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?

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