Category Archives: Hermeneutics

… A Thousand Steps Begins…

HoopoeIn the past few weeks, I’ve sent away three four pieces for consideration/publication. At such a pace, I’m sure that not every paragraph is well-formed; that’s the price for getting work off my desk in a summer overshadowed by the clouds from the deaths of Margaret’s dad and my mother. If something is accepted, I can see about fine-tuning it a bit.

I’ve also started preparing a proposal for my book about interpretation theory. I’m a bit embarrassed to say what I expect to call it. There’s a story behind that awkwardness. Way, way back, a long time ago, Charles Cosgrove asked me to write a piece for a collection of essays he was compiling. I had recently been thinking about challenges to my thinking about interpretation from Kevin Vanhoozer and others, who stoutly upheld the pivotal importance of a single-meaning theory; in a flash, I made the verbal connection between my thinking on that topic and the sorts of calculus, so I called the essay ‘Integral and Differential Hermeneutics.’ The point, as I was deliberating at that time, was simply to contrast a theory that requires one single point of legitimate reference, to a theory that acknowledges that there will always be multiple divergent interpretive conclusions that depend for their ‘legitimacy’ on the contexts from which they emerge, to which they are addressed.

So over the years since then, on the relatively uncommon occasions when somebody remembered an essay I had written (especially things that don’t, sigh, have ‘postmodern’ in the title), people would often say something such as ‘Oh, right, differential hermeneutics.’ I confess that rather than graciously appreciating the fact that they remembered the piece at all, I found it a little irksome. In my imagination, ‘I & D H’ was an occasional piece that didn’t really tackle the hard problems of subsistent meaning, of the code metaphor, and reception history, and so on. In fact, I’ve posted here before to the effect of ‘Woe is me, I don’t have a convenient label for the kind of hermeneutics I propose.’

A couple of weeks ago, the clouds in my brain parted for a moment and I saw that if (a) people remember my contribution under the heading of ‘differential hermeneutics’ and (b) my approach really is oriented very directly at the question of plurality in interpretation, and (c) one of the challenges I’ve had in putting this prospective book together has been ‘But what shall I call it?’ (moan, moan) — then really, as a title, Differential Hermeneutics has a lot going for it. Thus, the book proposal under the title of Differential Hermeneutics has been taking shape, and it seems good and viable, and various bits of it are essentially already written (I will need to rewrite essays to fit the monograph setting, but will not need to create all of it wholesale). And that means I’m getting ready to talk to publishers (University publishers first, for political reasons).

On the other hand, having closed the book (as it were) on four essays, I find that this morning my brain feels a bit wrung out. There’s one other piece I need to flesh out and send away, but that will wait another day or so (and will wait till I hear back from someone about permissions). Plus — I blogged today!

I’m All Right, Jacques

Since everyone knows that ‘postmodernism’ means ‘anything goes, nothing is true, everything is permitted’, the latest outbreak of unmitigated flagrant prevarication from the new inhabitant of the White House has engendered an unseasonable tsunami of the threadbare ‘see what happens when postmodernists blah blah blah’ fustian and twaddle. I thought — having lived through it once in the 80s and 90s, when Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s evasiveness and lies were blamed on the likes of Derrida and Foucault — this canard of popular rhetoric had flown north for good. Honestly, can you imagine W. sitting in a classroom at Yale reading Of Grammatology and saying, ‘I understand this well enough to put it into practice by claiming that there actually are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’? Honestly?

Of course, the ironic advantage of the ‘blame it on the French’ trope is that it plays on exactly the ignorance and the suspicion of complicated ideas that fund the post-truth propaganda brigade. And the denunciations of Parisian intellectuals come, to a large extent, from the same constituencies who support the political fraudmongers.

Let’s take a slow, deep breath and recollect a few things (we won’t call them ‘facts’, lest someone have a seizure).

    • Politicians did not invent ‘lying’ only after reading Discipline and Punish. Emperors, tyrants, kings, presidents, premiers, prime ministers, duchi, and Führer have propagated bald-faced lies pretty much as long as there have been political leaders.

    • Has anyone read Machiavelli lately? Or the Bible?

    • Perhaps somebody is confused and thinks that French theorists developed a complicated positive rationale for lying. Not much to say about this except ‘if you care so much about truthfulness, I strongly recommend that you read some of the relevant sources carefully and base your ciritcism on, you know, something they wrote rather than your general impression of rilly compluhcated stuff’.

    • To the specific point: are there ‘facts’ any more? Sure there are. Sorry to pop your ballon. But ‘facts’ may be more complicated than you want them to be — even the most obvious, most basic, most fact-y facts. Many matters one or another of us wants to call a ‘fact’ has been questioned by thoughtful, intelligent people on the other side of whatever aisle. Simply calling it a fact doesn’t advance an argument, nor does insisting in a loud voice that it really is a fact. Calling something a ‘fact’ works only if one’s interlocutor agrees, in which case it’s trivial.
    If we disagree about whether X or Y is a fact, we may just shout at one another and call each other names. Or, more productively, we can specify the reasons we regard X as a fact. We can cite the studies on the basis of which 97% climate scientists assert that the earth’s temperature is rising to dangerous levels, and our interlocutor can say… whatever it is people say when 97% of scientists think they’re wrong.

    • What if, instead of getting our undergarments knotted, when we want to talk about ‘facts’ we were to talk about ‘evidence’ instead? We know from the start that ‘evidence’ is a contested category (ask Johnnie Cochrane and Marcia Clark); but we can argue about evidence, about what it is and what it isn’t, about which evidence outweighs what). Talking about evidence leads us into arguments, the good kind, the kind where we exchange ideas and interpretations, the kind that can clarify the premises we are starting from, the warrants on which we’re relying, the pros and cons of the various interpretations of things on which we agree.

Philip K. Dick famously defined reality as that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away. That should do well enough for ‘facts’ as well; if you don’t step off a ten-floor building expecting to waft gently to the ground, we can safely treat gravitational attraction as a fact (even though gravitational attraction is a lot more complicated than we learned in secondary-school physics — if I wanted to, I could write a little piece about ‘there’s no such thing as gravity’, but I don’t have the energy and someone might think I actually was arguing that there’s no such thing as gravity).

Does that mean everything is only someone’s perspective on facts (no ‘facts’ as such)? Maybe, if you’re in an actual argument about whether something counts as a fact. But no, not if you and your interlocutor both stay on the safe side of tenth-floor roofs, both eat apples but not arsenic, both wash with (mildly alkaline) soap rather than battery acid.

Getting back to the number of people at the US presidential inauguration on Friday, let’s set aside the terminology of facts for a moment. We can talk about evidence that the National Mall was more crowded Saturday than Friday: photographs, use of the public transit system, eyewitness accounts. If we agree that some of these count as evidence, we can weigh and compare the bits of evidence to see whether we can come up with agreed ‘facts’. But if, hypothetically, you refuse to acknowledge anything I introduce as evidence — my photos are faked, even if they come directly from the federal government itself, my transit statistics reflect a big, huge sale on waterbeds at a local department store and not the Women’s March, the eyewitnesses are all liars — then the language of reality or factuality doesn’t do any work any more. But that’s nothing whatsoever to do with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Jean-François Lyotard.

Let’s ask ‘evidence’ to do some of the heavy discursive lifting. And let’s start by asking what evidence there is that French theory is in any way more implicated in contemporary political codswallop than is the time-dishonoured tradition of lies and the lying liars who tell them. Show me a single reason to think that there’s more of a connection between Bill Clinton and Baudrillard than between Clinton and the dozens of other elected officials who have lied about having affairs. Show me a trace of evidence that Deleuze and Guattari influenced the Bush and Blair administrations’ determination to sex up reports on the missile capabilities of Saddam Hussein’s government. Show me a single reason to think that the world was more inclined to truthfulness in the days of Richard Nixon, or John Profumo, or Joe McCarthy, and that French theory can be implicated in that decline from honesty.

I can wait.

* Note: I am not a French person, or a fully-credentialled philosopher, and although people who know about me in a general way often associate me with ‘postmodernism’ I have no stake in being regarded as ‘a postmodernist’ nor even in composing an apologetic for a thing you might call ‘postmodernism’. I care about careful reading and thinking, and I have been positively impressed by many writings that casual observers lump together under the artificial category heading of postmodernism, but my interest and allegiance depends solely on the extent to which so-called postmodern ideas help me explain philosophical and theological puzzles I encounter.

What Does It Mean To Be “As Objective As Possible”?

HoopoeIt’s become commonplace for biblical critics to concede readily that no one is truly objective — “but” (they say) “we must strive to be as objective as we can.” In the shower this morning I was wondering what this means. On one hand, if objectivity is impossible, striving for it amounts to an empty gesture. I may strive for universal acclaim, but I know that haters gonn’ hate, and “being applauded by a great many people” differs in significant ways from “universal acclaim.” How could one more precisely get at what people hope for when they say “we must strive to be as objective as we can”?

One may begin with the obvious: we mean that interpreters should aim at impartiality*, at not allowing commitments more remote to the interpretive question at hand to outweigh considerations more immediate to the question. (I prescind from saying “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” to avoid complicating one problem with another.) When an advocate of penal substitution says “This particular passage clearly draws on Christus Victor motifs,” I’m more inclined to believe her than if she says “This appears to promote a Christus Victor perspective on atonement, but really if you look at it correctly, it too requires a penal-substitution interpretation.” When somebody allows that this or that bit of evidence tells against their own interests, I’m more inclined to trust them than when they insist that all the evidence points their way. So, the discernment of the weight of considerations (“impartiality”) should matter greatly to interpreters. Is that most of what the common usage of “objective” gets at, or should I add further considerations?

[Later:] OK, “humility” should also matter. Interpretations demonstrate humility by acknowledging the good reasons that people have for arriving at divergent conclusions, and by avoiding the presumption that today’s best reading will endure forever as the definitive account of a particular text. I can trust an interpreter more if she has the sense of history and of human limitations that equips her to propose and advocate an interpretation on specified grounds, without explicitly or implicitly advancing the claim that now, the puzzle has been solved and we can hereafter move on to different issues.** Contrariwise, a responsible interpreter ought to be able to address a problem without disrespect to predecessors, without implying a claim on transcendent eternal correctness, without a tacit affirmation that one’s native culture has attained the only intellectual pinnacles worth ascending.

* “Impartiality” seems to share the characteristic of unattainability with “objectivity.” I doubt that I can make a case that there’s a fundamental difference, so I’ll reluctantly move away from using “impartiality.” If I did want to stick with “impartiality,” I might differentiate it from “objectivity” by according impartiality more of a practical significance: I may not be objective about the Baltimore Orioles, but if I were to serve as umpire for a baseball game I could impartially refuse to allow my lifelong support for the O’s (the first-place O’s) to affect my ball-and-strike calls. But some would probably dispute that usage and distinction, so I can opt out of using the terms.

** Except that everything I write about hermeneutics applies across all disciplines, forever, and resolves all problems in the field. I am deeply embarrassed (both intellectually and spiritually) by my failure of humility.

Not Dead Yet

HoopoeI had a small breakthrough in my thinking about my hermeneutical project yesterday morning before church, perhaps the most frustrating time for such an insight, since I absolutely had to be present at the beginning of the Blessings of Palms before the procession and Palm Sunday liturgy. I managed to scribble down what I think were the key notions, and — as my study leave begins sometime in the near future — I’ve made a plan to renew my blogging about “meaning”, along with posting some of the backlog of sermons and devotions I had left unposted.

One of the ideas that’s been rattling around my mind for ages has involved my not having a catchy label for what I’m about. That is in part a matter of stubborn vanity: I don’t want my ideas to gain a toehold (or a casual rejection) based mostly on the adjective appended to “hermeneutics” in a convenient tag. If you’re going to agree or disagree with me, I want you to have thought through my premises, not just ridiculed/embraced a fad. That’s almost pure vanity, of course; the world has lots to do, and keeping up with my random thoughts is not necessarily one of them. It’s my job to earn attention, not just stomp my tiny foot and demand it.

But I resist a label for other reasons as well. Whenever I think of a possible label, in the same moment I conceive a reason for that not being an apt characterisation of my project. “X Hermeneutics” — but it’s not really X, since people generally understand X to refer to this set of premises and activities that I’m calling into question. “Y Hermeneutics,” but Y isn’t a positive value for me, just an adventitious outcome. If someone suggested “Neti neti hermeneutics,” I’d have to concede that that might be the best alternative.

But as I think through the topics about which I want to write [eventually, if God permits me time], I realise that one way to wrangle the problem would take the shape of an essay/chapter that simply catalogues all the vaguely applicable alternatives I can imagine, and explaining their negations. So that’s now on my list (along with about fifty other things I need to write. Mercy, I hope I live long enough to write at least most of them.)

I realise after writing that last paragraph that I should note that the title of this post was meant to refer to the blog, not to me — but both senses do fit.

Short Bit from Sensuous Hermeneutics

A little more than a year ago, I gave a talk at Oxford fortnightly seminar on The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature (hosted by the Centre for Reception History of the Bible). Once upon a time, I’d have posted the transcript of the talk here right away, but no longer being a diligent blogger, I left that in abeyance. It would be handy, though, for the blog to link to the paper — so here is a link to the paper at which should last for a while, together with a taster paragraph to convey part of what I was getting at in the discussion (sadly, probably much less convincing without the accompanying visual presentation):

No one signifying practice controls a uniquely privileged methodological or ethical key to interpretive legitimacy; within each interpretive practice, indigenous conventions will raise up some interpretations as sounder and more compelling, and will discountenance others as uninteresting, poorly-executed, unsound. In order to have made sense of everything we have experienced in all our lives, we must have had viable conventions and criteria by which we venture and assess interpretations. The same capacities will serve us well as we undertake interpretations of the Bible; though we may falter at first, and err more often than we would like, we will in short order be able to acclimatise ourselves to interpretations authorised on the strength of characteristics that do not depend primarily on their deference to an unreachable “correct” meaning.


If you try to understand hermeneutics in order to control interpretations, you will neither control interpretations nor understand hermeneutics.

If all you want to do is to understand interpretations, your hermeneutics can reach deep and explain much. Your hermeneutics won’t help you control interpretations — but you’ve forgone that anyway.

Embarrassed By Improbability

HoopoeMy Baltimore Orioles are about to play in the American League Divisonal Playoffs tonight, and the experts say that their opponents — the Detroit Tigers — should win the series. That’s OK with me; I never expected the Orioles to go this far, certainly not to finish first in the Easter division by twelve games over the New York Yankees. Based on everything that experts on baseball know, the Orioles’ season has been exceptionally improbable.

Since the Orioles have defied the odds this year, a great many people — some partisans of the O’s, some just ordinary sane sports fans — have wondered whether the experts reasoned incorrectly about the strength of the team. Especially since the Orioles have surpassed the experts’ estimates for three consecutive years, people suspect that there’s something about the Orioles that the experts just aren’t getting right: “the intangibles,” as sports writers often say, or “chemistry” or “clubhouse leadership.” Reasonable people look at the discrepancy between projections and results and wonder where the projections went wrong.

A onth and a half ago, Dave Cameron (no, not that one) wrote an elegant piece explaining that No, the experts haven’t been wrong at all; they’ve been exactly right, and the Orioles’ performance actually demonstrates their correctness rather than undermining their status. How can that be? It can be because improbable things happen all the time. Mildly improbable things happen daily; somewhat improbable things happen occasionally; very improbable things happen rarely; and utterly improbable things happen once in a lifetime, or an epoch, or a millennium, or what-you-will. But improbable things happen, and they happen at a rate we can measure and make sense of.

The point relative to my beloved O’s, the team that gave us the 1966 World Champions, is that although the Orioles have outperformed expectations for three years running — a very considerable sample size — their improbable streak of winning falls exactly where we would expect it to on the spectrum of “teams doing better than projected.” In cameron’s words, “the existence of an outlier does not prove that a model is broken. In fact, the existence of the right amount of outliers is actually evidence that the model works really well. The question isn’t whether we can find outliers in the data; the question is whether there are more outliers than we’d expect given a normal distribution.” And it turns out that, yes, the Orioles’ record falls neatly within the expected distribution of teams outperforming (and underperforming) projections. In fact, once you look at the distribution, other recent teams have been even luckier than the Orioles over a three-year stretch; the Angels had a five-year stretch of luck in the late aughties and early ’teens. Improbable things happen all the time.

So sport supporters should relax about trying to argue that the experts are wrong about their formulas (it’s possible, of course, but… improbable). Teams have long stretches of luck, good or bad, and that’s why sport is entertaining even when we know the projected outcomes.

All of this pertains to another field of my interest: namely, the study of the Bible. The Bible narrates a great many utterly improbable events. On the basis of their radical improbability, many very sensible people argue that these events did not take place, a sound enough conclusion when you look at the great span of human history and the great number of claims that have been made on behalf of utterly improbable alleged events. Most people, most of the time, reject out of hand most of these improbable claims, so one can hardly complain if sensible people reason that the events described in the Bible should likewise be rejected.

Like Orioles supporters, though, a great many adherents to traditions (biblical and non-) want to assert that our extraordinary events not only happened despite the odds, but indeed should be understood as the most reasonable explanation of the circumstances and allegations surrounding that alleged event. While the experts on biblical batting averages say “No one has hit for an average over .500 in major league history, so we decline to believe that Joshua slugged Canaanite pitching to the tune of a .633 average,” supporters of the Hebrew Conquerors say “Well, the Bible says Joshua hit .633, and in those days they played without leather gloves, and the pitcher’s mound was probably not very sturdy (else we’d have found archaeological evidence of pitcher’s mounds in antiquity, which we haven’t), so the best explanation for the biblical story of Joshua’s amazing batting average is that he had a career year against uneven Canaanite pitching.” Joshua’s alleged batting record must not only be true, according to this line of thought, it must be probable.

Of these two perspectives, I think the sceptics have by far the strongest case. They’re looking at the records, the circumstances, and the propensities of sport fans to exaggerate, and they’re unconvinced.

The fans tend to take two steps, both of which I think problematic. The first is that they sometimes take it as granted that in order to claim that something is true, it must be probable. Modern life certainly provides a propitious context for this step, since nobody doubts that it’s true that the Orioles won their division this year. So many claims about so many matters of probability or improbability can be tested very easily, with outcomes so near to certainty as makes no practical difference, that the “truth” bit of a claim can seem to be either given and necessary, or false and unsustainable. Orioles fans have not been satisified that experts agreed that the team finished first; they want experts to agree that the Orioles should have finished first, in a way similar to people who believe that not only did Joshua hit .633, but that it’s likely that he hit .633. (I think they are wrong to reason so.)

Similarly, supporters of unlikely events suppose that they may not be permitted to think that improbable things ever happen. Of course, everyday life should dispel this supposition. A friend whose nickname is “37” (srsly) was recently in a queue at the Department of Motor Vehicles and drew the ticket numbered 37. Now, I’m not sure how many numbers were on the roll of tickets; I would estimate the number as probably upwards of 999, since the tickets wouldn’t fit four digits, and cycling through 1 – 99 over and over might run some risk of confusion if there was a particularly long queue. So the chance that a gentleman nicknamed “37” would draw number 37 in the queue is about one in a thousand, and only if he were damned to several lifetimes of annual visits to the DMV (a fate of eschatological cruelty beyond the imagination even of the Christian apocalypticists) could one regard his drawing the number as nearing “probable.” At the same time, among improbabilities, this example is pretty small-scale (however striking and mmeorable it was to 37). In other words, it is not the case that “improbable things happen, so there’s no good reason to be sceptical about the Bible”; contrariwise, a great many things in the Bible are so improbable that we can’t reasonably complain if people don’t believe them to have happened.

Neither, on the other hand, is everyone obliged to doubt something just because it’s wildly improbable. Part of the point of the stories in the Bible, after all, is that these seemed to be extraordinary events even to those who reported them. If one is confident that certain extraordinary events happened two to five thousand years ago, well, there we are. But such believers should be straightforward about just how profoundly improbable the allegations are, and should not try to wrest the improbability dial from “nearly impossible” to “well, of course.” I accept that the maths tell against some of what I assent to having happened in Roman Judea. I don’t think I can screw up my credulity to think that every improbable thing narrated in the gospels (or the rest of the Bible) happened just as reported. I have various reasons for making distinctions among them, which cumulatively do not have the astringent rigour of simply denying all of them or (for that matter) affirming all of them. And my observation of improbability suggests that however comforting that rigour might be, my capacity to ascertain which improbabilities did happen and which didn’t, which teams will win and which won’t, is no better than the sport experts’ capacity to anticipate the Orioles’ winning season.

I know the Tigers are more likely to win three of the next five games against the Orioles, and I know that even if the Orioles defeat the Tigers, they’ll face a challenging opponent in Kansas City or Cleveland. And whoever wins the National League Championship* will be a strong opponent, too. Go, Orioles!

* I was hoping the Pirates would win, partly because I retain some affection for the team I saw so often at Forbes Field in the days of my youth, but mostly so my Orioles would have a chance at a measure of revenge for the two World Series that the Pirates won from us by 4 games to 3 margins.

Context For My Dissent

HoopoeMargaret and I were having a talk this afternoon wherein I paused a couple of times, on the verge of saying something about “context.” I paused, because as I was talking, the term “context”sounded flat and arbitrary; who, after all, decides what counts as “context”? What is context, and how much is enough? The questions that always come up when one invokes context came to mind vividly, and stalled my answers to Margaret.

What I ended up saying instead was “interpretive ecology.” Now, that doesn’t solve any great problems that attend “context.” I haven’t devised the brilliant terminological breakthrough that moves us on to the next problem. But “interpretive ecology” does suggest to me some of the considerations that impel us to make recourse to context — the fundamental premise that signification never happens in isolation, and that the circumstances affect the viability of the expression in question. Some elements in an ecology don’t make a great difference; other elements, even seemingly trivial ones, can prove vitally important (think of “invasive species”).

It’s not sliced bread, but it provides me with a helpful way of keeping an eye on the various roles that various contingencies play in our generating and appropriating expressions.

Performance, Criteria, Success

Quadriga In the examples I’ve been discussing, we see settings in which someone ventures expressive behaviour, which the audience then accepts or discountenances (“Keep your hands off me!” “Don’t you dare speak to me that way!”). In these examples, the authorial intention matters less than do the circumstances of the expression. We can similarly regard (let us say) the sermon and the academic lecture as settings wherein authorial intention may also matter less than it does in other discursive settings. In the sermon, the specific intent of a prophet, an evangelist, a law-giver or epistolary apostle may be taken up and subsumed into a greater comprehensive consepctus of what message should be proclaimed for that congregation in those days (of course, if one ascribes authorial agency to God, we suppose that the message ought always be guided by the author’s intention; but since God’s intentions are even less accessible than human intentions — ”My thoughts are higher than your thoughts” — and since the Bible is not always immediately transparent to any alleged divine intention, I bracket that possibility for the time being). Similarly, the technical biblical scholar justifiably derives clues for interpretation from unintentional aspects of the text. One can think of other examples of interpreters drawing inferences from unintended circumstances as well: the detective, the psychoanalyst, the harbour pilot.

The difference between a sound and an unsound interpretation, then, need not be measured by their relative approximation of an author’s intention. A harbour pilot who navigates her cargo to the dock, reading the waves, winds, traffic, and instrument panel, has undertaken a successful interpretation. The criterion of success in that case draws on very widely-recognised standards. Audiences apply less generally accepted standards for a successful classroom lecture or Sunday sermon, but the relatively smaller domain of shared criteria doesn’t imply that no standards obtain, or that the criteria are less important. Expressive endeavours require interpretive response, and different response call forth critical evaluation of the expression and response. Such scholars as Nicholas Lash, Fracnes Young, Stephen Fowl, and Stephen Barton have discussed this phenomenon as interpreting biblical texts as performance; here I simply add my testimony to theirs, with the caveat that sometimes, some other proponents of interpretation-as-performance adhere (to my mind, misguidedly) to the authorial criterion. Just as a performance of Mahler’s Ninth or Waiting for Godot or a still life with fruit and game need not match an authorial intentional in order to succeed in some discourses, so biblical interpretation correctly draws on authorial criteria in some circumstances more than others.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page


What I Meant, What You Apprehended

Quadriga The premise of the two preceding paragraphs boils down to the importance of learning widely and deliberating expansively in order to attain the best, soundest possible interpretation. That principle applies as far as informing our interpretive discernments, but it does not require that any given field of considerations govern all interpretive responses. The legendary “author’s intention” provides a vital case in point; most of the time, practically all of the time, we benefit from at least asking orselves the question “Why did she express herself this way? What did she intend?” In various circumstances, though, the intent of an agent matters less than the expression itself. A White guy can with jocular tones shout to his colleague, “Yo, n*****!” and claim “I only meant to greet him in a friendly, ironically outrageous sort of way” — but if his colleague takes offence at this greeting, many would agree that the expression rightly be deemed offensive (even if the “author” did not so intend it). A great amount of the discourses surrounding sexual harassment set the intent of the agent (“I just gave her a friendly, encouraging hug”) over against the interpretation of the interpreter (“He enveloped me with his arms, making it difficult for me to escape his grasp, and then fondled my rear”). In cases such as these, especially where the power of social privilege falls squarely on the side of the one claiming innocence for his offensive behaviour, one can make a sound case that the intention matters less than the effect, and need not be taken into consideration.

Or take another example: some Bible interpreters know the text of the Bible (in the translation with which they are more familiar) exceptionally well, but know very little about the ancient Near East, Greco-Roman culture, the biblical languages, the reception of the Bible over the centuries, comparative mythology, ancient history, the modes of interpretive clarification which political criticisms, social-scientific criticisms, literary criticism (in the sense of “ordinary” literary criticism), source, redaction, form, or [YOUR FAVOURITE HERE] criticism. They exercise what we might describe as a vernacular canonical criticism (keeping the explanatory frame of their interpretations within the bounds of the Christian canon) and theological criticism (taking as granted the theological conclusions that dominant streams of the church have defined as authoritative). So if one points to an interpretive problem, they aim to resolve it by interpreting it in light of another text. Often, an academic technician such as I would say, “But that text doesn’t apply; it’s addressing an entirely different situation, in a different historical and narrative setting!” My objection takes for granted, however, the priority of differences in style, apparent historical context, semantics and syntax, and probably extra-canonical comparative material. My interlocutor and I talk at cross-purposes, until one or both of us extends the range of our interests and considerations to include criteria to which the other adheres.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page


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


Once In A Lifetime

Quadriga You may ask yourself — Why is this guy trying to hard, in so many ways, to disabuse us readers of the notion that there subsists a “meaning” as a property of a text, such that we correctly interpret that text by replicating as closely as possible the text’s subsistent meaning? This is not my beautiful text! This is not my beautiful meaning! You may ask yourself, but if you ask me I’ll reply, “Only when we recuperate from the misplaced premise of subsistent meaning can the innumerable benefits of taking an alternative approach come into clear focus. Only when we realise that we’ve been managing perfectly well without subsistent meaning can we see how much better we get along without that distraction.”

Once you accept the possibility that the extremely powerful consensus of language-users accounts sufficiently for success in linguistic communication (apart from any subsistent meaning) and, indeed, accounts much better for linguistic change and other phenomena, myriad implications crowd to mind. To take one example (one I used in my essay for Yale Div School’s Reflections), one can make the sound argument that the wisest interpretation of the Matthean Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is not for an ageing white academic to write an article about the nature of parables, whether the sheep, goats, and recipients of charity are Gentiles, disciples, or any other group, but rather simply to go out and offer a meal to a hungry person. The practiced interpretation does not eclipse or invalidate the technical interpretation — and I’ll continue pursuing the more academic kind anyway, cos I just am that way — but discerning the meaning and applying the meaning aren’t necessarily separate processes. Moreover — and here we touch on a residual comfort of conventional subsistent-meaning hermeneutics — one can arrive at practiced interpretations clumsily, misguidedly, wrongly; but the same applies, as it turns out, to technical exegetical interpretation, and separating the latter out as the primary function of interpretation hasn’t demonstrably diminished the amount on interpretive “error” in churches and culture. It is more complicated than that — as is interpretation-as-practice — and neither exegetical diligence nor practical activism precludes the possibility of error. Nothing will protect you from error, or insure that you have the right interpretation that will authorise you to compel others to abide by your (that is, “the Bible’s”) command.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page