Context and Meaning

So Carmen responded to my post on Esther with the following:

But the deeper issue here is something I’ve thought about a lot as a witness to your career. What intimidates me most about the Old Testament is that it seems like you have to know *a lot* of history in order to understand its meaning properly (or even at all). (I would definitely say that’s true of the NT, but it’s simply more familiar to Christians, so learning the history seems less insurmountable). And even though I’ve attempted, my knowledge of OT history is woeful. I simply can’t learn everything you learn, so I remain intimidated by and ignorant of the OT–this is not a viable option, so how do I do a book like Esther justice?

To which I replied:

This is a really, really tough question for me. I believe two things pretty strongly: 1) Meaning depends on context. So you have to take the contexts of the biblical texts into account when you’re trying to figure out their meaning. 2) Everyone should be “allowed” to approach/deal with biblical texts. But I don’t quite know how to reconcile those.

And then I started to write a further comment, only to find it ballooning rapidly out of control (I start to sense a theme…). So I’m bringing it up here in a post all its own.

In terms of attaining a “proper” understanding of a text:

Yes, meaning depends on context. But each text has more than one context. There’s the context within which it was written—which I do think deserves a certain privileged status—but there’s also the context within which it is read. I do believe that a text actually means something different when it is read within a Christian context vs. a Jewish context vs. an academic context vs., I don’t know, an angry Marxist college student context.

This is the real challenge for historians: we can’t actually get back to the way the earliest readers would have experienced the text. We cannot truly access the world in which they lived. We can try, and we should try; but there is always a gulf there, and we know it. So what are we actually doing when we do history? In some ways, this is the challenge also for people of faith, as well: how do we reconcile the world we live in with the stories that we as a community call foundational? The way I am thinking about it at this moment (ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer) is as a conversation. We as historians, perhaps, are using the Bible to talk with ancient cultures about who they are; perhaps we, as people of faith, are talking with ancient cultures about who we are. I don’t know whether that makes sense. I’m trying it out.

But then why do I believe so strongly that the way I read the text is better than the way (just to pick on them, but not to say that they’re the only people who read the Bible from an ahistorical perspective) fundamentalist Christians read it? This is also a troubling thought for me. If there are alternative truths and many meanings to be found within a text depending on where you’re standing, how can I possibly say that some readings are better than others? Why do I believe that there’s a core of meaning that remains the same, although we can only imperfectly reach it? In other words, why am I not a poststructuralist? (Caveat: I may be completely misunderstanding what poststructuralism is.)

I think that, for me, it has to do with the honesty with which one engages with the text. If I take this engagement as a conversation, then both sides have to be allowed to speak. My voice, my experiences, my needs count. But so do those of the original authors. Maybe I have the privilege of participating in the creation of meaning; but I don’t have the privilege of ignoring what my interlocutor says.

So yeah, it’s important to learn something about the context in which the Bible was written. We have to make assumptions about that context, no matter how much or little we know, and we’ll get closer to that core of meaning the more we know with whom we’re speaking. But that doesn’t mean I have any more of a right to the Bible than you do, or any less (this is nice to think about) than my teachers, who know so much more than I do and almost certainly more than I ever will. Compared with the impossible vastness of what remains to be known, we’re basically all in the same boat.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is joy. For me, reading the Bible is a joy. Not all the time—I mean, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get excited about royal succession and the breakdown of the United Monarchy. But I study this entirely for the joy I find in it, and because the harder I look at a text the more fun it gets. (I’m looking at you, Leviticus.) It’s not like I’m going through a decade (or more) of grad school for the money or the prestige—for me the academic life is and has to be driven by joy. So I guess I’m saying that it really saddens me to see you feeling anxious and intimidated and burdened by the texts. I don’t think that’s the point at all. Honestly, I don’t think you have any obligation to read the Bible. If it doesn’t bring you joy, if it doesn’t teach you wonder, if it’s not a story that becomes part of who you are, why do you need it? How can it possibly make you a better Christian?


3 thoughts on “Context and Meaning

  1. Thanks for the post, Mary!

    I feel the weight of your last question. I’d like to press a little bit, though: At some point being a Christian is defined by contact with the texts (even if it’s exclusively mediated by liturgy, community, and priest). And while certainly the frat boys (my own fundamentalist Christians) feel the joy and wonder of bad beer and worse sex, I do think they need a bit of education also. One of the fascinating things about Carmen from my perspective is the way she struggles with parts of the Christian story (and perhaps especially the Church story, though that’s a bit off-topic) that do not bring her joy or wonder. It looks from the outside like these struggles do make her a better Christian.

    In addition to the compelling narrative you provide here about meaning and text and their handling especially by historians, I think it’s important to note that each of the parties might be getting wholly different meaning out of the same text. That is, rather than imperfectly grasping some core truth, the original author may intend some set of truths, and two modern readers may take away two entirely different sets of truths, that neither overlap with each other nor with the intent. So long as it’s done with some recognition that the received truths do not or may not match the intended truths (and you’re not trying to do history), I don’t see any problem with this (it is perhaps a shame that the intended truths are lost, but we can’t have all the truths, can we?). I think it’s some combination of failure on the recognition part and claims of exclusivity (or historical accuracy, or one through the other) regarding text-truth that make for badness. As you note so well, we cannot recover the fullness of original meaning. And so a question I think we as Christians must face is: Do we seek to recover as much original or historical meaning as possible, or do we seek to find as much truth-for-us as possible? (and how much do those overlap?)

  2. Luke–
    I think your first comment really gets into the question, what is canon? What does Scripture mean? I do think you’re right that, yes, to struggle with texts that are troubling or unrewarding is important for anyone whose religion is founded on some idea of a sacred text. So, yes, in that sense my last comment was totally off base. On the other hand–and this is more where it was coming from–I think there’s a point at which struggle becomes debilitating rather than illuminating, where the more you try to reconcile yourself with a text, the more alienated you become by it. And when that happens, I think it’s more important to cut yourself a break than to try to get it “right.”

    As to the second question–I think I’d agree with you, although I personally am always loath to give up the historical side. I guess that if you think of it in your terms, you’re having a conversation with the text itself rather than with the people behind it. In terms of historical truth vs. truth-for-us, I think both sides, taken alone, are limiting. On the one hand, I do think that the aspect of biblical studies that says, “We cannot explicitly talk about what importance these texts hold in our spiritual lives” is limiting, although I do think it’s a necessary stance in order to give everyone a place at the table (more on that sometime later). On the other hand, to focus exclusively on “truth for us” is to do a lot of navel-gazing, and you end up creating very tight, very complex self-enclosed systems that just…can’t get any air in.

  3. I really really like the explanation of “conversation,” perhaps because I find dialectics to be an especially compelling mode of discussion. I like the mutuality of it–you didn’t say that the text speaks to us, but that the multiplicity of meanings have a conversation. And I’m glad you won’t totally embrace poststructuralism (or at least, not yet). Part of the joy of the Christian story is that others have struggled with these texts, others have found meaning, and their meaning has similarities but may not be the same as what I might find. I guess that is what gives me a sense of charity when thinking about fundamentalists reading the Bible–at least they’re trying to make some sense about it! (But you’re totally right–we have to say there are some ways of reading it that are better than others, and honesty is a great way to draw the line)

    And your last few questions have been whirling around in my mind quite a bit. I do try to become a better Christian through struggle–struggling to to understand or accept difficult parts of the Christian story. And I’ve turned over in my head hundreds of times why I enjoy struggling with other aspects of Christianity, but I don’t enjoy struggling with the OT. I don’t have a very good answer yet, but one thing I’ve realized is at play is a sense of ownership. I care about how the Gospels or Paul is interpreted because the faith claims that can be derived from it are directly relevant to what I claim as faith. I have never really felt that about the OT. That is, however, until I went to a conference on Judaism this summer (I think I will definitely have to post about this soon). One of the major points of the conference was to emphasize that Jesus read the OT as a Jew, so the Christian reading of it should never overlook JC’s Jewishness. Perhaps its superficial, but really grasping that led me to feel a different sense of ownership for the OT, giving me a different sense of wonder at the vast history and culture that produced those texts.

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