I is for Interpretation.
This could have been an H-word: Hermeneutics. H, however, was reserved for Historiography, my current nemesis. Interpretation, or Hermeneutics if you prefer, can also be difficult, though we do it all the time without really thinking about it.
Interpretation can be difficult particularly when texts that come from a context very different from that of the reader. I am a Protestant woman, living in the twenty-first century in Canada. That is a brief description of my context. When I read a text by (for example) a Catholic woman living in the fourteenth century in England (Margery Kempe), I have difficulty understanding that text well. In order to understand Kempe well, I look for information about her historical and geographical context. I look for information about how she might have used the English language differently than we do at present. Then I can begin to see how she might make sense in that context.
Lots of times in theology, when we talk about Interpretation (or Hermeneutics) we are talking about reading and understanding the Bible well. Reading the Bible well is much more tricky than reading Kempe. The Bible is made up of ancient documents, with the most recent being almost 2000 years old, and the rest much older than that. Further, these documents were originally written in Greek and Hebrew, and are often accessed in translation. Languages are used differently in different places and times. I’ve written about the process of figuring out the figurative use of language in the Psalms in this blog, where bones could stand for the whole body, or possibly be figurative language for the essential core of one’s being. Our current figurative use of bones in English might be completely different than the figurative use made of bones 3500 years ago (or more) in Hebrew. Sometimes we forget that when reading works in translation.
Interpretation – we do it all the time (you are reading this and assigning meaning and weight to it almost unconsciously as you do so), we too easily forget that we need to do it (what do bones represent really?), and often we need more information to do it well. What does this mean? How can I better understand it? These are the questions that begin Interpretation.
It is always interesting when I’m reading fiction and non-fiction that turn out to be about similar things. This doesn’t always happen. Of course, whenever I’m reading two books at once the two speak to each other. Even books I’m not reading right now also speak into what I’m currently reading. That is part of the fun of reading lots. Your brain works intertextually more and more. But I’ve just finished two fiction books that almost perfectly illustrate the first chapter of my current theological reading. That is pretty exciting.
My current theological read is The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic by James K.A. Smith. Smith’s book is about hermeneutics and reading texts. He discusses whether one can ever do this without interpretation. He claims that the need for hermeneutics is part of our status as creatures, created beings, not God, and thus it is not a result of the Fall (Garden of Eden, Eve, Adam, fruit, all that = Fall). I’ve just finished the first chapter in which he discusses and disputes a view of hermeneutics that I was raised with (and, it appears, so was he, #plymouthbrethren ftw). I enjoyed it very much. I’m interested to see how he builds the “Creational Hermeneutic” promised in the title of the book.
I just finished reading The Chosen and The Promise by Chaim Potok. These books are about growing up Jewish in New York in the 40s. The first book is set during World War II, and in it the protagonist learns about the holocaust. The second book is set in the years after the war with survivors of concentration camps living in New York. Both books discuss the reading and interpretation of sacred texts extensively. The key conflict in the second book is about the reading and study of the Talmud. It is very interesting. I’m glad I re-read these two just in time to start reading Smith’s book. It makes all of them more interesting.
I noticed that my friend the Libertarian has just started reading Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie. Someone suggested to him that the book was brilliant, and that he would enjoy it, but also suggested he might need a brief background in twentieth-century Indian history and politics to properly “get” the book. I’ve read some of Rushdie’s essays about writing MC which mean that I do want to read the book at some point, but I also feel like I need a bit more history before I launch in. I need to know a bit more about where Rushdie is coming from.
This article suggests that a similar issue might arise in reading Bede, a medieval historian. The blog post is actually the abstract for a doctoral dissertation on reading Bede. The dissertation suggests that Bede wrote with a certain method of reading in mind, reading in depth, not just reading the surface. Indirect quotes, phrases, and allusions to other events (often from the Bible) in Bede’s work point to deeper meanings, beyond the superficial recounting of historical events. Why would Bede write like that? Because that is how Bede expected his text to be read. If he read other texts, primarily the Bible, in this way, then he surely would write so that his texts could be read on many levels.
Interesting. Might the same apply to, say, nineteenth-century writers? How did they read books and so expect their books to be read? Similarly, how do postmodern writers expect their texts to be (mis)read? Do they write so they can be read this way? Does this explain some things about academic writing in the twenty-first century?
If you don’t know who I mean by The Women, refer to my “Books” page. I’ve done/am doing research on women who interpreted the Bible. The Women I’ve worked on lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tonight I’m leading a discussion on why listen to female biblical interpreters at a pub night. So I’m thinking about The Women.
I’m also thinking about the idea of a community of interpreters. I think that is the main reason we should read others who write about the Bible. We need to listen to the Bible in community, a community that extends through time and space. I don’t always do this very well, but reading The Women helps with the through time thing.
Who is in your community of interpretation?