Skip to content

Ellipsis

ellipsis_bgcrop

It happened again this morning.  I was reading a devotional book that more or less adheres to the lectionary texts for the week, and I looked at the reading for the day: Psalm 92:1-4; 12-15.  I have, over the years learned to grow suspicious of omissions in texts, and before I even flipped open my Bible I was irritatedly wondering, “what about verses 5-11?!  I knew, more or less what to expect—a pleasant selection of the inspirational bits of a Psalm with the nasty parts left out.

I was right.

The reading focused on how good it was to praise the Lord, to proclaim his love, to sing for joy, about how the righteous would flourish like well-watered trees staying “fresh and green” until old age.  The parts of Psalm 92 that were omitted were the parts about the destruction of the wicked, the defeat of the psalmist’s adversaries, and about “senseless fools” who do not understand and are destined for the grave.  The former themes were obviously (and entirely appropriately!) deemed suitable for morning reflection.  And the latter?  What about them?  Were they thought to be uncomfortable and awkward intrusions into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving?  Embarrassing reflections of the psalmists’ feelings toward his enemies?  Inconvenient expressions of violence and ill-will in what was supposed to be a hymn of joy?  Whatever the reasons, a decision was made on the reader’s behalf, and these verses were edited out.

Of course, we don’t just see this phenomenon in devotional books’ handling of Scripture.  We are all familiar with the ellipsis—the three little dots that often appear in the middle of quotes and citations.  I often wonder, “what are those three little dots hiding?”  What is being omitted?  Statements, ideas, and questions that are less relevant for the purposes of the one using the quote?  Or less convenient?  Sometimes it is the former.  Sometimes there are parts that just don’t pertain to the point that is being made.   But often it is the latter.  Often, if I bother to dig up the citation, those three little dots represent a portion of text that either tells a more complex story than the one using the quote wishes to tell or, at worst, outright contradicts the point they are trying to make.  Whatever the case, the ellipsis puts me on high alert.  “You’ve chosen to leave something out,” I think, “and I want to know what and why!”

And yet, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I, too, use the ellipsis when citing authors or using Scripture. I use it to keep quotes brief and to keep them relevant to my point.  I also use them for exactly the reasons I smirk at when I see it in the work of others—to reduce complexity, to reinforce the point am trying to make, to make it look like the author I am citing is unambiguously agreeing with me, etc.  I also use it when handling the Bible.  I tend to focus on the parts that make sense of how I understand God, how I see the life of discipleship, what I want people to understand about the story of God’s interaction with the world he has made.  It’s just easier if we omit the troublesome and confusing parts, isn’t it?

The same is true for the life of faith in general, I think.  We adopt an ellipsis approach to faith when we ignore or explain away the nasty parts of life, and focus only on the pleasant and uplifting and inspiring.  When we honour the mountain tops and gloss over the dark valleys.  When we admire and valourize only the victorious and triumphant experiences of faith and explain away periods of doubt and fear and wrestling with God (or, worse, describe these things as evidence of a lack of genuine faith).  Like the Psalms, like all of Scripture, the life of faith is not a wonderfully seamless narrative that maps precisely on to our conceptions of what it ought to look like.  Some things don’t seem to fit.  Some things are best left out of the story.  Or so we think.

The Greek word “ellipsis” (ἔλλειψις) means “omission,” which is probably the meaning we are most familiar with.  But it can also connote something like “falling short” or “unfinished.”  Perhaps when we leave things out—whether in our handling of Scripture or in our understanding and articulation of faith—we are, in important ways, falling short.  We are not telling the whole story.  We are failing to represent the full picture that we see both in the story of Scripture and in human experience—a picture that, while often characterized by moments of deep joy,  is also, at times, complex, painful, and messy.  We are failing to live honestly before God and others.

Three little dots.  What are we omitting?  Why?  What are we leaving unfinished in our telling and living the story of faith?

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brilliant. I’d never really thought about my use of ellipses before, but you’re absolutely right. Perhaps you could start a sermon series focusing solely on passages excluded by the lectionary – it would also be a great subject for a book.

    June 15, 2012
    • That sounds like a great, if terrifying, idea for a sermon series! A book would be safer :).

      June 15, 2012
  2. Ken #

    If we don’t leave out the bad stuff, we might get mad at God.

    I was reading the Noah passages in Genesis a few nights ago. When I came to Genesis 9:2 I was furious. The idea of that verse is totally repulsive to me. And there it is again in Psalm 8:6-8. When I read things like that I feel like it is better to shun the whole book and its religions.

    If I were gay, I would feel the same way because of the abomination language in the Bible. If I were a woman, I don’t think I could read much of the Bible at all without feeling angry – it is such a patriarchal work, cover to cover. The seminary I attended recommended a 99% ellipsis on such bases.

    The problem is that whether one is religious or not, western civilization was shaped by the religions of the Bible and shaped the meanings of the Bible to us. We must look at the whole picture, the whole Bible, to understand who and were we are culturally. At the same time, personally, I think it is a tragic mistake to try to live by what the Bible and its religions say and to take the Bible as anything other than myth, or at least, a work meriting a 99% ellipsis. The 1% for me is the idea that something of the cosmos loves us, blesses us, and all of the universe. I get that from God’s great passion for Israel. It is the way I read Genesis 12:3. It is only in the context of that idea that I can enjoy the other 99%.

    To me, Jesus is one of the least attractive figures of all in the text – such a morally stern and harsh and distant figure. It is only by ellipsis that most Christians have a different impression.

    Perhaps this reveals that I am the devil. I share much in common with the devil of Paradise Lost. Certainly, many Christians have judged me to be such.

    June 15, 2012
    • 1% isn’t much of a reason to hang around. Why bother dealing with such a nasty story with its nasty morality and its nasty, unattractive God? Why not focus on some other, more attractive story?

      June 20, 2012
    • Ken #

      I guess I can’t live without the 1%.

      Of course, focusing on a more attractive story, or finding a kernel to keep, is the way of liberal theology. That is all I have ever known.

      This was just a raw account of my inner dark feelings. They are at once a critique of the Bible and Christianity from a modern liberal perspective and a critique of my own limited faith.

      June 20, 2012
      • Fair enough. It just seems to me that if I thought that little of the Bible or of the person of Jesus, I would just chuck the whole package. But I suppose all of us have dark feelings from time to time when it comes to faith… Some, perhaps, experience these more acutely and pervasively than others, but my sense is that we all have our moments.

        I don’t think you’re the devil, for what it’s worth. Your commitment to the good, the true, and the beautiful rules out that option from the start.

        June 20, 2012
  3. In the literal sense, I use an ellipsis in my writing to shorten a very long quote (while still leaving the general meaning of the text I’m using) or omit parts of the text that seem to overcomplicate the issue. I guess that’s why I cite what I’m quoting – so the reader can see for him/herself the extra parts that I didn’t use. I also get very suspicious of devotional/religious literature that omits parts of a scriptural whole (like the Psalm you mention). I appreciate having the whole of Christian experience recognized – the good & beautiful and also the mysterious or ugly.

    Practically speaking, I have to use an “ellipsis” in my life because I can’t possibly have the type of relationship with everyone that allows a deep knowledge of myself. I couldn’t emotionally handle it. I guess life-ellipses are necessary for my emotional survival, and I think I use them both consciously and unconsciously. There are a few people that I avoid allowing close to me because I don’t want their participation in my life aside from surface interactions. Most of the time I think I unconsciously avoid openness with others because I am by nature a reserved person. Perhaps that leaves my life more incomplete because I have fewer formative relationships.

    June 15, 2012
    • I hadn’t thought about “ellipses” (metaphorical variety) from this perspective—thanks for sharing this. I see what you mean about needing ellipses for emotional survival. There are some omissions that are painful to probe… I think we leave some things “unfinished” to protect ourselves, as you say. Perhaps this is unavoidable. Perhaps this side of eternity some omissions remain necessary in how we navigate faith and relationships, even if this is less than ideal.

      I very much like what you say about the “to be continued” aspect of the ellipsis. I think that sub-consciously use it this way in my writing often as well. “Open for dialogue.” Yes, I like that. Yes, we need more of that.

      Thanks for broadening the discussion—much appreciated.

      June 15, 2012
  4. One more: I often use an ellipsis at the end of a sentence to mean “to be continued”, as in, “I’m open for dialogue”. Maybe people of faith need to use ellipses more often in that sense.

    June 15, 2012
  5. This is a powerful post. Of course, I only want to show my best parts. I dont want others to know about my sin, my weakness, my cowardice, my failings.

    June 18, 2012
  6. James #

    Great post, Ryan!
    On the other hand, I do like Mom’s Muse comment “Maybe people of faith need to use ellipses more often . . .” Properly understood I believe it requires exactly the action you took. It demands a follow-up. It is not white-out and reminds the reader that complexity is being given its due by that visible gap- and yet for the moment, and only for the moment, subject and predicate are stripped of all subordinate clauses.
    But as you point out- every ideal can be misused and we are certainly prone to that.

    June 18, 2012
    • Thanks, James. I have appreciated the reminders here that ellipses need not be interpreted solely in the negative. They can point to something to be explored rather than a mere lack or an attempt to hide.

      June 19, 2012
  7. Ken #

    In case you have not seen it, a study receiving discussion in the press found that belief in supernatural punishment, or hell, reduces crime, while belief in a forgiving God and heaven increases crime.

    It appears that the ellipsis of hell, as in the ellipsis of Psalm 92:5-11 and which has characterized the Christianity of which I have been part, thus appears to increase the misery of life in this way.

    If the findings of the study are true, the irony is stunning. Whether pastors don’t believe in hell or whether they just don’t want to talk about it, we know that their aim has been to promote goodwill. And yet, they have promoted crime.

    The finding also appears to subvert a basic idea of reformed theology: the idea that forgiveness fills us with thankfulness that we then express in good works. Of course, in the days of the heyday of reformed theology, one also learned that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God and in those days, no one could really be sure of his or her salvation from hell.

    June 23, 2012
    • Hmm…, Well, I’m sure there are many other factors at work beyond simply what one thinks about heaven and hell, but it’s certainly an interesting correlation. In my experience, studies like this often make claims that go a fair ways beyond what their data actually proves. They also often reduce the overwhelming complexity of human behaviour to one or two causal factors. It’s a good way to justify research grants and sell newspapers, I suppose.

      But, one cannot deny a connection… I guess I’ll have to start preaching an angrier God :).

      June 24, 2012
    • Ken #

      And, of course, we cannot (preach an angrier God, or even angry God at all.) It is not in us.

      In the US, much law enforcement works on the threat principle, although the supernatural threat principle. For example, when the government catches a person not reporting all their income, the penalties are severe – they definitely destroy the person’s life when they can. Congress wrote that into the law. The idea is to frighten the rest of us into compliance. And generally, sentencing for crimes is not so much designed to protect society, but to punish and make examples of the ones who are caught.

      I resist seeing that as a good thing. It is hideous to me.

      I generally have not practiced ellipsis. I have read and taught the whole text. What I have done, instead of ellipsis, is to relativize hell or divine punishment, which places the whole idea of hell in a context that is very different from ours and thus separates it from us. The effect is similar to, and, I think, even more powerful than ignoring the passages. I also think it is kinder.

      And yet, now there is this evidence of harm.

      June 24, 2012
      • I resist seeing that as a good thing. It is hideous to me.

        Me too. I think we resist seeing it as good thing, because it isn’t good in any way. I doubt even proponents of approaches like this would say it was genuinely good, if pressed. Useful, perhaps. Pragmatic. Effective. But not good. At least they shouldn’t.

        Like you, I try to teach the whole text. Sometimes context helps to blunt the effect of harsher passages. Sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I try to just accept that there are parts of the Bible that I don’t like and that don’t make sense to me, and to hold these in tension with the many parts of the Bible that I do like and that do make sense and offer hope and peace to me. Ultimately, though, the important issue is not what I like or don’t like about the Bible. The main issue is, at least for me, is who is God and can God be trusted? If I didn’t have strong convictions about these two questions, I wouldn’t have the courage to try to avoid ellipses.

        June 25, 2012
  8. James #

    Haven’t heard much from Tyler for a while, but those who read Aristotle would resonate with these finding. Humans need both the carrot and the stick if a worthy character is to be formed. Only after the shaping has been done does a human being begin to operate from that place of being driven to do good for its own reward. No wonder the early church fathers saw Aristotle and Plato as the Moses of the Greeks, preparing the way for Christ. Of course I have less room for Plato :)

    June 25, 2012
    • I think Tyler would enthusiastically approve :).

      June 26, 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: