Day three of the Wake festival in April saw a talk by Barry Taylor called “Everything I learned about the Bible I learned from prostitutes”. With that as a title (possibly the ultimate clickbait…) this was an unmissable occasion.
What follows is in part a brief account of what Barry talked about, in part some excursions which occurred to me during the talk, and, at the end, an extended meditation which the talk prompted me to think about after it ended.
It was somewhat autobiographical, in that one of the instances Barry used was a brush with the “Children of God” (whose successors are called “The Family International”) and their much-publicised technique of sending out wives to attract new members via sex (their founder stated that God was love and love was sex); these were called “hookers”. Barry was at the time touring the USA with AC/DC; his bio also includes partaking in a religious revival in Russia, doing music for porn movies and teaching at a fairly conservative Christian seminary, leading to the suggestion in the programme that “Barry could well be the most interesting man in the world”.
Being asked, mid coitus, to pause to pray is something which he found surprising. I think, in that, he is probably typical… but clearly possessed of a sangfroid greater than anything I could muster in that he apparently followed through – and was then introduced to her husband in the morning, a second moment of amazement.
Barry also used two other examples of “prostitutes”; Annabella in “Tis pity she’s a whore”, a 1633 play by John Ford (the title of which is also a track on Bowie’s “Blackstar” LP, which was the way Barry was led to the play), who is persuaded into a relationship with her brother and then stabbed by him when she marries another in order to justify her pregnancy. The play closes with the cardinal (who has confiscated the property of most of the dramatis personae on the basis that they are guilty of something) saying “who could not say, ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?”. The second is the woman who washes Jesus’ feet at a meal in a Pharisee’s house in all four gospels (though other details differ), one of the few incidents from the synoptics which also appears in the Fourth Gospel.
Barry quoted several notable theologians on prostitution, including Aquinas, who said that they were like a cesspool in a palace – it may be distasteful, but take it away, and the whole palace will stink, and Chesterton, who said that everyone who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.
In all three stories, the excluded, disavowed individual is calling into question the whole ethos on which society is based. In the Biblical story, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about indebtedness, and asks who is more grateful, he who has been forgiven little or he who has been forgiven much? But then, I noted, though it wasn’t the direction the talk went in, Jesus was regularly companionable with those who society considered beyond the pale (and, in the Jewish conception of the time, frequently ritually unclean and capable of contaminating those around them). Tax collectors (read “Quislings”) and sinners. Members of the Jews’ greatest enemies, the Phoenicians, Samaritans and Romans. Children (who were non-persons until they were 14). And, of course, women, even those with a continuous discharge (a major contamination in Jewish eyes – Lev. 15:19-33). Lepers. The dead… He must have been seen by Pharisees in particular as quite shockingly transgressive.
One lesson I personally learn from Jesus’ inclusivity is to judge a society by how they treat the least privileged among them, and I think of the list in Matthew 25; the hungry and thirsty, the stranger (foreigner/immigrant), those without adequate clothing, the sick and the imprisoned. And, I suppose, the prostitutes… On that basis, my own society stands condemned, having moved away from all those principles since Margaret Thatcher was elected. My friends in the States may, I suspect, have similar feelings, substituting Reagan for Thatcher…
Barry also drew out a theme of being converted by the intrusion of the excluded – the Pharisee, for instance, was forced to concede that he who was forgiven most was the most grateful, and that was also a deconversion, from the perspective which was previously taken; all conversion, he said, involves deconversion from something which precedes it and promises deconversion later from what is converted to. Sometimes, however, a label prevents conversion… such as “whore”.
After the talk ended, I went on musing. I don’t have much experience of prostitutes, I thought – but then I paused. Prostitution is often called “the oldest profession”, and my former profession, Law, is sometimes called the second oldest. I did think, when going into Law, that it was a respectable occupation with a reasonable social status – and so, at the time, it was, at least in England. Some years later a friend in the States sent me a copy of the “1000 best lawyer jokes”, including “What’s the difference between a dead lawyer on the freeway and a dead cat on the freeway? The cat has skid marks in front of it” – but by that time I was already beginning to appreciate that, in the States at least, lawyers are one of the most hated and despised professions (possibly only eclipsed by politicians in the States, but I was also a local politician…).
There is, perhaps, a closer correspondence than just the “despised profession” or the antiquity of the occupation. Prostitutes sell the use of their bodies, while Lawyers sell the use of their minds. OK, there are a very few lawyers who go to work for, for instance, the Council for Civil Liberties or various Law Centres around the country who are more donating than they are selling, but in general terms, lawyers are mercenaries, “guns for hire” if those guns spout words rather than bullets. Another lawyer joke runs “Someone came to see me and asked ‘What is the truth of this situation?’, so first I negotiated a fee, then I asked him what he wanted the truth of it to be”. To a great extent, in law, the truth is what a lawyer can persuade a judge (and/or jury) to believe it to be, and one result is that we tend to get the best justice we can afford (tempered to some extent by the many lawyers who take on “pro bono” cases or work for a fee unconnected with whether they win or lose).
I’ll grant that the “mind for hire” allegation could be levelled at a wide range of other professions involving words, including to my deep regret some scientists who are lured into fields like climate-change denialism or the long hard fight (happily now lost) against the link between smoking and cancer. Don’t get me started on politicians, who seem increasingly to have lost touch with anything remotely resembling truth.
I have to say that the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known do not actually tailor what “truth” they argue for entirely to the wishes of the client; for a start, in the UK, professional ethics demand that they do not argue a position they know to be false, though that can lead to some very careful avoidance of clients admitting guilt directly to their lawyers; nonetheless, there are in most court proceedings two sides, each with lawyers arguing opposing positions – and only one of those (as a maximum) can be right.
I did my share of advocacy in court. Contra the impression given by courtroom dramas like “Perry Mason”, results are rarely obtained by breaking down witnesses under questioning so that they admit they were lying or, even better, admit guilt, they are more often obtained by finding an interpretation of the evidence actually given which founds innocence or guilt, depending on whether defending or prosecuting. Defending is easier in criminal cases, as you don’t need to demonstrate that your interpretation is the most likely one, just that it’s sufficiently plausible to put doubt in people’s minds as to another interpretation.
I did much more work drafting and amending contracts. There, part of the secret is to pull back from what you know the text is supposed to convey, and ask yourself what other meaning it could possibly have, if argued over in the future by a pair of clever lawyers. You then adjust the wording so as to exclude, so far as possible, any such misinterpretation – admittedly, sometimes in competition with a lawyer acting for the other side who actually wants that interpretation to be open. You also need to envisage situations in which the wording might not give a clear answer, or any answer, and so far as possible plug those gaps. The exercise does produce an ability to see second, third and fourth meanings in sets of words, which gets ingrained after many years doing it.
That, of course, is something which I now bring to interpreting scripture, having retired from doing anything connected with the law, at least so far as I can manage. I can see secondary readings of passages which people may miss, and perspectives which others may not think of (for example, my dumfounding of a small group by suggesting looking at the parable of the prodigal son from the perspective of the fatted calf… I’d already heard all the conventional perspectives being canvassed that week). Yes, some of those may be regarded as less likely interpretations for the writer to have intended, but as long as the words actually used open up the possibility, who are we to say that they weren’t intended to mean more than one thing, or even that what we now percieve as less likely wasn’t, from the author’s point of view, exactly what was the intention?
We don’t, of course, have the authors of scripture available to interrogate as to whether they also meant c,d, and e as well as a, or whether they actually only meant d… and even if we did, a modern interpreter could well say “ah, but that must have been at least in your subconscious, otherwise why would you pick those words…”. Indeed, that’s been done to me in the past, by an English Literature student interpreting some poetry I wrote – I denied having intended some of the meanings she extracted from it, and she made that argument, plus the rather more postmodern argument that the meaning of everything is created by the reader as much as by the writer, and the “death of the author” school of thought elevates that to a guiding principle. Those are the words, now shut up and let us interpret them – which is, I note with some amusement, the main moral of the Jewish story of the Oven of Akhnai, relating exactly to the interpretation of scripture. For my more conservative readers, you might like to note that the story takes a very high view of scripture – the Torah – as, in effect, divine dictation, but still supports variant interpretations.
I’m now in the happy position of being free to do this job of supplying reinterpretations and variant readings both in my writing and when editing others without any financial motive – or, indeed, for the most part any other compelling pressure. I don’t need to earn extra money any more; I’m largely retired, and have enough provision in retirement to be able to say “no” to almost any offer made to me. I am, however, perhaps more sensitive than most to the fact that I have let money dictate what I did with my mind in the past (that was, in essence, the nature of the job of a lawyer) – and that makes it impossible for me to be condemnatory towards those who let money dictate what they do with their bodies (i.e. prostitutes).
So I go to the inevitable question which I think we should all ask ourselves – what is our price? How much would it take to persuade us to do something which we think is reprehensible (such as myself defending criminals and assisting them to avoid conviction and punishment)? Maybe we wouldn’t do it for £100, but what about £100,000 or £100,000,000? Or maybe in non-money terms – what would we be prepared to do to save our child’s life, for instance?
That is something which I may need to come back to in another post. In the meanting, though, we might note that Barry presented a text – verbally, of course, and I found unexplored avenues in it and built off it in a major way, which rather illustrates my point about the value of thinking of variant interpretations.