Voir dire

A lawyer usually concedes the opposing proffered expert’s credentials and does not contest her opponent’s motion to have the court recognize the witness as an expert in a particular field.  The alternative is voir dire, a self-contained evidentiary session in which both sides get to question the proffered expert in the jury’s presence concerning his credentials before the court accepts him as an expert and permits him to testify as one.  Voir dire often turns into an expert’s showcase, often sours the community of experts (especially doctors, who run pretty tight in most communities) against the lawyer who challenges the expert’s credentials, and often gives the lawyer whose client has hired the expert an opportunity to highlight his theory of the case through his questioning.  Voir dire of expert witnesses, then, is rare, but it is usually more contentious, and therefore more fun to watch, than the voir dire of potential jurors, a preliminary procedure of every jury trial.

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The Book of Hebrews, for no immediately apparent reason, opens with a long comparison of Jesus with angels.  Old Testament scripture is brought to bear to support the idea that Jesus is superior to the angels.  I have heard a number of sermons and talks that use some of the material in Hebrews’s first chapter to support various points, but I have heard no talk that explains why the comparison is made in the first place.  One might think that the writer’s Jewish audience has fallen from its understanding of Jesus’ supremacy in the new Jewish sect’s cosmology and has begun to worship angels, or at least has begun to venerate them more than Scripture would hold with.

The comparison of Jesus with angels, though, has nothing to do with angel worship.  The purpose of the comparison is not subject to a private theological interpretation by any current sect of what we call Christianity.  The comparison is only an example of the tactics used by Hebrews’s writer to advance some good and proper theology.

One of the themes of Hebrews is the superiority of the new covenant for which Jesus serves as the one sacrifice and the sole high priest.  The earlier, Mosaic covenant is inferior because of its inability to make its beneficiaries perfect in a transactional sense.  Indeed, the new covenant is revealed in Hebrews as the older covenant honored by the old covenant (generally, the first in time means a great deal in the New Testament), since Levi, the priestly tribe under Moses’ covenant, pays tithes through his forefather Abraham to Melchizedek, the mysterious priest referred to historically in Genesis, prophetically in Psalms, and exegetically the Book of Hebrews.

The writer’s Jewish audience is in danger of neglecting the salvation brought to them by this new covenant.  They are enamored not with angels, but with the older covenant, not as a type of the newer covenant, as the writer would prefer, but as a superior covenant to it.

So what’s with the angels? Like a trial lawyer, Hebrews’s author is establishing two speakers’ relative credentials.  The comparison finally leads to this: because Jesus is higher than the angels, his words are in some sense superior to theirs, and we better not neglect them. (Hebrews 2:1-4 – “words spoken through angels” vs. “salvation first spoken through the Lord.”)  Hebrews chapter 1, then, compares the relative authority of two speakers.

Jesus speaks to us in the Gospels of the new covenant.  But when did the angels speak?  The Hebrews are familiar with the notion that God in some sense gives the Mosaic covenant and laws through angels.  Stephen, for instance, reminds his Hebrew audience that the law is “given by God’s angels.” (Acts 7:53 (REB).  For more on the angels’ role in giving the law, see Deut. 33:2, Acts 7:38, and Gal. 3:19.)  The comparison of speakers, then, gives way to a comparison of covenants and the covenants’ associated sacrifices, promises, and priesthoods brought into the world by the speakers.

[The writer of Hebrews uses a similarly lawyerly tactic to support Melchizedek’s superiority over Aaron as a high priest.  Most first-time readers of Hebrews may not understand the reference to “two immutable things” in Hebrews chapter 6.  Reading comprehension leads to one possible conclusion: the two immutable things are “the promise and the oath.”  God knows we use promises and oaths in our legal systems to assure one another and to make things operative.  God speaks our language; he’s willing to utilize our contract law.  Hebrews discusses two Old Testament verses containing promises and oaths.  Here’s the first:

[To Abraham:] I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you. (Heb. 6:14)

(The “surely” parts are the oaths.  It may be easier to see this in the Revised English Bible translation: “I vow that I will bless you abundantly and multiply your descendants.”)  This idea of the promise and the oath takes on more importance once Melchizedek enters the letter at the end of chapter 6.  That’s because the last part of chapter 6 (verses 13 through 20) sets us up for this main promise-oath combo found well into the next chapter:

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 7:21, which itself is a translation of Psalm 110:4)

In other words, just as Hebrews sets up Jesus’ credentials as a speaker in chapter 1 before we even hear from him, Hebrews sets up the basis for Melchizedek’s credentials as a high priest in chapter 6 before the writer even mentions him.]

The writer of Hebrews, knowing that he cannot win his argument on an appeal to the covenants’ relative merits alone – his audience has a lifelong and even cultural investment in the old one – resorts to the superiority of his expert.

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[book cover]What does it mean to read?  George Steiner’s Real Presences argues that “an account of the act of reading, in the fullest sense, of the act of reception and internalization of significant forms within us, is a metaphysical and, in the last analysis, a theological one.” Steiner does not refer here to theological doctrine but to theology in its broadest sense: the possibility of the unknown.  The previous statement I quote is not his thesis, but it is related to it: our culture has “a certain reduced condition of the poetic and of the act of creation.”  In the second (the middle) section of his book, Steiner traces our condition to philosophical developments during the 1870’s in Western Europe and Russia as expressed in Mallarmé’s and Rimbaud’s writings, writings which, with “all that they entail, splinter the foundations of the Hebraic-Hellenic-Cartesian edifice in which the ratio and psychology of the Western communicative tradition had lodged.”  The Western communicative tradition is an a priori “relationship between word and world,” the existence of speech-acts.  Late-nineteenth-century nihilism and a “Nietzschean intuition” gone mad lead to twentieth-century deconstruction, the doctrine of literary criticism fashionable in the latter part of the last century.  Deconstruction, in short, holds that meaningfulness in words is a pretense, and that words serve as signs only out of a persistent laziness and cultural comfort with a disproved theological, Logos model of meaning.

Steiner finds the tenets of deconstruction unassailable – indeed, even helpful in many respects – but he doesn’t find them ultimately persuasive.  He spends the third and final section of his book arguing, not from logic, but from an a priori acceptance, that art, music, and literature presuppose “the other,” that they begin in immanence (where deconstruction would suggest they remain), but that they move toward transcendence:

. . . it is the enterprise and privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into lit presence the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between man and ‘the other’.

The battle between immanence alone, on the one hand, and immanence and transcendence, on the other, cannot be fought in the arena of reason alone, since the two sides may not agree on even the nature and role of proof.  (Proof suggests a “positivist cosmology” and a finite, “terminal” universe, Steiner asserts.  The vehicle of the best of Western art, writing, and music, however, is usually myth, which, contrary to proof, suggests an open-ended universe, a less dogmatic and more apophatic approach to mystery.)

But the greater reason that Steiner concedes the argument but not the day to deconstruction has to do with what is at stake.  Essentially, neither side advances an argument; both sides advance only competing, irreducible presumptions.  The axioms are not only fundamental as foundations to what arguments could be advanced; they are also fundamental to the question of whether the arts will survive in Western culture.  If “general sentiment” follows academics for whom “the question of the existence of non-existence of God will have lost all actuality,” then the creation of great art, music, and literature will be a matter of history alone.

Therefore, arguments alone will not carry the day; instead, “this essay argues a wager on transcendence.”  In advancing such a wager (“argues a wager” is more of a poetic expression than a dialectic one), the book’s third section resorts to a re-grounding in what it means to read, to visit the visual arts, to hear great music.  Although he believes music is his strongest suit, Steiner examines reading more closely than listening to music, probably because of the average reader’s more extensive experience with reading than with listening closely to music or enjoying the visual arts.  Steiner develops reading as a relationship that involves reserve, courtesy, trust, and a meeting of freedoms that, in the end, results in “total indiscretion.”  Literature (as well as art and music) “queries the last privacies of our existence. . . . It proposes change.”

Section three, then, isn’t so much an argument (of a wager or otherwise) as it is an instructor’s slowing down of a slow dance to point out the couple’s steps.  Steiner reconnects us with what we’ve always intuited about reading, and then he compares irreducible presumptions.  Real reading, he suggests, requires “the other,” requires the acknowledgement of real presences. Deconstruction’s refusal to acknowledge the transcendent in reading is based on gamesmanship, not relationships, Steiner concludes.

But I have not described the first of Real Presences’s three sections.  Steiner spends a great number of pages there establishing that, in our culture, the aesthetic has become “academic,” that “we welcome those who can domesticate, who can secularize the mystery and summons of creation.”  We therefore live in a Byzantine age “in which the exegetic and the critical [what Steiner elsewhere calls ‘the secondary’] dominate” to the detriment of the creative.  For a variety of reasons, we cannot perform “an authentic act of reading.”  Here’s one reason:

We flinch from the immediate pressures of mystery in poetic, in aesthetic acts of creation as we do from the realization of our diminished humanity, of all that is literally bestial in the murderousness and gadgetry of this age.  The secondary is our narcotic.

Later, Steiner makes various connections between the ascendancy of the secondary and the ascendancy of radical nihilism (the book’s second section), and between the ascendancy of the secondary and our inability to read (third section). Section one also wanders into interesting sub-plots that get away from strict credentials, but Steiner believes the reader – the judge – will allow him some latitude in his voir dire to advance details which, in the end, enrich the jury’s understanding of his theory of the case.  Steiner is a methodical advocate. It isn’t until the end of the book, after all – long after the voir dire that makes up the first section is over – that we discover that we’ve been lawyered:

I have, before, cited some of those who know best: the poets, the artists.  I have found no deconstructionist among them.

When the issue at bar is outside the province of the jury, attorneys resort to experts.  Steiner spends the first section of his essay comparing speakers.  The poets speak with more authority than today’s academics – the secondary speakers, the self-appointed keepers of a guttering aesthetic torch.

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In one sense, voir dire is merely procedural and tactical, a justified means to theological ends. In another sense, where all parties to the litigation concede truth’s immanence in some manner, it isn’t the argument but the words of the expert that carry us.  At the end of Job’s trial, after all, God doesn’t argue with Job; he simply compares their credentials.  And, broadly speaking, the dispensation of justice, the act of covenanting, and even the act of reading are theological enterprises worthy of the finest defense.