Friday, December 12, 2014

Do Texts “Mean” What the Author Intended?

This essay ran in a shorter version as a letter to the editor in the Springfield News-Leader.  
 
In the Springfield News-Leader (MO) November 30, 2014 Tom Krause gently chides a young woman who (unknowingly) gave an interpretation of one of his poems in a speech tournament at which he was one of the judges.  It seems that she offered a reading of the poem "describing what the author had meant," and it was "not even close to [his own] real intent."
            This is a perfect example of the poem (or creative essay) as an artistic object.  Once an author has written and published a poem, he (or she) no longer controls it.  The issue is not what authors intend to do, but what they actually did.  In other words the published poem/essay is autonomous and has an existence totally apart from the creative artist's intentions.  The author becomes only one more interpreter, and not the authoritative interpreter. It really doesn't matter what the author intended; what matters is what the essay is.  The creative piece exists apart from the author's intentions; it draws attention to itself and "speaks" to the reader, or the viewer in the case of objects of art like painting and sculpture.  Thus authors may learn something new from others about what they have actually accomplished in the essay or poem.  The poet Wallace Stevens, who has been described as "the necessary angel of earth," once wrote in a letter:
It is not a question of what an author meant to say but of what he has said.  In the case of a competent critic the author may well have a great deal to find out about himself and his work. (Letters, #396)
            In short, language is ambiguous on the best of days, as any poet well knows.  For example, Miguel de Cervantes in his 17th century novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, described an insane man who fancied himself a knight errant on a quest to restore chivalry and bring justice to the world  He jousted (tilted) and fought with imaginary foes (windmills and giants), which were real to him in his insanity.  Cervantes' novel inspired a book (by Dale Wasserman) and Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha.  In the musical the signature song, "The Impossible Dream," describes a man on a quest fighting "unbeatable foes," righting "unrightable wrongs," fighting "for the right," and walking "through hell on a heavenly cause."  The protagonist of the musical is certainly inspired by Cervantes' mad hero Don Quixote de La Mancha, but in his interpretation by the musical lyricist (Joe Darion) Don Quixote has become a symbol of the idealistic person who dares to dream impossible dreams including a just social order.  What, do you suppose, Cervantes would have thought of that?
            The situation is similar with respect to biblical texts, which were written by human beings.  They are not God's words, as Mr. Krause says, but human words written in behalf of a particular understanding of God.  Krause's affirmation of faith completely ignores the human authors of these ancient writings, who themselves were conditioned by their situations in life; they crafted what they wrote from vastly different perspectives with different intentions and opinions.  Letting God interpret these words, as Mr. Krause advises, is only Krause's faith speaking again.  Readers, not God, interpret texts, in the nexus between how they read the text and the life experiences they bring to the text.  God has nothing to do with it.
            If you doubt the ambiguity of language, just ask a Baptist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic about their understanding of the Eucharist.  They come to very different understandings using the same Bible.  The classic example of reading the same biblical text and arriving at different conclusions is found in how differently Paul (Galatians 3:6-14) and James (2:18-26) understand the biblical story of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-18): Paul's view was that God requires faith alone (Galatians 3:8-11); James' view was that God required both faith and works (2:24).
            Galatians 2:16 provides another example of the slippery nature of language, and how the personal life experience we bring to our reading of biblical texts influences what we read in the text.  Paul writes "a person is not justified by works of the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ"; that is through a confidence in God like that of Jesus.  And so the passage was translated in the English Bibles of the 16th and 17th centuries.  At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th the translation was changed, and became: "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (see The Authentic Letters of Paul, 65-66).  Alas, not even the Gods, if Gods there be, can control a reader's interpretation of the divine pronouncements of the Gods.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

15 comments:

  1. Also among things hard to control are text errors. Charlie, toward the bottom of page 48 in Wisdom of Jesus we find this reference about wisdom being justified: "(Luke 11:33 = Matt 7:19)". It looks to me like the reference should read: (Luke 7:35 = Matt 11:19). I apologize in advance if I'm not seeing this correctly.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  2. You did indeed see it correctly! I vaguely recall making that correction at some point in the back and forth with the press in the editing process. But we did not get the correction done. I have made a note (along with several others I have caught) and since the press does "print on demand" I may be able to have the corrections made at some point. So if you find others please let me know.
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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  4. Charlie, I had to go back and read Mr.Krause's piece again (still available in the News-Leader archives, Nov. 30, p. 7E), because my interpretation of this was much different from yours. Surprise! Although he uses the term "God's word," I feel he is warning against the danger of claiming to know what God "meant" by using scripture and is emphasizing that one should try to follow the example of Jesus and show mercy, grace and acceptance of others.

    Marcia

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    1. Good Afternoon Marcia,
      It is not surprising that readers see different things in a literary piece. I freely admit that Mr. Krause may have been aiming at something like what you understand him to be saying. But if so, he could have said it more clearly. In my case I took exception at the concepts he used to express himself in his second paragraph: specifically his ignoring of the Bible's human authors and his (faith) assumption that God interprets the Biblical texts. Underlying his second paragraph seems to be the idea that if people repeat the mantra "mercy and grace" often enough and truly love and accept others "God will interpret his words" for us. It is a nice concept, but unfortunately completely untrue.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  5. Charlie, a response to your chapter 8 analysis of the Fired Manager in your Wisdom of Jesus. First, thank you for such a comprehensive review of the literature and analysis of the possibilities related to the Fired Manager parable. I understand you to read this story and others as secular wisdom, a reflection on the complexities of life in this world, without any clear answer offered to the presented conundrum. And that the context and theme is means-ends in the face of loss of work and status in a shame/honor society, but any resolution remains open-ended and ambiguous.

    I'm of the mind that this and similar parables can be understood more fruitfully as not only saying something about this world but God's rule in this world. The context and thematic character of the story is the pursuit of a survival goal, and not just pursuit but risky (on a number of levels), single minded, fear driven, passionate, no assurances pursuit of survival, with the implication that it's all worth the effort.

    Other stories/parables that can be read this way are giving up everything for the treasure or pearl, the assassin who tests his strength for the kill, the widow who badgers the judge for a favorable outcome, et.al. It's not that these stories don't make one think about the ambiguous issues of this life, but they further represent a characteristic of God's rule. Namely, the pursuit of God's rule in this life is worth all sacrifice and every ounce of energy.

    One reason why I allow for a "God's rule" part to the interpretation is that it helps to account for the Jesus story outcome of the deification of a human being, In other words, a strictly secular interpretation of this material, as I understand your proposals to be, sets up a total disconnect between the historical Jesus and how he was eventually interpreted throughout the development of the Christian community,

    Again, thanks so much for this forum!

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  6. Good Morning Gene,
    You are in good company in thinking that the parables are concerned throughout with God's Rule. It is the general view of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, and it was my view at one time. From my perspective today, however, the evidence does not support the idea that the greater part of Jesus's discourse addressed God's Rule (see my argument in "Parable and Kingdom. A Survey of the Evidence in Mark," PRSt 27/2 [2000]: 179-99, and Parables as Poetic Fictions [1994], 7-35).
    I hope to answer in a forthcoming article in The Fourth R the criticism in your last paragraph above: that there is a breakdown between my view of Jesus as a secular sage and the fact that he was later deified in early gatherings of Jesus followers. The article is entitled "Early Christian Confessions and the Language of Faith."
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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  7. Charlie, in the Wisdom of Jesus you describe J as probably "a man of strong faith in God" whose "discourse was in the language of the secular world." I think that we are at one in this view. I guess I would add "about the God/world relationship" after the word "discourse." I'm sure he also said a lot that wasn't directly about the God/world relationship, such as "I see that sob Herod's on the front page again," but would any of that have been included in the writings we now have about him?

    I very much look forward to the 4thR article, and am so glad that you care to address these types of questions!

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  8. Charlie, in what ways would you be critical of the following way to look at The Fired Manager?

    Setting: Agrarian Business
    Characters: Owner, Manager, Debtors
    Scenes: Owner/Manager, Manager soliloquy, Manager/Debtors, Owner/ Manager
    Story Line:
    (a) Owner fires manager on an anonymous tip of fraud
    (b) Manager agonizes over his job/life prospects
    (3) Manager conspires with debtors to improve his employment chances
    (4) Owner commends manager for his ingenuity
    The only step out of sinc is step 4, so I'm thinking that's got to be part of the original story for the story to step outside of predictability. Otherwise, what we have is someone scared and scrambling like hell to save his neck, (hoping that the world won't screw him) which is what one would expect to happen.. Isn't Jesus about the unexpected in his teachings? Perhaps one piece of evidence that step 4 is to be included in the original story, is the obligation that some of the subsequent commentary feels to put a positive twist on the manager's behavior.

    Gene Stecher
    Chanbersburg, Pa..

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  9. Good afternoon Gene!
    For reader who may not know, the story/parable Gene is referring to it is Luke 16:1-7, but which Gene expands to 16:1-8a.

    1. I really like the way you outlined the structure of the narrative. I wish that I had done something like that at the beginning of my discussion.

    2. In your cast of characters you have omitted the anonymous tipster who informed/lied on the manager, and there is no story without the anonymous tip, so the tipster becomes an important character in the narrative.

    3. With regard to your step 4: I see that my arguments did not convince you that 16:8a is stated by Luke's character Jesus in the broader narrative of the gospel, who looks back on the narrative he has just told from a vantage point outside the story. The stories of Jesus end with a cliff-hanger issue or question, as I argued in the book. But if 16:8a is a part of the original story, then there is no cliff-hanger issue. The narrator (the historical Jesus?) incorporates the solution within the story, which as far as I can tell never happens. Your step 4 I attribute to Luke who through his Jesus character tried to find something positive in the story, and Luke has the Jesus character commend the manager for shrewdness (but in so doing he ignores his dishonesty!). If your step 4 is the point of the story, it seems somewhat innocuous or banal in my reading of the story.
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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  10. Charilie,
    How about including 8a on the basis of the owner as unstable character. The manager is not only a crook but the owner is mentally unstable:
    (1) Owner fires manager on anonymous tip
    (2) Owner allows manager to self-report his previous fraud
    (3) Owner compliments manager for further fraud behaviors
    The owner goes from capricious disapproval to naive trust to immoral approval.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

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    1. Hi Gene,
      Readers know nothing about the owner except what the story says (see p.148 of the book). He seems to act rather predictably to a tip that his manager is wasting (squandering, frittering away) the substance of the business. The tip does not accuse the manager of dishonesty, but of mismanagement; so the owner quite wisely fires him, but requires from him a status report on the state of the business. He would have to have such a report in order to know his next step for repairing the damage to the business. As I read the situation the manager loses his fiduciary control of the business (buying and selling) when he is fired.

      I see no hint in the story that the owner is unstable;that idea appears to be to be part of your response to the story in order to salvage Luke 16:8a as Jesus' conclusion to the story.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  11. Charlie, on another matter, could you clarify a bit on your remark that Jesus' stories "end with a cliff-hanger issue or question." That doesn't seem to be true of the following stories where there is a stated resolution: the careless sower harvests a good crop, the shepherd finds the lost sheep, absent dinner guests are readily replaced, the pearl and treasure field are purchased, the unforgiving servant is held accountable, the wounded traveler receives help, a woman finds her lost coin, a father addresses the anxieties of both sons, and so forth.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

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    1. Good Afternoon Gene,
      I should have said (as I did in the book) that the stories end or have a conclusion, but the complications that they raise for readers are unresolved: "Resolution of complications in the story was left for the auditors to resolve and now for the reader" ("Wisdom," 131). See "Wisdom," 131 note 32 and 153 note 31 for some other stories with unresolved complications.

      Those you mention have conclusions but I still find unresolved complications in those I have wrestled with at some length. For example, Lost Sheep ("Many Things in Parables", 49-50); the Sower ("Poetic Fictions," 184-86);The Treasure ("Poetic Fictions," 139-41); The Samaritan ("Poetic Fictions," 112-16); the Dis-functional family ("Many Things in Parables," 39-42). I have not worked closely with Absent Dinner Guests, the Unforgiving Servant, or the Lost Coin. Perhaps you are correct about those, but I will reserve judgment for now.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  12. Charlie, thanks for the comments and further source suggestions.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

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