August 8, 2016
I’m working on a chapter that deals with the role of the reader in interpreting the Bible. In contemporary theory, the meaning of a text is not simply in the words, but in the ways in which readers construe those words. The words bear a potential meaning, but the meaning is not actualized until the text is read and understood.
It’s like sound: molecules vibrating in the air are potentially sound, but they are not actually sound until they strike an ear that transmits signals to the brain.
Or, like music: a composition (notes on a page) is potentially music, but it becomes actual music in performance.
And just as musical performance and hearing involve interpretation (e.g., selective attention and judgment), so reading a text like the Bible always involves interpretation. The reader constructs the meaning of the text by focusing on certain parts of it.
Theologically considered, we can say that revelation is not revelation until it is received.
However, it’s not just that the reader completes the process of meaning. The larger point is that the reader’s situation (his or her gender, culture, political context, and so on) is a factor. Who we are determines, at least in part, how we understand.
There is scientific evidence to support this notion. Reading a facial expression is like reading a text–there are physical signs that must be interpreted. It turns out that gender is a factor in interpreting facial expressions:
Women assessed smiling individuals as more honest than men did. . . . Social judgements may be affected by gender-based expectations. Women are expected to be more communal and expressive than men as well as more sensitive to emotional expressions of others. Smiling increased women’s perception of communal trait honesty of others (See reference 1 below).
Our cultural situation even affects basic acts of perception. In one scientific study, test subjects
report[ed] what they saw in underwater scenes. Americans emphasized focal objects, that is, large, brightly colored, rapidly moving objects. Japanese reported 60% more information about the background (e.g., rocks, color of water, small nonmoving objects) than did Americans.
The researchers concluded that “compared with Americans, the Japanese encoded the scenes more holistically, binding information about the objects with the backgrounds.” In another experiment, it was discovered that “Americans to spend more time looking at the focal objects and less time looking at the context than the Chinese participants” (Reference 2).
In other words, cultural factors determine what we see–what the mind/brain picks out as significant.
Our cultural situation also conditions how we feel our own bodily states. Asians, as noted, generally experience things in connection with surrounding objects to a greater extent than do Americans and Europeans. In several experiments, researchers tested subjects’ abilities to perceive their heartbeat. The experiments found “cross-cultural differences in heartbeat detection ability, with Asians demonstrating less accuracy than European Americans.” The reason for the difference is “the greater amount of attention they [Asians] pay to context. The contextual dependency that makes Asians more sensitive to situational-environmental cues also rendered them less able to focus and accurately perceive their own internal bodily states” (Reference 3).
Human beings who read the Bible and who receive God’s revelation are enmeshed in the particularities of their cultures. This inevitably affects how they read and understand the Bible. We who inhabit technological, scientific cultures tend to read the Bible in ways that make sense to us, but it is good to remember that people in other cultures have their own ways of understanding the Bible.
- Krys, Kuba, et al. “It is better to smile to women: Gender modifies perception of honesty of smiling individuals across cultures,” International Journal Of Psychology 50, no. 2 (March 2015): 153.
- Hannah Faye Chua, Julie E. Boland and Richard E. Nisbett, “Cultural Variation in Eye Movements during Scene Perception,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102, No. 35 (Aug. 30, 2005), pp. 12629-12633.
- Ma-Kellams, Christine, Jim Blascovich, and Cade McCall. “Culture and the Body: East-West Differences in Visceral Perception,” Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology 102, no. 4 (April 2012): 718-728
4 thoughts on “The Reader’s Culture”
As a pastor of 47 years it has been my observation that my people hear God’s word in different ways.
In one of my small groups we have a man who has limited reading and reasoning skills. He hears different than the rest of the group.
I find each of your points to be valid as a pastor teacher.
My great encouragement is that the Holy Sirit is faithful to bear witness to his word as the body of Christ surrounds and cares for each other.
Thanks, Dave. Hope all is well. In a later chapter of the book I’m writing I’ll be discussing the Holy Spirit more directly.
Sam, I’m glad you’re making this point. It has been so long since I’ve approached perception or thought in a non-contextual manner that I don’t know quite what to do with the notion that a text has significance as it simply stands on the page. The doctrine of God concerns three persons of the Trinity rather than two (Father and Son), because the work of God is recognized or otherwise engaged only by the work of the Holy Spirit. That is, everything about the God who came to be understood in the light of Jesus is about God’s action and our reaction, the latter being evoked by the gift of the Spirit.