What I Tell You Three Times Is True

Quadriga Nothing will protect you from interpretive error. No way of reading will ensure that you’ve understood or implemented the text correctly. You can, however, increase the likelihood of a sound or commendable interpretation in a number of ways. Most of them boil down to “loving what you’re interpreting so much that you willingly, eagerly, seek out more and more aspects and dimensions of the text” (here, “the text” meaning in the principal case “the Bible”, but more generally “whatever you’re interpreting, whether a gesture, a pastry, a painting, a film, a poem, whatever). When I was a kid, I so loved baseball that I wanted to understand it inside out. I played some — as well as my athletic gifts permitted, which mostly meant “throwing a tennis ball against the strike zone chalked on the outside wall of the gym while pretending I was pitching for the Orioles,” although there was also a catastrophic year of Little League. I attended baseball camp and was advised by coaches and sometimes real baseball players (!!). I watched a lot of ball games. I studied baseball history. I analysed baseball, in the way one did before the advent of sabermetrics. I played, devised, refined, and played again a series of baseball simulations. I understood a lot about baseball from exploring, considering, studying, trying (and failing), and keeping at it. In no way was my understanding definitively correct, but my interpretations of baseball depended on specific reasons I could cite and explain.

Likewise my understanding of the Bible has been enhanced by study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, by learning about the ways that generations of readers have construed it, by observing ways that artists have represented it, by observing and participating in the organised practice of shaping community life more closely to reflect what we read therein, and so on. If I were to say, “I love baseball, but I hate mathematical analysis of it” (as many people do), one could make a plausible case that my appreciation of baseball was limited by that disavowal. Likewise, if I were to say that I love the Bible, but only in the way that the churches have received it over the millennia — not in the light of what we may for heuristic purposes call disinterested historical analysis — we provide a prima facie reason for an observer to think our love of the Bible is limited, and we as much as admit that our understanding of the Bible is limited, too. In the end, some dimensions of the text and its interpretation will matter more to us for particular purposes and in particular settings. The rules of baseball are not especially fascinating as literary prose, but understanding and applying them carefully requires thorough study. One can certainly say “The baseball rules are dull as dishwater” while at the same time endeavouring conscientiously to make sure that a baseball game is played in compliance with those rules. One can even propose a poetic reading of the rules that brings out the admirable geometry of the physical dimensions of the playing field (nonetheless subject to variation in the pattern of the outfield walls and the proximity of the stands to the field), the rhetoric of reticence which studiously recoils from identifying a player or team by name, the force of the repetitive invocation of earlier rules in the later stages of the nomothetic corpus — but I doubt such an endeavour would win assent from many readers. Your poetry teacher, the ardent baseball fans among more than a hundred years of literary appreciation of baseball, and current audiences all would agree that your ardour for the poetics of the Official Baseball Rules was misplaced, and that your high estimate of their poetic qualities was erroneous. Although nothing will protect us from interpretive error, the best way to minimise the likelihood that we stray from sound interpretation into outlandish folly requires us earnestly to seek out as much as we can learn about the texts we care for, and to consider them on their merits, in consultation with other learners, with broad horizons of possibility, and articulate our interpretations carefully.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page