Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Thetis and the Dishes

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Oft of an evening, as I am cleaning up after dinner, my mind turns to Thetis. She was, you may recall, the mother of Achilles who famously dipped her baby into the river Styx in the hopes of rendering him invulnerable to any weapon. She was mostly successful; but, alas, she forgot to re-dip the boy to account for the still dry heel by which she had dunked him. Achilles went on to become the most formidable warrior of the ancient world, but today we remember him more for his heel than his heroism. He was ultimately done in by the ladies’ man Paris, who hid in a bush and shot a poisoned arrow at Achilles’… Achilles Heel.
Which brings us back to the dishes. Whenever I am holding a particularly impure item – say a cutting board with raw chicken or pork on it -- I always remind myself of Thetis: I may scrub my fingers to the bone on 99 percent of the surface area, but if I don’t attend to the bit currently under my thumb, the whole enterprise will be for naught. Our family will be just as vulnerable as poor Achilles: you slice some salami, and salmonella may well come along for the ride. Indeed, at times I wonder whether the whole Thetis-Achilles story first arose in the daydreaming of some mythically-inclined dishwater working away on a Grecian urn.
Now the point of all this is…that there is no point (at least not yet). Thetis and Achilles don’t really have anything to do with my doing the dishes. Now, dishwashing can be a pretty tedious business, so I don’t think anyone will call me to account for mentally riffing on themes in Greek mythology (which would include, now that I think of it, rosy-fingered Dawn – though our Dawn is blue). But neither am I about to walk into a classroom and try to argue that my plate scraping and bowl rinsing holds the key to a central motif in ancient literature.
The real problem – and the real point here – is that we often read the Bible with more or less the same hermeneutical strategy I employ with Thetis and the dishes. The contours of a story, the rhythms of a psalm, the historical exigencies of an epistle – all are quickly tossed aside in the pursuit of “what this means to me”. Scripture reading can degenerate into a spiritual Rorschach test: what matters is not the apparently random blots of ink on the page in front of me, but rather how those blots speak to my all important personal story.
Now, I am hardly against a deeply personal application of the biblical text – provided it an application of the biblical text. When Jesus says we should love our neighbor, I need to go and love my neighbor. Even an ancient story of a bitter prophet complaining that God hasn’t wiped out his enemies according to plan (post-whale Jonah) is meant to inform my understanding of how God regards the world and how I should do so in turn. But we need to respect the people to whom God first made the revelation.
One final image: God in providing us with the Scriptural witness has, as it were, sent us off to explore the rich biology of a vernal pool. But we become so enraptured by our own image reflecting off the surface of the pond that we completely forget about probing the depths beneath.
Wake up, Narcissus.

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