August 15, 2016
Here are some thoughts about biblical interpretation as I try to get clear about the reader’s role in the phenomenon of meaning.
The chapter that I am currently working on is about the way in which we create meaning as we read the Bible. This is because the Bible (like any text) is, at the most basic level, marks on a page. Readers interpret those marks as words bearing meaning. But the act of gathering the meaning is not simply a matter of decoding signals, as an old model of communication suggested.
This model suggests a machine-like simplicity in the act of communication. One brain encodes information in linguistic signs and expresses those signs in some form (speech, written words). Another brain then perceives the signs and decodes them, extracting the meaning.
Interpretation is in fact a much more creative process, especially if interpretation is trying to get at something besides the semantic content of a text. Think about interpretations of The Wizard of Oz. Some have seen it (especially the book) as an allegory about the political movement, Populism. In this view, the story is about the struggle of farmers (e.g., the scarecrow) against industrialists (the Wicked Witch). The city of Oz represents Washington, D.C. Dorothy’ journey there symbolizes the ultimately futile hope of farmers for help from government.
A different line of interpretation see the Wizard of Oz (especially the film) in psychoanalytic terms. Dorothy represents the transition from adolescence to adulthood. In a Jungian interpretation, the various characters in the film symbolize the various parts of Dorothy’s psyche that she must integrate into order to achieve full individuation. The scarecrow represents rationality, the tin man emotions, Glinda (the good witch) Dorothy’s ideal self, and so on.
These sorts of interpretations are not really about discerning the meaning of events within the film (e.g., how Dorothy proposes to deal with Miss Gulch after she wakes up from her dream). They are instead interested in grasping what I will call the film’s existential meaning–its message for the viewer.
The idea of existential meaning is that something can say more than what it seems to mean. There is, for instance, the example of rhetorical questions. When I was in high school, we thought it was hilariously funny to respond to questions having obvious answers with the rhetorical question, “Is the pope a Catholic?” Rhetorical questions show us that the meaning of a sentence goes far beyond its grammatical form and semantic content.
The interpretations of The Wizard of Oz discussed above all assume that it communicates at two (perhaps more) levels: At the level of narrative, it is the simple story of an adventure, a journey. As such, it is primarily an act of entertainment; it has no message for the audience, except perhaps homely bits of advice like “endure hardship” and “persevere in troubles.”
But at another level, The Wizard of Oz perhaps does contain a message or messages that bear on the audience’s existential situation. Perhaps the book really was a satire about Populism cast in the form of a children’s story. Perhaps it really does reflect the dynamics of the psyche, comparable to the way in which the original Star Wars films (episodes 4-6) reflect oedipal dynamics (the Luke Skywalker and his father theme).
Asking about the existential meaning of a film or text involves the viewer’s or reader’s situation. We can ask political or psychoanalytic questions about The Wizard of Oz because of our cultural situation. In our situation, those sorts of questions make sense. The text/film makes sense to us in those terms. It is, in a word, meaningful.
This means that reading a text or seeing a film is more than just receiving information. We do receive information from the text or film, but we do so according to our cultural situation. Our understanding of what the film/text is about is a process in which elements from the film/text are joined together by means of resources available in our culture. Put differently, we inevitably understand things according to our situation. Being embedded in our culture (really, cultures), we necessarily find the existential meaning of a film/text in its capacity to speak to us in our situation.
Here’s the point: The act of reading the Bible for its existential meaning (i.e., reading the Bible as the word of God) necessarily involves hearing it speak to us in our situation. Historical study of the Bible helps us to a limited extent get out of our cultural situation and enter into the thought-world of ancient people. This is necessary and important in order to appreciate the historical particularity of the Bible and to avoid manifestly bad interpretations.
But historical study cannot in itself yield the existential meaning of the Bible. For this sort of meaning, we have to engage the biblical text, not in the somewhat artificial guise of the historian, but as beings rooted in a particular, contemporary culture. Without this approach the Bible remains a historical artifact, like ancient coins and pottery.
Obviously, there is much more to be said on this subject.
8 thoughts on “The Reader’s Culture (part 2)”
Sam, have you said anything about what “meaning” “means?” What does it “mean” to “mean something?”
Well, there’s been a lot written about “meaning” and I don’t have anything new to contribute. Meaning is something that is easier to experience than it is to define. There is a phenomenological difference between hearing speech and hearing gibberish. The difference can be described logically in terms of syntax (or lack of syntax), but we experience the difference in a pretty direct way. What makes things complicated is that there are levels of meaning: A rhetorical question contains a syntactical meaning (the question understood as a request for information) and the cultural function of the rhetorical question (where it is not a question at all, but a statement or implied command). Parables and metaphors are other examples of multiple layers of meaning–again, easier to point to and experience than to define analytically.
About “meaning.” One thing comes to mind when I think of something “meaning” something. It is this: to say something means something is to say that it fits (or doesn’t fit) into my paradigm of thinking. That is, I can relate it to other thoughts. Either negatively (it doesn’t fit into my paradigm, but I can see that), or positively (it does fit with my other ideas) or ambiguously (that is, I’m not sure where/how it fits, but I know what it relates to).
An example I had this week might be the following. I was listening to a podcast about the “scientific revolution” and the case was made for the “disunity of science.” Now, that was an idea that I had never considered before, but it fit into the box (paradigm, structure) of thinking I have concerning “science” or the “philosophy of science.” It was a new thought, but it had a clear relationship to my other thoughts on the subject matter. One of dissonance with the ideas I had held before.
It had meaning because I could incorporate it into my structures of thought I already owned.
I think that this means that I can “compare and contrast” (point by point) the new idea with my current ideas on the subject.
I don’t know if this is true. But it is the way I think about what “meaning” means. I’m in the Com Dept. This is an area I need to consider well. This is a thought that has come to me just recently. It might be wrong. It needs testing. Therefore I offer it up.
Additionally, I really enjoyed your talking about levels of meaning for “The Wizard of Oz”. But, I don’t think that negates the Encoding>Artifact>Decoding way of thinking about communication. That layered (existential) meaning can be a part of the intended “encoding.” Unless you mean that the existential meaning really was never consciously in the mind of the “encoder.”
I guess the main point I want to make is that the work of the receiver/reader/hearer is more than a mechanical process of decoding. It’s not like turning Morse code dots and dashes into letters. Besides whatever decoding goes on, the reader’s world-view has a lot to do what what is received and how it is received. That is why there is more to interpreting the Bible that just knowing the vocabulary and grammar of the text. What I’m working toward in this chapter is trying to understand debates such as that about slavery, where, in order to understand how people interpreted the Bible, we have to consider beliefs and practices of the interpreters that (at least in some cases) lay outside the Bible.
Agreed with everything you say. I like the “morse code” analogy. Also, I’d add this question: “Is there a trajectory to the biblical thinking on some subjects?” That is, is there a progression of thinking on an issue from the earliest texts to the later ones? I can think of a couple. The idea of group guilt in Dt. gives way to individual guilt in Ezekiel. Or how about polytheism>henotheism>monotheism? Or, as you add, slavery. Was there progress on the issue of slavery in the bible, even if it never went all the way to “slavery is awful”?
This idea of a “trajectory of thinking” is missing in all fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism because of they way they read the text. The “proof-text” style of reading doesn’t encourage this kind of thinking or analysis. It is a very “morse code” kind of reading.
“to say something means something is to say that it fits (or doesn’t fit) into my paradigm of thinking. That is, I can relate it to other thoughts.” This really does get at a particular sort of “meaning.” Semantically, a sentence is meaningful (to me) if it fits into a language that I know. Even existential meaning works this way: a book or music can be deeply “meaningful” for me if it somehow relates to something in my life. There’s a case to be made for the thesis that “meaning” of all sorts is basically about relationality.
Agreed. Thanks for expanding that idea.