The Art of Reading

I get frustrated with conversations along the lines of the following: we cannot really know the meaning in the text because we cannot know the mind of the author. This seems to be a prideful statement clothed in supposed humility. If that is the case, why do these people write books? Why do I even blog?! If you cannot know what I am saying through the words that I write, why do I write to begin with! The Bible is full of propositional statements. Statements consisting of do this, do not do this; go here, do not go here, etc. As I read them, I have no trouble understanding that I am not to kill, lie, steal, commit adultery, etc. I know what they mean, even though I do not know the mind of the author, namely God.

I do not pretend to think that there are no problems with language. It is not perfect and I recognize that. But this imperfection is not an excuse to throw the baby out with the bath water. Albeit there are language deficiencies, this does not give us the right to cast aside meaning. It is possible to understand what is read adequately. We do not need God-like knowledge to know and understand what the Bible says; when we read it we know that “Thou shall not kill” means exactly what it says. There is no ambiguity in this statement.

Now there are ambiguous statements in the Bible. But the presence of ambiguous statements does not disqualify the whole of Scripture as ambiguous. I guess this is more of what I am getting at. There is a meaning in the text. The author has a specific intent in writing what he does (i.e. God has an intent in writing Scripture through his writers, who also have an intent). Words are not thrown together in hopes that a “community” will come along and solve the textual puzzle that the author has left. Readers do play a part in reading, but what they do not do is create meaning. The meaning of a text lies dormant until a reader comes along and interprets what the author has written.

4 thoughts on “The Art of Reading

  1. I got into this kind of a discussion with my aunt (who is not a believer). We were discussing the deity of Jesus, and I quoted John 1.1. She accused me of quoting it only because it had some meaning to me….she said words don’t have intrinsic meaning….so, why were we even talking??

    I need to read that VanHoozer book again!!!

  2. I totally agree bro. I hate that “masked humility” that contemporary people play on their inability to understand the intent of the author. It is pure nonsense and totally contradicts the very notion of communication via words. In any case, what conversation took place that made you vent over the subject?

  3. This whole philosophy originated with Roland Barthes in 1960s France. He published a book called “The Death of the Author,” arguing that a text can hold a variety of meanings so that the author has “died” as the determinant of what his work should mean and the reader has been “born” as the new interpreter of a range of subjective meanings. He was really just rebelling against the previous obsession with structuralism (invented by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 20th c.).

    Transport these ideas to the intellectually insecure American public (why do we always look to the French to interpret the world for us?), wait several decades, and now people cling to it as if they knew the certainty of its origins. In any case, I would recommend reading directly from Barthes’ work to understand this trend rather than going through a mediatory work.

  4. Wittgenstein has got a dog in the fight, too. He, of course, would say that the words do not have an infinite amount of possible meanings. They are confined to a particular set, but how small the set I’m unsure. He argued that the text didn’t have some intrinsic, external truth to it though. I still haven’t been able to wrap my mind around this. I mean, he obviously wanted me to get a particular meaning out of the choice of words he used when writing his book….why is it that other authors are different? Dr. Bruce Ashford at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote his dissertation on Wittgenstein’s impact on Theology. If you want to read a dissertation, this would be the one to read.

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