It Says... It Means...

There are several ways to arrive at the meaning of a text. What is the role of the author, the text, its context, and the reader, in determining meaning? How does shifting focus between them change our interpretation of the text? What are the implications for laws and societies?

Last week we talked about the spirit and the letter of the law: why they deviate from each other, implications for law making, and even for celebrating holidays, which are a special type of rule. We observed that when the author of the law is still around, it’s possible to ask questions and close loopholes. But what if the author is long gone? That is our topic today: extracting meaning from texts.

Authorial Intent and Context

Written communication often fits a standard pattern. The writer has a clear intent in mind and a clear audience. He writes down his ideas, and the audience unequivocally gets the message. In fact, any future audience with access to the text and enough knowledge of the context can also unequivocally extract the message.

Notice the emphasis on a shared historical and cultural context between author and audience. For example, if the writer wrote a letter in New Testament times, his name or signature would come first, because that’s where his audience would expect to find it. But if he wrote a letter today, his name or signature will probably come at the end.

Now, let’s imagine that a wife is writing a grocery list for her husband. Her note could serve as a time capsule. If we knew enough about her context – whether she was poor or more middle class, where did she live, what was the prevailing geopolitical environment – we could read this note many years later and glean interesting insights about the diet, trends, and maybe even products and brands that were common when she wrote.

But imagine that she wrote, “bring two cartons of milk, and if they have eggs, bring six,” and her programmer husband brings home six cartons of milk because the store did have eggs. Did she write in an ambiguous, confusing way? Or did her husband misinterpret?

The paradigm I’ve outlined so far puts the author firmly in control of the meaning of the text. It puts a burden on readers to place themselves in the original context and to carefully extract the intent the author had. However, other approaches are possible, and the field of literary theory or literary criticism has proposed other paradigms to interpret texts. Let’s take a brief look at two of them.

Reader-Response Theory

In the first one, the reader is the sole controller of the meaning of the text. This is known as reader response criticism. In milder forms, this theory can consider the reader’s interpretation of the text alongside a more canonical interpretation. In more extreme forms, it states that the reader unilaterally constructs, creates or defines the meaning of the text.

Being focused on the consumer of content, this theory can be applied to other art forms, such as cinema. Let’s turn to the movies to illustrate this approach. Pixar’s latest movie, Luca, is a summer coming-of-age story involving two young male friends, Luca and Alfredo. Some viewers sensed a gay narrative in the movie, like that of Call Me By Your Name, another Italian summer coming-of-age movie. However, Luca’s director Enrico Casarosa explicitly stated that homosexuality wasn’t an intended theme. The author says it’s not there. The movie really doesn’t carry the idea. But some viewers think they saw those undertones anyway.

Formalism and New Criticism

Reader response theory has been accused of being too subjective. Other paradigms have taken the radical approach to label both author and reader as subjective and downright irrelevant when interpreting the text. That is the case of formalism, named because it focuses solely on the form of the text – its genre, internal structure and inherent attributes. It rose in response to Romanticism, a trend that idealized authors and sometimes extrapolated their perceived virtues to their texts, even if they were not explicitly captured.

What I find funny about formalism is that, in a sense, it simply romanticizes the text instead of the author. It elevates the text to this mystical entity that somehow is capable, in and of itself, of conveying meaning, with little or no regard to shared context or authorial intent. Similarly, the New Criticism movement focused on a “close reading” of the text – a careful analysis seeking to find meaning in the text alone.

To summarize, text interpretation can move along two dimensions. One is the source or determiner of meaning. It can be the author, the text itself, or the reader. The other dimension is how much influence we grant to the cultural and historical context at the time of writing, reading, or both.

Why is this important? Let’s look at three applications: defending the faith, understanding religious differences, and interpreting the Constitution and similar laws.

Biblical Interpretation: Author-Centric, Context-Aware

Talking to people that question the Bible, or Christianity in general, I’ve heard interpretation mistakes and disagreements offered as reasons to doubt or deny our faith. And I can see why this would be the case. It’s a big reason to be careful when interpreting and applying the Bible. Mistakes and inaccuracies here are a significant deterrent to unbelievers, as well as significantly damaging to believers. However, just because a person, a church, or even a whole denomination misinterprets specific portions of the Bible, it doesn’t mean that the text as a whole is ambiguous, incorrect or particularly tricky to interpret. As long as you follow an author-centric, original-context-aware approach, most of the text is unambiguously clear.

I’ll give you just one simple example of why choosing this specific approach is important. In Proverbs 17:8, we find that “a bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.” Does this mean that the Bible celebrates or endorses bribing? Not at all! To properly understand this passage, we need to consider the author, genre and intent of Proverbs. The book is thought to have been written by King Solomon. It is a wisdom book – a collection of observations about life, coupled with principles and applications for godly living. In this case, the proverb states an observation – a situation that happens in our fallen world, but isn’t biblically advised nor commanded.

For even greater clarity, it helps to reconcile everything the Bible has to say about a topic – bribing, in this case. Exodus 23:8 reads “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent.” Exodus is a book written by Moses, a narrative that captures among other things a compendium of commandments to God’s people. Ethnic Israel was its original audience, and contemporary Christians are bound by these moral commands too. The book of Deuteronomy reinforces this command (Dt 16:19). Which makes a lot of sense, given that its name literally means “the second giving of the law.”

In short, anyone can attempt to extract some mystical meaning from the Bible ignoring its original context, or construe his or her particular reader response as the actual meaning of the text. That doesn’t make it so.

What About Doctrinal Differences?

But then, moving on to the second aspect – what about religious differences? Why do different denominations or “brands” of Christianity hold slightly different beliefs if there is only one sensible way to interpret the Bible?

There are many reasons for this. For one, some denominations or groups grant authority to other books or elements besides the Bible, and have various ways of reconciling them. Mormons and Catholics are examples of this. Denominations that hold the Bible as their ultimate or only authority will inevitably find gaps and contradictions with these groups.

Another reason is that some differences have less to do with the interpretation of the text, and more with the way the resulting doctrines are analyzed, combined or applied. I’ll give you two examples. The word “trinity” never appears in the Bible. However, a careful analysis of the nature of God from all information available through Scripture makes it clear that God is one in essence and nature, but in three distinct persons. It’s a nuanced topic, but one on which all major Christian denominations agree, and a significant source of contention with other religions.

Here’s a similar idea, but with a radically different outcome. The words “rapture” and “antichrist” never appear in the book of Revelation. “Antichrist” does appear elsewhere in the Bible, and Revelation isn’t the only book that describes the end of times. Christians have different explanations and reconciliations for the precise nature and sequence of events leading to the end of the world as we know it.

In Christian circles, doctrine is usually divided into primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary doctrine tells if you’re a Christian or not. There are no interpretation, analysis, combination or application gaps in the core message of the gospel that defines our faith. Secondary doctrine divides us into denominations: Reformed, Pentecostal, etc. And tertiary doctrine is debated within denominations. There is a degree of freedom on finer points, even within a single church.

Again, text interpretation centred on authorial intent and original context goes a long way to reduce confusion, conflict, and error.

Beyond the Bible: Constitutional Interpretation

At this point, maybe you’re thinking, “honestly, I don’t care this much about the Bible. Are there other reasons why proper interpretation of ancient texts matters?” And the answer is a resounding “yes.” Our third and last stop today has to do with constitutional interpretation. Similar to the Bible, a country’s constitution is a very important text that generally predates the current generation and is essentially unchangeable. Thus, the question of how to interpret this text is paramount to law making and social discourse.

Consider the following: the appointment of Supreme Court justices tends to be a big political deal. On one hand, that makes sense. These are lifetime appointments to the country’s most powerful court, which must rule on whether laws are constitutional. But on the other hand, these are very experienced and tenured judges. They are expected to have a track record of objectivity and impartiality. Why does it matter who appoints them? Isn’t there only one correct way to interpret the law?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “no”, and I’ll use our neighbours south of the border to illustrate. In the American tradition, there are two key ways to interpret the Constitution. Originalism seeks to interpret the Constitution within the frame of its authors' intent and the shared context at the time of writing. Its most radical and less prevalent approach is to remain strictly consistent with the perceived intent of its writers. A more general and common approach seeks consistency with what would have been the generally accepted meaning within the original audience and context. By contrast, the “Living Constitution” approach seeks to understand the Constitution in light of the current context, even if that deviates from the original authorial intent.

This difference is at the very heart of the debate around the constitutionality of bans on abortion, same-sex marriage, and other contemporary issues. Abortion, for example, isn’t an explicit right in the American Constitution. Instead, the 1973 ruling on Roe vs Wade found that laws banning abortion were incompatible with the court’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment enacted a so-called “due” “process clause.” The 1973 court understood this clause to cover a right to privacy for pregnant women, giving them choice over their pregnancies.

Originalists argue that the original intent of the due process clause was to ensure equal procedural rights to former slaves after slavery was abolished. When the amendment was passed in 1868, many states had abortion bans in place, and no conflict came up. Hence, originalists accuse the 1973 court’s majority of “discovering” a new right to privacy that wasn’t originally there.

This is why we saw so much debate and angst during last year’s confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, the latest judge to be sworn as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Barrett was nominated by Donald Trump, and is a staunch originalist.

Like I said, the same pattern lies behind many other debates. For a detailed explanation of how this applies to Canada’s Constitution and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically on euthanasia, you can listen to Episode 11 of the podcast, Whose Right Is It Anyway?

Fascinating, eh? Clearly, there’s much more at stake than mixing up milk and eggs! Of course, any importance ascribed to the correct interpretation of texts assumes that they, and more broadly language, are important and powerful – or at least that they’re capable of conveying unequivocal meaning and substance. What if that isn’t considered to be the case? That will be our next stop in this story arc.

Published: July 11, 2021