought it would be all about the Deseret alphabet. It isn’t.) Some people on this list would post emails in which they used the word “hermeneutics” with perfectly straight faces (at least that’s what the accompanying emoticons suggested). However, there was usually an increase in the usage of these words on April First annually. But this may have been a coincidence.
(On this list, often somebody would write a few things about “Eric Samuelsen’s awesome new play” ((on further recall, I don’t think they ever used “awesome”—it would have been more like “Eric Samuelsen’s brilliant new hermeneutical play”)). If the conversation went on for a very long time, even if the subject were gradually changed beyond recognition, the subject line of every post would still read “Re: Eric Samuelsen’s brilliant…” One day I thought, “Man, I could capitalize on this foible of digitism” and posted something with a subject line of “How do I love Marvin Payne, let me count the ways” ((that’s literary))and then wrote something controversial about somebody’s poem or something, hoping for a long discussion to ensue that would perpetuate that subject line and make me popular among smart people. What actually happened was that everybody ignored the critique of the poem and, with painful politeness, said kind things about me. I was totally grateful, totally embarrassed, and the lingering subject line turned out to be “Re: How do I love Mar…”)
For those three or four among the infinite readers of this column who may not be familiar with these words (don’t feel bad, Bill Gates isn’t either—Microsoft Word doesn’t believe that “exegesis” exists—I had to paste it in from Apple’s “Pages”), I’ll supply definitions now. It ain’t easy. When I called up the “Instant Dictionary” on my screen that I mostly use to correct my spelling, the definitions were, respectively, “Word not found” and “Are you kidding?”
So I went to that solid repository of all truth, Wikipedia. There, under “Hermeneutics” I found something like
“Hermeneutics, not to be confused with ‘hermaneutics,’ which is the process by which incautious Republican candidates for the presidency are eliminated from the primaries , is the general branch of knowledge which has to do with the interpretation of literary texts, especially the Bible. It derives from a Greek root meaning ‘to interpret’ and is employed primarily by individuals for whom ‘interpretation’ is just, well, too ordinary a word to carry much intellectual weight. ”
Under “Exegesis” I read-
“Exegesis, is the general branch of knowledge which has to do with the interpretation of literary texts, especially the Bible. It derives from a Greek root meaning ‘to interpret’ and is employed primarily by individuals for whom ‘interpretation’ is just, well, too ordinary a word to carry much intellectual weight. [says who]”
Following each of these entrances was the boxed notice, “This article could be improved,” with which I could not agree more.
Apparently, the primary difference between hermeneutics and exegesis is whether you adhere to “high” Greek or “low” Greek. The difficulty, of course, is that there has raged a fierce controversy over which Greek root is “high” and which is “low.” BYU Broadcasting has a screenplay in readiness for a dramatic documentary about the heroism and bloodshed it cost the best lives of the Twentieth Century to bring forth the answer to the common man, scheduled to begin shooting as soon as the answer is determined.
Meanwhile, I think it should be pointed out that very few among us can presume to qualify as confident users of either term. To be such a user requires a transcendent intellect or a truly rare sense of humor, or membership in the Council of the Twelve. In any instance, the user must be prepared to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, for the one sure “given” in this whole dynamic is that any such user will be almost universally regarded as “differnt.”Except members of the Twelve, to whom we happily afford miles of slack.
The question will inevitably arise “Can a Hermeneutician or an Exegesisist be a good Mormon?” Of course they can, witness President Hugh B. Brown, who went way beyond either, in being a Democrat. (I capitalize “Democrat” because it seems like anything a member of the First Presidency is should be capitalized, like if President Uchtdorf is a Pilot or President Monson is a Large Bird Hunter((“Hunter of Large Birds” rather than “Large Hunter of Birds”)), which I believe they both Are, respectively. My home teacher, contrariwise, is merely a democrat. Or would be, I mean, if he were a democrat, which he isn’t, which actually almost nobody in my community is, certainly not my ward, since they divided it, leaving in the other ward four who will admit it. I am generally taken for a democrat, because of my beard and because I have some minor facility with the five-string banjo, but I’m registered as a republican because I don’t want to be lonely.
In fact, I attended, for the first time ever, just like you, my party caucus this year. We rented the Conference Center, with overflow into the Tabernacle and the Energy Solutions Arena ((recently designated as “Most Embarrassingly Named Major American Sports Venue”)) and satellite feed to a number of stake centers. The democrats met on the eighteenth green of the Cedar Hills golf course ((I am told (((by a democrat))) that in southern Utah a general meeting of the Democratic Partywas recently held in a bar on a Sunday—this was criticized by the Head of the Utah Democrats as being, perhaps, a weak decision in terms of outreach to the majority of Utahns—duh)). At the caucus, I stood next to Senator Mike Lee, who is in my precinct and, I guess, goes to these things all the time, even when he’s not a Senator. He generously fielded questions from the precinct members while the innumerable votes for delegates were being tabulated, and when disparagingly asked “What about Harry Reid?” ((for those readers of Backstage Graffiti who are citizens of countries or star systems that are presided over by any of the executives listed in the Twelfth Article of Faith, viz., Kings, Potentates, Emirs, Amazons, Grand High Dragons, or Caesars, Harry Reid is the majority leader in the United States Senate, and is a DDDDemocrat)) Senator Lee began his answer with “Well, when I was a kid, Harry Reid was my home teacher and he never missed.”)
To conclude (from the Latin “concludere,” meaning “completely” + “to shut,” which makes me wonder why we never say “Dude, you only cluded the door, and it’s cold outside!”), I have neither the transcendent intellect nor the rare sense of humor to write one thing further about either hermeneutics or its evil twin, exegesis (oddly, in my thesaurus neither is listed as a synonym for the other—of course, that might be because neither is listed, period). I suspect that what I have written here may disturb some who have been led (largely through the reading of Backstage Graffiti) to mistrust intellectualism of any stripe as being inharmonious with spirituality.