Postmodernism, Biblical Interpretation, Constitutional Interpretation, and What I Learned as an English Major
Can I save you people some time? This whole ‘what is the meaning of words?’ thing seems to me a very fruitless debate, so I’ll settle it. There is an intended meaning of the text, which depends on the author, a literal meaning of the text, which depends on the language, a legally accepted meaning, which depends on court cases, and many more meanings. The discussion about an ‘inherit’ meaning is probably half quibbling over the definition of ‘meaning.’ If we are to interpret texts, we need to choose the most appropriate meaning for the situation, which can admittedly be difficult. But trying to find a one-size-fits-all meaning for all situations is a fool’s task. Dan, I disagree with your implication that the intended meaning is 1) too unknowable to be useful and 2) irrelevant. I also disagree that the implication that interpreted meanings are more a factor of one’s world view than of the literal meaning.
(I’m pretty sure this is a reasonable amount to tackle in one post.)
SDS posted a quote from Clarence Thomas, which included:There are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution — try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up
Hilker commented,Insert “Bible” for “constitution” in Thomas’ quote.
This raises a few questions about appropriate authority to give to the views of the authors of our texts.
The old, Romantic view is that the authors were inspired and god-like men who had a special ability to reach into the void and pull forth art or meaning. This view properly fell out of use a bit over a hundred years ago. In an age where everybody who’s anybody has a blog and writes things there regularly, it’s pretty hard to believe that all authors have access to a special fount of mystical meaning. The author is a person who, for better or worse, slapped a bunch of words together. Over time, the work is commented on, interpreted, performed, analyzed, and discussed. Culture and language change. The plays we read today may have roughly the same words as the ones Shakespeare wrote—but there are countless layers of meaning that have been added and forgotten. When one of Freud’s disciples claimed Hamlet had an Oedipus complex it suddenly became impossible to perform Hamlet without somehow interracting with that claim. And yet, for certain texts, a lot of people insist that we should pay special attention to the intent of the author. This presumes a few things.
- The author is known
- The author’s intent is knowable
- The author’s intent has a special meaning
- The author’s preferred meaning is only—or at least—the best meaning
Who wrote the Bible?
This is a question with a factual answer—but it’s not always an easy one. Most books in the Bible have a traditional author—but (unless you take this extrabiblical tradition on faith) the evidence is pretty thin. Many (like Psalms) might have been written by many people and compiled later. Similarly, the U.S. Constitution was written as a deliberative process. It’s not always clear where one particular wording originated.
What were the founding fathers thinking?
They were thinking a lot of things. They disagreeed frequently. As Thomas Jefferson would say if he were here, “The Founding Fathers had diverse views, so you can find a writing by one of them to reasonably back pretty much any position you want to take.” Wait. Would Jefferson really have said that or did I usurp the position of reverence we give to Jefferson in order to support my own position? It was the latter. Thus it is every time somebody talks about the intent of the founding fathers.
Dumbledore is Gay
A while back J.K. Rowling suggested in an interview that beloved Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore’s dark secret included a homosexual relationship with a dark magician. This incited the expected praise and outrage from the appropriate corners. Did this suddenly make Dumbledore gay? Did Dumbledore know the dark wizard carnally?
No. Dumbledore is a fictional character. He doesn’t exist. He can’t know anybody carnally or otherwise. A buch of words appear in a book. We read those words and a world comes to life in our heads. If what happens in our heads is different than what Rowling intended to happen in our heads, are we wrong? No. We might be illiterate—but the whole work is fiction. None of it happened. Why should we have a particular deference to the thoughts of the person who put the words on the page?
So why do we particularly care what the founding fathers thought? They’re dead. They won’t be offended if we disagree with them. And we do disagree with them. Many of them were slave-owners. While they may have been progressive for their times, they would be (by any standard) regressive for ours. Why should the author be able to stretch a dead hand from the grave to tell us what to think? If a particular view is wrong—does it really matter if the founding fathers were also wrong?
Now, the Bible is a bit different. If the Bible is an inspired text, perhaps the inspired authors have some special bearing on it. And perhaps the inspired authors were part of an inspired culture. But that’s making a whole lot of unwarranted assumptions. We can cut out a lot of middlemen if we stick as close to the text as possible. The writers of the text chronicled a number of invents. Generally, the events were the important part, not the writers and the cultural era the writer wrote about. Nothing in the Bible suggests that we should strive to recreate the prejudices of that era.
How then can anything have meaning?
Meaning comes from the same place it did before. We read something. It means something to us. We read different things and it takes on a new meaning. We discuss it with others and it takes on a third meaning. Ultimately, we’re responsible for our thoughts—even when we pretend somebody else is. It’s convenient enough to justify prejudices or bad ideas by saying somebody important shared that prejudice or bad idea—but ultimately we’re always going to interpret a text in light of our own convictions and desires. If the text is as inspired as we hope it is—it can influence our convictions. And if the Founding Fathers are as bright as they’re supposed to be, their ideas should be worth adopting on their own merits. We don’t need some mystical-dead-guy-power to tell us what is allowed to mean something. We already have all the tools we need.