The Hazards of Reading on a Battlefield


BibleAs she worked her way toward the front of the room, I could tell the young woman was really angry at me. Her eyes were blazing and her jaw was set. This was surprising because the setting was fairly benign: speaking to a large evangelical church’s singles group on “How to Interpret the Bible.” At the beginning of my two times with them, however, I was already offending the troops! I braced myself.

Twenty-four-year-old “Janet” (not her real name) was angry at my emphasis on seeking to discover authors’ intentions when we read their texts. She was an evangelical Christian and a second grade teacher in a public school. She prided herself in helping her 20 students learn to love literature. She would read them a story as they gathered around her, and then ask each child, “What does the story mean to you?” She prodded them to come up with their own unique meanings. With such strong encouragement, the class of 20 would eventually have 20 different meanings for the one story. Janet sensed that I was a naysayer about such “love of literature.” Pouring a little emotional gasoline on the fire, I said, “Janet, you’re certainly doing your part to insure that these 7-year-olds will never recover from a radically relativistic view of meaning!” Now I had her full attention.

Actually, Janet’s and my little story about where a text’s meaning resides is really part of a larger, more tangled story that’s over a hundred years old. It started with some American literary critics early in the 20th century who shifted the focus from the author to the text. This literary perspective, later called “New Criticism,” banished the author and focused instead on a “close reading” or “explication” of the text. When created, a text supposedly becomes an artifact with autonomy and a life of its own. The autonomous text’s meaning is discovered by studying its organic unity. New Criticism triumphed in the United States from about 1930 to 1960. As the text moved into the spotlight, authors were shuffled to the periphery.

But to understand Janet’s and my little discussion we need to know the story from 1960 to the present. This is because the movement away from authors did not stop at the text. Rather, it continued its movement all the way to us as readers. In the last 40 years, reading and interpreting has been redefined from seeking the intentions of authors through reading their texts to continually recreating the text through the presuppositions of readers. Since the 1960s the emphasis has shifted to the astonishing assumption that readers not only create the meaning, but also in some sense create the text itself through the contouring of their presuppositions! With this view none of us can really share the same text!

The classical view of meaning is that a text is a window into an author’s intentions. For example, we peer through the window of the biblical text to interpret what the Divine and human authors intend to say. By contrast, the Postmodern sense is that a text is a mirror by which readers generate meaning. Janet was holding up a mirror to her second graders and encouraging them to generate their own meanings in light of their own images. The irony is that this does not teach a “love of literature,” but rather fosters a narcissistic fascination with one’s own thoughts! If this is how Christians interpret the meaning of the Bible, then we are trapped within our own mirrors — our own set of presuppositions. We are not hearing God’s voice, only our own. We are trapped inside our own heads.

The first problem with this view of meaning is that any positive presentation of it is self-refuting. In order to communicate “readers create meaning,” relativistic authors have to scab off of the real world and the way meaning actually works to communicate their relativistic ideas. In other words, they expect us to interpret accurately their authorial intention that readers can’t get to authorial intention! Or approach it from another perspective: If you’re a student, ask your professor who expounds this view of meaning to reread your paper on which she gave you a D until she creates a meaning for it worthy of an A. Say that it’s unfair that she graded you harshly for her poor reader-generated meaning! No one can live a world where readers generate meaning because it doesn’t exist.

Another problem with the present relativism in meaning in the West is the very fact that it is in the West. The 30 percent of the world that lives in the West has reaped the bitter fruit of a 500-year march toward extreme individualism. Those of us born right after World War II have reached the lunatic fringe in living out a radical and narcissistic self-absorption. It has destroyed our marriages, families, churches, national cohesion, and meaningful sense of community.

The good news is that our children have sensed the futility of this radical perspective and are saying, “No mas. We don’t want to deny the group dimension of ourselves anymore. We want to have meaningful connections with one another. We want to have stable community and long-lasting relationships.”

Good move. Now simply stop denying the corporate dimension of language too! Recognize that words, ideas, and genres are public, sharable things that we use in order to communicate with one another. While an individual intersects with them, the components of language are essentially group-oriented things. They make individual communication possible. While we complicate the interpretive process with our individual presuppositions, they are not an insurmountable barrier. We simply recognize the “fuzzing” that our presuppositions can cause and seek to use good interpretive methods to transcend any clouding they may bring.

The Church in the West has been deeply impacted by this misunderstanding of meaning. We need go no further than the main question we ask when interpreting the Bible: “What does this verse mean to you?” The trickle-down of a century of bad interpretive theories has led to our widespread relativistic interpretation of the Bible. We have been profoundly wounded in the midst of the spiritual warfare that has surrounded the issue of meaning. Our anti-intellectualism has actually increased the casualty list. Another culprit is our naiveté about the setting in which we read. We read right in the middle of a remarkable spiritual battlefield. While the casualties are initially more subtle, they are ultimately more obvious. The spiritual warfare is blazing around us. It has effectively neutralized the greatest wealth of Bible study resources available in the history of the Church. Not by preventing their publication, but by undercutting their usefulness with a relativistic view of meaning! Why do I need a Bible dictionary to help determine Paul’s meaning in Philippians 1:6 if the ultimate trump card is what it means to me? How brilliantly diabolical and strategic such a view of meaning is. It effectively cuts us off from God’s voice and imprisons us within our own voice. It is Satan’s ancient question, “Indeed, has God said? …” in postmodern dress.

Perhaps it is no overstatement to imagine that when you pick up your Bible and start reading it, you are instantly transported to the field of spiritual battle. Perhaps that funny odor is not burning pizza but flaming arrows; perhaps you need to avoid being a casualty! Probably not a bad idea also to be fighting for the right army! These are just some of the hazards of reading on a battlefield.

Walt Russell is a New Testament professor at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and is author of Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (NavPress, 2000).