One of the required texts for my current graduate class is Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics by Kaiser and Silva. In chapter 2 of that text, Kaiser reviews the current trends in literary criticism and their effects on biblical scholarship. It’s not my purpose here to rehash or review that information. Rather it is to distill one key idea of contemporary literary criticism and examine it critically for its wider implications. That idea is: The original intent of a text’s author and the meaning as understood by the text’s original audience are irrelevant for determining the meaning of a text.
Take a moment and think about that idea.
I have been a writer — of one sort or another — since I was in elementary school. In that time, I’ve had a lot of good teachers and a few excellent ones. In that time, I’ve also had a lot of practice at writing, in both academic and non-academic settings. And those teachers and that experience have taught me that good writing does two things: (1) It clearly and concisely makes its point and (2) It is tailored to an audience. In other words, generally speaking, a good writer knows what he wants to say and to whom he wants to say it.
I had a writing teacher in college who constantly reminded his students that, “All writing is an attempt to persuade.” That sentiment, I believe, is an accurate one. Most things worth reading are trying to communicate some idea or ideas. It’s one of the things that makes being a reader, a writer, and a scholar so exciting — the opportunity to involve oneself in important and interesting conversations (even if you think yourself to be unimportant or uninteresting).
Restating what I just wrote above in a different way, I could say that good writers have a clear sense of an idea that they want their readers to believe or accept. And, the writer must know something about the audience he’s trying to convince in order to make a clear and convincing argument.
But our friends in the world of academic textual criticism want you to believe that those two important aspects of a good piece of writing are irrelevant to understanding that piece’s meaning. They want you and I to believe that in order to really understand a text, we actually have to disregard what the writer was trying to say and how he said it in order to convince the audience he was writing to. And we also have to disregard all the cultural and historical contexts that would help us understand why the audience (and writer) thought how they thought — that is, why the author believed his argument was a good, effective, or necessary one.
Maybe I’ve already convinced you of my argument. But I’m going to keep going.
Few contemporary examples of this insanity are as illustrative as the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
[Editorial Note: I’m going out on a limb here, given the topic of this post, and assuming the reader has some knowledge of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the reasons why it’s included in the canon of American literature. If that assumption is misplaced, I apologize and please read here and here.]
There is never any shortage of people who want to toss Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the trash, and for the most part, their arguments for doing so are always the same. They use arguments like:
- Stowe employed common racial stereotypes in her descriptions of characters.
- Stowe portrayed Tom as overly submissive and forgiving, rather than active, autonomous, and fighting back against his oppressors.
- Stowe wrote in overly-sentimental language that dampened the real nature of slavery in the United States.
Critics of Stowe can pass these judgments on her because they’re intentionally ignoring her intent and the understanding of her audience at the time Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. The facts are that Stowe employed those racial stereotypes because that was the cultural milieu of her audience. She wanted her arguments to be intelligible to the people she was writing to. Her audience probably wouldn’t have paid attention to her arguments if she’d made every African-American character look like Fredrick Douglas, instead of their common perception of a Black, Southern slave. And her sentimental, heavily-Christianized storytelling was purposeful as well. She was intentionally trying to transform the audience’s image of Tom into one of Christlikeness. She was writing to a largely Christian audience and she wanted Tom’s character to be identified with Christ’s character in terms her audience could understand. Her purpose — arguably accomplished — was for her Christian audience to see Tom’s humanity, the imago dei, that society had ignored for centuries.
But let’s ban Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Let’s remove it from our schools and libraries because, hey, we’re morally and intellectually superior to the 19th Century woman who employed stereotypes (racial, gender, and societal) in order to fight back against them. We understand her writing more than she did. Who cares that she helped turned public opinion against slavery?
But the implications of this method for reading written texts goes beyond what books we read in our classrooms. Here, I want to focus on one specific implication in relation to law and public policy.
Western Civilization, generally, and American civilization, specifically, is largely based on written texts. The Bible — and its derivative written texts — were an early, written source for the ideas upon which our civilization was based. Later, many of the ideas underlying the Protestant Reformation — and its implications for how individuals interacted with written texts — eventually led to the foundational ideas upon which North American civilization and culture were based.
In today’s society, our laws and public policy documents are integral to the way we live our lives. Our basic conceptualizations about freedom and liberty are based on the idea that the law should be accessible, that it should apply equally to everyone, and that it can be challenged through legal process.
None of those things — not our concept of liberty, not our underlying legal structures, not our civilization in general — would even exist if the original intent and meaning of written texts were not fundamental to understanding them. How can I challenge an assertion of guilt according to a legal text if the meaning of that legal text is entirely subjective and detached from the intention of the law itself? How can I remain silent when faced with that accusation of guilt when the Fifth Amendment cannot be comprehended within its original intent? How can courts, legislatures, executives, anyone interpret the laws and policies of our nation, state, or town if one of the basic methods for legal interpretation (legislative and original intent) is invalid?
And that’s why I must assert that it’s reasonable to conclude that our contemporary secular world is probably insane. It’s basing its philosophy on assertions that seek to destroy the foundations on which that philosophy is built.
I could point out other assertions. For example, I could point out that, like most postmodern philosophical propositions, this one is self-defeating. If the idea that authorial intent and an audience’s original sense is irrelevant to the meaning of a text, and that idea is itself expressed in a written text, then the idea itself is meaningless because it cannot mean what those original philosophers meant it to mean.
I could also assert that propositions like these are hallmarks of undesirable characteristics — especially in scholars and intellectuals. Characteristics like stupidity, because how could one possibly make assertions like this that fly in the face of common sense. Part of philosophy is reflecting deeply, but regardless of how deeply one reflects, one must reject ideas like this one that cannot be connected to our actual experience in the real world.
Another characteristic that might be assumed from assertions like this is the one of laziness. Ideas — if that’s truly what these are — like this represent what could be construed as intellectual laziness. Why bother trying to understand a text in context and find its original meaning before trying to apply its meaning to contemporary contexts? Instead, just assert that original intent is meaningless and make something up on your own that fits your own existing presuppositions? Why go through the tough mental tasks involved in having your presuppositions and worldview challenged? What profitable thing could come from that?
Rather than making those, possibly offensive, conclusions, I’d rather just settle on insanity. Because in my estimation, only insanity would drive anyone to dismantle all meaning in one’s life, community, or society.
The bigger point, of course, is that ideas have meaning, they do matter. When academics make up propositions like the one I’ve tried to briefly examine here, they can and do leak outside the world of theory and into the world of practice. In theory, anything is possible, but in practice we are limited and must construct useful and meaningful structures that allow people to navigate as freely as possible. And that’s simply not possible when we deny meaning to the structures.
I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about this topic, but for now this is a brief summation of the thoughts I had when interacting with this information recently.