In an earlier thread, Logiopath and I shared this exchange:
Logio: The next time your boss tells you something, try and read a double meaning into the words. In other words, if the Gospel texts have any reflection of Jesus’ words, then what is said is probably what is meant (regardless of the accuracy of the statement).
Me: That’s actually not bad advice. Never having managed people in a business setting you probably have never encountered the overly literal employee who ONLY does precisely as he is told or perhaps follows the instructions so ‘religiously’ that he botches things up….”But that’s what you TOLD me to do!” It helps to understand your bosses general intent (bad bosses kept this secret – Jesus did not).
Logio: You’re right, I’ve never been in management, but I understand giving instructions to students who are literal in their interpretation.
When I discussed this conversation with my friend, Jack the Trivia King, he snapped his fingers and, nodding his vigorously, said “Just like Greg Brady’s exact words!” Which meant absolutely nothing to me.
It turns out that this is a famous episode of the Brady Bunch (a TV show that puberty saved me from having to watch) in which the eldest boy (Greg) is told that he is forbidden to drive the family car for two weeks because of his carelessness behind the wheel.
Taking his father’s words quite literally, Greg instead borrows the neighbor’s car for a drive. Having been found out and now grounded, Greg complains that he did not disobey his parents; after all, he didn’t drive the family car. He was actually very obedient and followed his dad’s instructions to the letter. To avoid further confusion, Greg suggests that from now on everyone should only say EXACTLY what they mean, using only EXACT words. His wise (and very hip) dad readily agrees and wholesome family hilarity ensues.
This sitcom episode is apparently a classic example of a literary ‘trope’ – “a storytelling device and convention that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”; like the Genie granting three wishes or the boy who cried wolf. In this particular case someone is taking an authority’s instructions so literally that they actually, and quite legally, subvert the authority’s purpose in giving those instructions in the first place.
In the workplace this is known as “Malicious Obedience” or “Destructive Compliance” or “Bothering by the Book”. In order to further their own agendas, the workers obey the rules so religiously that it subverts their employers intentions. Any well run business will encourage their employees to ‘take ownership’ of their responsibilities, allowing them the flexibility to be innovative in their interpretations of the workplace rules, as long as they remain in the spirit in which the rules were written. In fact, good companies don’t give rules, they provide guidelines. Some of the most successful companies today (like Yahoo!) are quite radical in this respect.
This, I think, is a pretty good analogy for the differences between fundamentalist religion and progressive religion. Jesus would have been considered a progressive, if not even a radical -breaking the religious rules in order to better serve the spirit of those rules.
We’ve all witnessed the sometimes silly but often tragic results of people reading scriptures by their exact words. More often than not they end up subverting the spirit of those words. Just as in how some have changed Jesus’ imploration to not judge others (in that case, adulterers) into a new legalist ‘sin’; sexual titillation.
Much worse, many have used the ‘exact words’ of Hebrew and Christian scriptures to justify slavery, prejudice and war, the ‘exact words’ of Matthew and John to justify anti-Semitism, the ‘exact words’ of Paul to justify male chauvinism and homophobia and the ‘exact words’ of Mohammed to justify misogyny and initiate violent intifada; all zealously bothering by the Good Book.
As Greg Brady painfully learned in that episode, taking someone at their ‘exact words’ is something you learn to avoid as you grow up. If you want to avoid confusion and if you want to better serve authority.