Where It’s At

I’ve pasted the preface in its current condition into the extended portion of this entry. I wish I’d gotten to this point sooner, so that I could have improved it in conversation with the sophisticated and critical readers who bother to read this weblog, but such wit as I can marshal under the best of circumstances abandoned me over the last few stress-filled weeks. My publishers may indulge a few last-minute changes, if you spot errors or infelicities that can be remedied with relatively little bother — but for the most part, this is what we end up with, for better or worse.

Now, on to Saturday’s sermon and Sunday’s da Vinci Code presentation. I can tell you this much: I will be near-comatose through the all-day faculty meeting we have on Monday.

Anyway, this is where it’s at so far. I’ll keep updating the version in the “extended” entry till it’s finally done.

Throughout the twentieth century, biblical scholars have grappled with the hermeneutical problem of how to connect their technical study of the grammar and historical context of the Bible with the ways that the Bible can and should affect the lives of contemporary readers. They have suggested numerous work-arounds and improvements for hermeneutical deliberation, but none seems to have won general assent. Some people sense no problem with the status quo; they’re content to puzzle over unusual verb forms, odd usages of familiar words, the likelihood or unlikelihood of people raising other people from death. A considerable number of readers, though, express dissatisfaction with an interpretive method that excels at retrospect, but falters when interpreters try to bring the Bible to bear on contemporary life.
In these essays, I propose that readers who want something more than, or something different from what conventional critical scholarship offers may need to rethink some deeply-held presuppositions of twentieth-century biblical hermeneutics. The historical-critical method – which I will hereafter refer to more generally as “technical biblical interpretation,” so as to avoid reinforcing the impression that this array of interpretive moves constitutes a method – serves admirably, but it does not exhaust the work of interpretive reflection, nor does it set the terms on which further reflection must proceed. Indeed, many of the frustrations that students and clergy report involve their expecting historical-critical reflection to provide sustenance that that mode of reading does not provide.
The dominant mode of biblical interpretation miscarries, for several reasons, when scholars invoke it as the definitive basis for theological readings of Scripture. The interpretive process breaks down because practitioners of this sort of scholarship rely on premises that have attained the status of axioms within the discipline – but when examined from a less parochial perspective, these conventions and axioms can no longer sustain the sense that they’re self-evidently true. For instance, many scholars adhere to the myth of subsistent meaning, the premise that “meaning” constitutes a characteristic quality that inheres to a text. An exegete’s job, then, requires her to distill that meaning from its raw form in the text to a purer, more manifest form. As a second example, scholars who subscribe to the myth of subsistent meaning often locate responsibility for interpretive conclusions in the text itself, such that they claim, “the text requires this” or “the text permits that, but not the other.” Figures of speech that ascribe activity to the (inert) text work admirably when deployed as figures, but when they take on the character of literal ascriptions of agency to inert words, they disfigure our understanding of whence meaning comes and of who stands accountable for interpretive claims. Third, contemporary interpreters tend to treat all interpretive deliberation as a more or less close approximation of verbal communication (hence we speak of “body language,” and suggest that “his expression spoke volumes”). Verbal communication, however, is a very peculiar example of communicative behavior; when we permit our experience with words to set the ground rules of interpretation, we conform the prevalent ordinary instances of communication to the extraordinary, highly regularized pattern of linguistic speech. As they take the relatively more precise instance of verbal communication as the paradigm of communication in general, interpreters tend, fourth, to argue as though one and only one interpretation rightly, finally, ascertains the [subsistent] meaning that the text expresses. The norm of monovalence pits interpreter against interpreter in a hermeneutical contest: only one, after all, can be right. Finally, the adherents of current interpretive conventions warn that if we depart from these axioms — if we allow that no lode of meaning lies embedded in our texts, that we (and not texts) sponsor and permit interpretations, that communication and interpretation constitute phenomena of far greater intricacy than the verbal paradigm allows, and that we may honestly and fairly consider the possibility that a given expression may mean several different things — if we yield on these points, the exquisite architecture of human communication (and especially, of course, of God’s communication with humanity) rapidly declines into inarticulate grunts and brutality. To the contrary: interpreters who aim to tell the truth about God and humanity cannot afford to adhere to misleading premises about their interpretive work.
To the first, then: The widely-held myth of subsistent meaning treats “meaning” as an immanent property of a text. A text has meaning as a quality independent of particular readers and particular circumstances. This premise arises from the amply-justified intuition that when we express ourselves, we generally do so with the goal of evoking a particular sort of response, and that we very frequently succeed at so doing. We infer from this intuition that our successful expressions thus possess a particular quality which our interlocutors recognize, and that their assent demonstrates the presence, the soundness of that presence. In its sophisticated forms, the myth of subsistent meaning reasons that the intentional meaning of a textual expression — though not available to immediate perception — must be inferred from the ordered characteristics of that expression. The more striking the apparent evidence of harmony in expression and uptake, the more convincing the case for subsistent meaning. So when we admire the brilliance with which Daniel Defoe depicts the barbarity of religious intolerance in the anonymously-published The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters, we invest more confidently in the notion that there’s some satiric meaning-quality with which Defoe imbued those particular words arranged in that order, and which we accurately discern when we recoil in horror at the prospect of hanging non-conforming preachers (speaking here as a general rule; each of us may preserve a little list of exceptions).
With so much to be said in behalf of subsistent meaning, how do I presume to question its existence? Simply on the basis that it isn’t there, and that the apparent evidence of its existence derives more from the perceived necessity that it be there than from demonstration that it indeed subsists. The proponent of subsistent meaning demands (justly) that I account for correctness and incorrectness in communication if there be no independent touchstone for testing various proposed interpretations, and that I explain the demonstrable success of conversational interaction. The purchasers of this work, after all, located it on a bookshelf or in a catalogue or database on the basis of verbal interactions. Yet subsistent meaning doesn’t constitute a necessary ingredient to explain these phenomena. As I argue in the XX chapter of this book, The Shortest-Way itself uses no obvious textual signals to indicate that Defoe meant the text to be construed as parody; indeed, it closely approximates the language that his Anglican adversaries themselves used against dissenters, and a good number of those High-Churchmen approved of the measures that the tract proposed — until they found out that Defoe, himself a dissenter, wrote it. The apparent satiric meaning of The Shortest-Way derives not from the text of the tract, nor from the name “Daniel Defoe” that was eventually associated with the text, but from the complex of interactions and expectations from which we reckon that the dissenting author of the text, known to be a subtle and provocative writer, would not compose this essay against his own interest, but was using this pamphlet to highlight the barbarity of the High-Churchmen’s intolerance. Defoe might, after all, have had an abrupt conversion experience on the road to Newgate, or the essay might be misattributed. The axiom that meaning subsists in a text does not avail to explain the correct interpretation of The Shortest-Way. Instead, we agree to regard that pamphlet as “satire” on the basis of unstated shared assumptions about how people behave, what we expect them to say under particular circumstances, how consistent we expect them to be, and so on – but not on the basis of a mystical intrinsic quality of “meaning” that some readers overlook and others recognize.
The same principle applies to more conventional communication: we infer meanings on the basis of a tremendous range of expectations and assumptions, tested and confirmed on the basis of frequent repetition and experimentation, but nonetheless only conventional and provisional. As failures of communication demonstrate (lapses that occur much more routinely than overconfident models of subsistent meaning would allow), our expectations and conventions fail us regularly. Indeed, most of us in long-term intimate relationships must confess that even the highest degree of communicative familiarity with another person does not provide a sure basis for inferring meaning from their expressions. If meaning truly subsists in texts as a quality of the expression itself, why does it remain so elusive even under the conditions most favorable to mutual understanding, and how much more elusive must we admit that meaning to be in the expressions of people whom we know hardly at all?
If meaning does not subsist in texts, we must arrive at it some other way. On the approach that I propose here, we infer “meaning” from the experience of attempting to arrive at a shared understanding; where communication proceeds smoothly, to mutual satisfaction, we sense that we apprehended what our interlocutor meant. Where communication breaks down, where one or more participants in a conversation seem not even to be disagreeing, we sense that someone doesn’t understand what the other meant. “Meaning” helps us communicate by standing for the degree to which we believe ourselves to be recognize what our interlocutor wishes us to understand (or vice versa).
The advantage to this account of meaning lies in its capacity to shift attention from hidden properties of a text, toward our role in proposing, approving, and evoking agreement over meaning. If I want my neighbor to mow her lawn and so tell her, “The grass is getting very long,” she can justifiably suppose that I’m simply commenting on the remarkable vitality of her newly-planted Kentucky Blue. If she construes my remark as a compliment, I need to try again, perhaps by saying, “It’s about time to mow that lawn.” This more direct entreaty will not guarantee that she apprehends my wishes – but most of the people with whom I’ve communicated would find the second invocation more clear than the first. We can criticize somebody who thinks the first should suffice to inspire immediate lawn-mowing, and commend the second as a laudably explicit request. We can sympathize with the neighbor who doesn’t take up the subtle hint in the first, and deprecate the neighbor for whom the second doesn’t provide adequate stimulus for home maintenance. Moreover, in all these cases, we can assess the question of meaning as cases of more or less plausible reasoning; we can ask interpreters to give an account of why one should infer such-and-such a meaning, and we can ask those who wish their expressions to evoke particular interpretations (rather than others) to express themselves in ways that provide reasons for deeming the desired interpretation most plausible. Instead of treating the text as a peculiar sort of silent agent that permits some interpretations, advocates, conceals, promotes, or resists others, this model keeps our attention squarely on humans who interpret one way rather than another, and on the reasons they advance for those interpretations.
As several somewhat cumbersome passages in the preceding paragraphs suggest, however, we communicate not solely with words, nor do we infer meaning only from linguistic signs. We have attained such proficiency in arriving at shared interpretation of our environment that we have a hard time recognizing that as a hermeneutical achievement; nonetheless, the interpretive decisions by which we navigate our automobiles along crowded highways, the subtleties of facial aspect that alert us to shifts in our friends’ moods, the environmental features that prompt us to take an umbrella to work, all these and infinitely many more instances of interpretation call on our capacity to draw interpretive conclusions from nonverbal data. Though these instances of interpretation elude our conscious attention, that does not make them less interpretive; and and the staggering omnipresence of nonverbal interpretive apprehension should chasten our temptation to treat words as the pre-eminent example of occasions for interpretation.
The range of our nonverbal interpretation should teach us several vital lessons about biblical hermeneutics. Just as we would not suggest that a thunder cloud, or a tear on a cheek, or a rolling automobile’s sudden swerve admits of one and only one correct interpretation, we should hesitate before we accept the axiom that verbal expressions have a single correct interpretation. Especially if we dispel the myth of subsistent meaning, we have only faint basis for supposing that the field of verbal interpretation uniquely requires a univocal interpretation. Indeed, even the domain of verbal expression inevitably involves dimensions of nonverbal communication. We appropriately sense that the monosyllable “HELP” scrawled in blood at the scene of some gruesome act of violence means something different from the comforting menu item at the top of my computer window. The simple word is the same in both cases, but the circumstantial cues – the shapes of the letters, the medium with which they’re depicted, the rest of the visual field, for just a few – oblige our interpretive conscience to treat the two expressions very differently.
The variety of qualities that inflect linguistic communication range from such prominent features as type design and page layout to the less obvious: for instance, the scent of the communication medium (a musty book, a perfumed letter, the ionized olfactory opacity of a computer screen). Clement of Alexandria points to this aspect of hermeneutics when he complains that some heretical interpreters distort the appropriate sense of a biblical text by their intonation or inflection: “These are the people who, when they read, twist the Scriptures by their tone of voice to serve their own pleasures. They alter some of the accents and punctuation marks tin order to foce wise and constructive precept to support their taste for luxury” (Stromateis 3.29.2).*1* We can reverse the apparent sense of a sentence by sneering as we recite it, or render a vivid narrative painfully tedious by reading it without variation in tone. An illuminating example of this phenomenon comes from the short-lived Rutland Weekend Television program produced by Eric Idle and Neil Innes after the demise of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a sketch fittingly entitled “Gibberish.”*2* The sketch involves actors Eric Idle and Henry Woolf conversing as talk-show host and guest; though they use perfectly intelligible words interspersed with conventional phrases (“Good evening and welcome,” “I see,” “drawn two, lost three”), their repartee makes no sense: “Rapidly piddlepot strumming Hanover peace pudding mouse rumpling cuddly corridor cabinets?” The actors deliver their lines, however, with the comfortable intonation of typical interview dialogue; the nonlinguisitic aspects of the dialogue betray no indication that the words make no sense at all. Contrariwise, both participants in this interaction convey the impression that the short conversation satisfies them both: “Circular cup?” “Circular cup!” A listener can not derive any coherent account of the linguistic exchange, but the general tenor of the dialogue comes across very clearly to anyone who has heard more than one or two broadcast talk shows. If intonation, emphasis, and delivery convey so much with a nonsensical script, they inevitably affect the interpretation of even marginally intelligible examples of verbal discourse.
This interplay of linguistic and nonlinguistic information in interpretation comes into focus in Jullia Kristeva’s distinction of “phenotext” and “genotext,” which I take up explicitly in the last of the essays here. Kristeva identifies a given expression’s rule-governed, semantically- and syntactically-predictable structure as its phenotext. (Most biblical hermeneutics concentrates exclusively on phenotextual elements of the expressions we read from the Bible.) We never encounter a pure phenotext, however; every linguistic expression comes to us by way of particular circumstantial features. Printed texts involve elements of visual design; auditory texts involve articulation, volume, and tone. These aspects of the text – for which we can give no grammatical or lexical account – constitute the genotext. One can, of course, concentrate solely on one of these interpretive axes, but in so doing one clamps a limit on the range of one’s possible interpretations; by bringing genotextual considerations into play, theologically-inclined interpreters can extend the scope of their interpretive exercises beyond the (phenotextual) boundaries that constrain them.*3* Sound interpretation involves questions of how one ought to portray, intone, and embody a text as well as how the verbs should be parsed, and what each word’s semantic range covers.
At this point in my argument, I need hardly submit that the practice of interpretation affords innumerable reasons to expect that reasonable, learned, critical interpreters will develop different interpretations of the same biblical passage. Their disagreements need not imply that one alone has attained a true understanding of the text, whereas all others (now and before) have succumbed to the baneful effects of ignorance, dull wit, cultural accommodation, or perverse will. With a sensible degree of historical perspective, we will observe that the Bible has never known a period of unanimity in interpretation, nor has more than a century of rigorous technical scholarship ushered in an era of stable, scientifically-certain interpretation. The history of interpretations past and the prospects for interpretations to come together give abundant evidence for the conclusion that interpreters will always arrive at well-founded interpretations that diverge in irreconcilable ways.
While the range of possible interpretations is limitless, the range of plausible interpretations extends much less far. An solipsistic interpreter can always make an outlandish suggestion about who the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3 might be, but unless he can advance reasons to assent to that proposition – for instance, the idea that the two witnesses were John Reeve and his cousing Lodowick Muggleton*4* – that proposal remains an idiosyncrasy. To the extent that we can elicit reasons for particular interpretations and measure them against criteria that we can identify and articulate, interpretive difference need not be accounted a weakness. As James K. A. Smith has suggested, the plenitude of interpretations may reflect God’s abundant generosity given in creation every bit as much as it may the confusion of tongues imposed on humanity at Babel.*5*
On the basis of the preceding paragraphs, then, I submit that the risk of Western civilization and the Christian faith collapsing, undermined by the pernicious influence of a hermeneutics of difference, has been greatly exaggerated. For all the bluster about single, univocal, uniquely correct meanings that allegedly subsist in texts, churches (and civilization) have had to get along with the demonstrable daily fact of interpretive difference. Interpreters have worked out differences by arguing over the best reasons to adopt one rather than another, and abundant alternative interpretations seem to flourish all the more in this rigorously technical interpretive environment. If the church and the West are tottering on the brink of catastrophe, it would be hard to make a case that a positive approach to interpretive difference explains its condition.
In fact, by acknowledging the points that I have sketched thus far, interpreters with theological interests in the Bible stand to benefit immensely. Freed from the impossible task of pinning down a single correct meaning for each biblical passage, scholars might devote their efforts to spelling out what makes their proposal the best among various legitimate hypotheses. Interpreters who adopt this position would make themselves accountable for defining the specific contexts and criteria by which they legitimate their readings, rather than pretending to make a case that should convince every single competent reader.
Even more positively, interpreters who attend from the outset to the multivocal, nonlinguistic dimensions of communication benefit from the opportunity to venture readings that do not fit squarely into the competitive and exclusive ethos of biblical studies. An Anglican’s theological interpretation of Scripture will thus appropriately differ from an Independent Baptist’s; neither will need to try to prove that Jesus, had he the opportunity, would surely have belonged to one or the other denomination. Above all, a hermeneutics that acknowledges the significance of gesture, intonation, image, of flavor and of tactile perception, incorporates at the outset the pertinence of the interpreter’s enacted, articulated, depicted, savored interpretive endeavors. No iron curtain separates this mode of biblical interpretation from ethics, from doctrinal reflection, from liturgy and pastoral care, and these considerations enter into critical interpretive analysis not as a belated afterthought but as a positive integral element of the hermeneutical process.
The chapters of this book approach this multimodal differential hermeneutics with various points of emphasis, along various trajectories. Each chapter sets out to clarify a particular puzzle relevant to understanding the transition from modern technical interpretation to a

*1*Stromateis: Books 1-3, translated by John Ferguson. Fathers of the Church, Vol. 85. (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1991), p. 279. I thank my student John Hartman for calling this text to my attention.

*2* The sketch seems to have been aired in the first episode of Rutland Weekend Television (aired May 12, 1975, according to one online source, though the Wikipedia biographical entry for Idle asserts that the program aired only from 1973 to 1974; Idle reprised the sketch (less satisfactorily) with Dan Ackroyd on Saturday Night Live on April 23, 1977. It is included on the Rutland Weekend Television record album, where I first encountered it.

*3* The New Testament itself invokes genotextual features at points, though contemporary printed editions tend to suppress readers’ awareness of that dimension; consider Paul’s injunction to “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” (Gal 6:11), and his acknowledgment that his oratorical presentation is contemptible (2 Cor 10:10).

*4* The example of the Muggletonian sect, of course, also reminds interpreters that what seems stupefyingly improbable to some readers will nonetheless seem quite convincing to others, sometimes to disappointingly vast numbers of others; the Muggletonians survived from the mid-seventeenth century into the 1970’s. On the other hand, the interpreter whom I cite in chapter XX, note XX, seems not to have won many, perhaps not even any, adherents to his cause.

*5* The Fall of Interpretation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

1 thought on “Where It’s At

  1. Your observation that prior readings of a text have, for the alleged “modern” hermeneuticians, served as obstacles that must be demolished, or displaced, in order for a more “true” reading to occur, makes an awful lot of sense. The breakdown of reading into schools or methods loses, as Aug. puts it, a shared sense of truth:

    sicut ego amo quod dicunt quando verum dicunt, non quia ipsorum est sed quia verum est: et ideo iam nec ipsorum est, quia verum est.

    (If I follow him adequately, a bit further down he seems willing to entertain the possibility that something can be both true and invalid:

    quia etsi ita est, tamen ista temeritas non scientiae sed audaciae est, nec visus sed typhus eam peperit.

    Which seems to speak to your larger contention that a certain kind of reading may be responsive and significant even if it violates modern hermeneutical proprieties of science, progress, etc.)

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