Saturday, August 31, 2013

Revelation and Meaning

I was taught in my youth that the Bible is "the inspired word of God," yet no one ever explained to me how that came to be.  The early followers of Jesus regarded their Holy Scriptures, the Jewish Bible, to be inspired—an idea that they inherited from their roots in Judaism.  These "sacred writings" they regarded as "full of the breath of God," i.e., they were "inspired" (2 Timothy 3:15-16).  In a similar way, I suppose, to God's fashioning Adam from the dust and "breathing on his face a breath of life" so that Adam became a living being (Genesis 2:7 Septuagint translation). By the 4th century it is clear that Christian churches had extended this character of "holy inspiration" to the new covenant books as well.
            Inspiration is not a physical feature of a piece of literature that can be investigated—like its language, handwriting, historical context and character, human author, manuscript tradition, etc.  So how is one able to validate the truth of the assertion that "divinity" lies somehow or in some way in its words?  Divine inspiration is an extraordinarily high value to place on any product of human effort, unless, of course, it was written by God, as the Ten Commandments were described (Deuteronomy 10:1-2).  Nevertheless, we do regard the work of some authors as "inspired," usually suggesting by that appellation that their writings contribute to our better nature and motivate us for the good.  The validation of its inspiration lies in the effect that it has on us, and in its longevity as an exceptional text.  We really don't say of a writer who writes exceptional literature (like for example, a Shakespeare or a Wallace Stevens) that the hand of God is on him, or that God's breath inspires him.  His or her literary greatness we know to be derived from the powers of human imagination, creativity, and careful observation of the world.  By this standard there is much in the Bible that could be regarded as "inspired," the twenty-third psalm for example, or 1 Corinthians 13.  On the other hand, there is much in the Bible that is depressing, such as 1 Samuel 15 or 1 Timothy 2:8-15.  Only a blind true believer would affirm the "greatness" of these latter texts.   The truth is that declaring any text "inspired" is merely an opinion—even if it is a consensus view.
            Readers of biblical texts, somewhat carelessly in my opinion, like to describe the "meaning" of a given text, as though their interpretation of the text takes precedence over other readings of that text—other readings are wrong, in other words.  Truth be told, however, there are always several meanings that can be and are given to various texts—frequently there are as many meanings as there are readers.  "Meaning," like revelation is neither a physical feature of a text, nor is it some particular abstract value concealed in some way within a text, so that readers must search it out.  The "meaning" of a text is a reader's response to a text.  As such it is an abstraction evoked in the mind of the reader in the intersection between what the text says and what the reader brings to the text.  Texts say things and readers, if gracious, confer meaning upon them.
            Texts are derived out of an author's world; the author has compressed into the text his or her experience, imagination, and creativity.  Generally, however, texts carry along unintended baggage of which even the author is unaware, and for this reason sometimes authors can learn much about himself/herself and his/her craft from a perceptive reader's review.  Readers, on the other hand, live within a world of their own making; hence their world is different from the world of the text.  Readers approach texts from the perspective of their own world and experience, and bring along with them baggage of which they are unaware.  Hence the "meaning" that a particular reader creates in this nexus between the text and the reader belongs to that particular reader.  No reading of a text can ever exhaust the potential of a text to assist new readers in the creation of new meanings.

Here is an example using a parable-like story I created for illustrating some of these ideas for my students at Missouri State University.  What do you make of it?
A certain man received a letter from the IRS.  He took it to his accountant to review in order to reply to the IRS.  The accountant, however, was arrested three days later for embezzling funds from his employers, and the man was left to solve the problem for himself.  Because he was late in replying to the IRS, he had to pay a large sum in interest and penalties.  The lesson of this parable will be on the next exam.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

Excellent. Thanks for these comments on the so called "inspired words of God".


Anonymous said...

The view of the Bible as "the inspired word of God" really plays havoc when one discusses potential sources of various scripture! I just completed a rather interesting discussion (argument) with some concerning a possible (in my mind, probable) reliance of the author of Acts on Josephus. Heresy! Denigration of the "holy Word!" I suppose, if it is considered "divinely inspired," the author is exempt from "earthly sources?"
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.