Repost: Meaning, the Thick and Thin of It

In teaching freshman about the Bible, I am constantly made aware of how odd Scripture is to them. This is true not only of the high number of students who have little experience with the Bible, but also with the “Sunday School” kids. The distance, in many cases, between their world and the world of Scripture, makes it difficult for them to make sense of what they are reading. This “gap” might be characterized many ways. The sheer size of the historical gap between text and reader means negotiating significant cultural, cosmological, literary, and theological differences–not to mention spiritual ones.

Readers of the Bible have tried many strategies to overcome these differences. Most recent “critical” strategies for interpreting Scripture have emphasized the historical gap. How do we understand a document written thousands of years ago? This is a fair question. The answer given by the majority of biblical scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries began with limiting the amount of light shed on the text from our side of the historical divide. We needed, through the use of an objective, “scientific” method, to free our readings from our own prejudices. These prejudices came not only from our own personal biases, but also from the tradition-laden readings we inherited along the way. Alexander Campbell captured this commitment when he wrote that he hoped to read Scripture as if no one else had read it before.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to critique this reading impulse. I want to note here only one. It collapses the encounter of the text with the contemporary reader. The question, what is the text saying to me, is postponed in favor of the question, what was the author saying to the original audience. Now, this business of an author and original audience has its place. I am interested in that question and the answers revealed can be revolutionary in producing understanding. It is not a question we should abandon.

Still, there are problems inherent in the question. We have no direct access either to the intention of the author or the original audience. This move to focus on the world that produced the text, the world of author-original audience, was hoped to provide a foundation–an objective place– for assessing the enduring meaning of a text (usually expressed as an idea). The irony is that it threw us into a largely hypothetical world of historical reconstruction. For some issues of interpretation, this is a fairly productive preoccupation. But for others, not so much.

I have been reading a draft of my friend, Sara Barton’s, forthcoming book (which is very good) on her struggle as a woman to find a place for certain public gifts she believes are given to her by God. She has to contend with texts that seem on their face to speak against her being able to exercise those gifts. Often in the book, she has taken up issues related to the world that produced the text. And while her readings find support in the world of historical-critical scholarship, the fact is a dozen other equally plausible readings could be offered. We know a fair amount about the world of Corinth (not nearly as much as we do with more literate cultures, however), for instance, but not enough it seems to reconstruct with exact certainty the situations being addressed. We are left with a seemingly endless set of hypotheticals. Helpful, but falling short of the standard of objective or foundational.

And as Paul Ricouer and others have pointed out, this business of authorial intention is extremely problematic, and at several levels. What we have once the ink is dry is a text and not an author. And while our best clues about the author’s intentions, especially one dead for 2000 years, is the text itself, what we have is the text, not the author.

Again, I want to be careful here. I think its important to ask what the author is up to, even if we can’t know for sure. And I also think that the text is the best place to get after that, rather than through elaborate historical reconstructions. (See Richard Hays on this point).

So, what’s my problem? Good question. Here’s how I want to say it now. This business of isolating meaning in relation to the original intention of the author possesses a strong view of the author, a weak view of the text, and a weak view of the reader. It places the weight bearing load of interpretation on the beam least capable of supporting such a load–the hypothetical world of authorial intention. I don’t want to jettison this line of pursuit. I want to mitigate its headlock on our understandings of how meaning is created in this mosh-pit of author-text-reader. (Sorry about the metaphor overload). I want the mosh-pit.

To switch the image, this way of understanding interpretation is a thin strategy. It reduces the world of significance making by at least half, locating it in the world that produced the text rather than in the world being created in front of the text. And the biggest thing here from my point of view is that this is simply a naive way of understanding understanding. Making meaning is a thick enterprise–always. And especially when it happens between persons or perspectives without shared cultural perspectives.

Finally, I think this thin strategy fails precisely at the place it matters most–saying how it is that a text, in all of its textiness, could be connected to a living God. And when I figure out how to say this part well, we’ll have another blog post.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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One Response to Repost: Meaning, the Thick and Thin of It

  1. Samuel says:

    That has always been the sticky place huh? Whatever scripture you’re talking about, Torah, Koran, etc.. Defining “Inspired scripture” is the scary thing, especially when a person’s conditioning is at stake, not to mention possibly their current career choice. Maybe when you tell yourself what you think it is.. is a good start ^^

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