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Readers, Writers And What Each Understands

A (lengthy) discussion broke out this weekend prompted by Friday’s interview with Spec Faith’s special guest, Kathy Tyers, author of Firebird. Much of the conversation centered on one commenter’s view of Ms. Tyers’ implied hatred of Jews in the Firebird […]

A (lengthy) discussion broke out this weekend prompted by Friday’s interview with Spec Faith’s special guest, Kathy Tyers, author of Firebird. Much of the conversation centered on one commenter’s view of Ms. Tyers’ implied hatred of Jews in the Firebird series.

Of course, Jews per se do not appear in the books. Nevertheless, this reader assumes parallels and reaches this conclusion:

I frankly found Firebird one of the most unconsciously anti-Semitic works I’ve ever read.

In contrast, several (myself included) commented on Ms. Tyers’ skillful ability to write from her Christian worldview. In answer to the anti-Semitism charge, I responded:

How can you call this work anti-Semitic (and I’m giving you the idea that Ms. Tyers intended these different people groups to represent believing or unbelieving Jews) if there are “good” ones?

In truly anti-Semitic Germany, there was no such thing as a “good Jew.”

Clearly, in Ms. Tyers’s work, whatever treatment the “bad Jews” received, was a consequence of their badness, not their “Jew-ness.

Notice, to make my point, I acceded to a critical issue, one the discussion depends. Did Ms. Tyers intend to write several of her alien people groups as representative of Jews? If not, the entire discussion is spurious.

Unless …

Does a piece of writing — any writing — belong as much to the reader as to the writer? In which case, our commenter who found Firebird so offensive is right in his estimation because he personally read the book as slanted against Jews.

Undeniably, past experiences and expectations affect readers. Our own worldviews may serve as filters through which we understand what an author says.

Consequently, some movie-goers embraced the panentheistic movie Avatar as “Christian.” And to this day, believers who are critical of Love Wins believe the equally universalist The Shack was a wonderful work of fiction showing God’s love.

Does the author’s intention no longer matter? Is the key to reading (or viewing movies or TV programs) that which the recipient believes about what he reads (or watches)?

It would seem this view is becoming the popular one in our culture. The problem with this approach, as I see it, is that communication is under attack. No longer does the written word convey the meaning of the author to the reader. Rather the reader communicates his own thoughts to himself.

Interestingly, this is exactly what any number of professing Christians are doing with God’s Word. No longer do we search the Bible (a self-interpreting work) for the meaning of a scripture, but we contemplate what particular passages “mean to me.” The reader, then, supplants the author, and truth becomes “my truth.”

Until fairly recently, most Bible-believing (what some refer to as “literalists”) Christians would have viewed such a way of approaching God’s Word as erroneous. Today, however, any number of people who claim to believe that the Bible is God’s revelation also believe that it is a fluid document, taking meaning from the reader in his varied cultural “situatedness.”

Clearly, the latter view calls into question the idea that Scripture is authoritative.

Which brings me back to fiction. Do books belong to the author or to the reader? And if to the reader, are those who view the Bible as a fluid document right in their assessment?

If, on the other hand, the Bible is authoritative, an unchanging revelation of God’s person and plan, does that mean that books belong to the author, not the reader, and that part of a reader’s job is to suss out what an author is actually saying?

Here’s a third possibility. Since the Bible is the only inspired book, given through a Spirit-breathed process that used human writers, does it alone belong to the Author, and all other books belong to readers?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

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E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I can “own” a novel or the Bible itself by virtue of reading and enjoying it. But similar to how I can own a new car — in that case even more so than its original manufacturer — it won’t do me much good to try to drive the thing across a river, contrary to its intent.

John Weaver
Guest

“Notice, to make my point, I acceded to a critical issue, one the discussion depends. Did Ms. Tyers intend to write several of her alien people groups as representative of Jews? If not, the entire discussion is spurious.

Unless …

Does a piece of writing — any writing — belong as much to the reader as to the writer? In which case, our commenter who found Firebird so offensive is right in his estimation because he personally read the book as slanted against Jews.”

You assume that the writer understands everything he or she is putting into their piece of work. My point about Harriet Beecher Stowe, which you coincedentally never answered, still stands. Stowe did not intend her works to be racist. That does not alter the fact that they were in fact so.

No longer do we search the Bible (a self-interpreting work) for the meaning of a scripture, but we contemplate what particular passages “mean to me.” The reader, then, supplants the author, and truth becomes “my truth.”

“Until fairly recently, most Bible-believing (what some refer to as “literalists”) Christians would have viewed such a way of approaching God’s Word as erroneous. Today, however, any number of people who claim to believe that the Bible is God’s revelation also believe that it is a fluid document, taking meaning from the reader in his varied cultural “situatedness.”

Clearly, the latter view calls into question the idea that Scripture is authoritative”

How can a book, which is only a text, be self-interpreting. A being can be self-interpreting, a book can not. Furthermore, if the Bible were really self-interpreting and Christians were as good as you seem to think them, I think we’d have far fewer arguments about doctrine in the church, even among “Bible-believing” Christians.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Unlike, for example, Paul correcting Peter publicly for failing to heed his own words (since Peter’s vision regarding Cornelius and other non-Jews) that Jews and Greeks were now one in Christ, and prejudice against either group is legalistic and wrong?

Unlike Paul’s later admonitions to correct false teachers, with love but firmness, and his even declaring that leaders within the church might as well go ahead and emasculate themselves as declare that Christ’s death does nothing to set us free from the burden of the Law?

Unlike Jesus’ own words that many would claim to know Him, but in fact He never knew them and all their good deeds weren’t worth a bit to His Father?

Nothing in Scripture says that if the Bible is self-interpreting then we would have less arguments. That’s a made-up standard. Furthermore, for every incident you may wish to cite about how “literalists” have messed things up, I can show you professing Christians who have crapped up the Church with their ignorance of Scripture — or even rejection of the same — and have insisted on re-interpreting everything with nothing but their feelings. That particular error may not have happened to you personally; but in that case, perhaps you might want to listen to those (like myself) who can share clear evidence of the same? But maybe that’s a discussion best handled in the current discussion, where I was last seen zeroing in on the debate’s roots.

Galadriel
Guest

I do think that a (fiction or nonfiction) book can have meaning beyond what the author intended, but there is also danger in going beyond what the author intended, even in the opposite direction. For example, some people insisted on reading the Lord of the Rings as an allegory for WWII. This annoyed Tolkien so much that he explictly stated the opposite in the opening of later editions.
As for Scripture, that’s an entirely different can of worms…

Bob
Guest

And then there is the issue of faith. The Bible states things at face value (sometimes literal and sometime figurative), that we cannot adequately explain scientifically, experientially, or even rationally (like creation, trinity, eternity, etc.). We try to wrap our minds around these topics for our own sakes, but in the end, God requires faith in his Word. I believe that’s the reason for areas
lacking self-interpretation.

MS Quixote
Guest

I’m pretty sure my 7th grade math textbook had an answer key in the back. 🙂

Patrick
Guest

Is a writing what the author intends or what the reader understands? Yes. It is both at the same time. The reader can not objectively read without interpreting through their own ways of thinking and experiences; the writer only knows their own intent and can not (and should not) over-think the story to anticipate every way a reader might read it. But the intended meaning is there and will influence the experience of the reader even if they don’t fully comprehend it as intended.

The same applies to the Bible. There is Truth and there is truth. The entire Bible is Authoritative with intended meaning and purpose (but I don’t believe self-interpreting/explanatory). It continues to mean what was meant when it was written carrying the intent of the authors as inspired by the spirit. But the Bible is also Living. I like the word living better than fluid. We do not determine how the Bible moves in us. The Holy Spirit does that. Just because God speaks personally to me through His Word does not negate the fact that his word is unchanging. The original meaning is still there- but there is more for me because the Spirit speaks to My Life in the here and now through this unchanging word. It is Alive for me because it always seems to know what I need to hear. Not what I want to hear- What I need.

“What does this mean to me” should not mean “how can I interpret this to suit my sinful life”. That is ridiculous. Why can’t it mean “How does God intend for me to apply this to my life” or “What is the Spirit doing in me” or “How can I rephrase this in my own words to see if I understand the intended meaning”? Do any of those questions violate the Bible making it somehow less than intended? The Bible is Authoritative- my understanding of it is not. But I am left incompletely with Both because I am a human that can not fully know or understand the mind of God.

Zoe
Guest

And now I wish I’d read the comments before replying myself. This pretty much explains what I was trying to say in a few of my paragraphs, only this says it much better. So when it comes to the whole “fluid” thing (and I even said I like the word “living” better than fluid too), I defer to Patrick.

Kaci Hill
Member

Here’s a third possibility. Since the Bible is the only inspired book, given through a Spirit-breathed process that used human writers, does it alone belong to the Author, and all other books belong to readers?

The Bible isn’t like other books. For one thing, it’s sixty-six books (or if you’re RCC or Orthodox, you’ve got a few extra), not one. Ultimately it has one Author, but it was inspired, not dictated or done through supernatural possession.

Moreover, Scripture allows some room for variant interpretations that don’t go outside the point of commonality. We don’t have to agree on predestination. We do have to agree that we’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ by his grace and work on the Cross. We can put more emphasis on in-reach, out-reach, social justice, the crucifixion, the gifts of the Spirit, worship, prayer, study, preaching, and so on. There’s room for that. There’s plenty of room to legitimately disagree. But there’s a limit to how far you can go before you’ve crossed into dangerous territory.

As far as literature goes, not all interpretations are equal. Some are better, some are closer to the author’s than others. The author has his. Sure, there’s probably some theme he didn’t include on purpose, but that he’d agree with. But this is where, as you say, communication is key: The author must make himself clear; and the reader must listen. If no one gets the author’s point, then he didn’t communicate effectively. If no one listens to the author, it doesn’t matter what he says. So the author needs the readers to listen, and the readers need the author to listen.

But that’s me.

In other words, you are saying that, in fact, the reader does get to say what a work means, and not the author.

It makes lit classes interesting. 😛 Just wait till someone gets a Freudian reading out of a Hawthorne short story….

I’ll admit, there’s some books I just don’t like. I ripped Stowe apart on narrative style alone. I’ve supposedly read Heart of Darkness….twice. And Goodbye, Columbus and…oh, what’s that Robert Wright title….? Anyway. Takes a lot to make me consider NOT reading a book for class.

Zoe
Guest

Once again, I want to respond to the article rather than the comments (haven’t read them yet). This was a very thought-provoking article, Stephen.

Does a piece of writing — any writing — belong as much to the reader as to the writer?

This is an excellent question. I think there is a certain amount of a piece of writing that can belong to the reader – I think a lot of authors write that way intentionally, in the hopes that the reader will “own” the story and make it their own. Some writers are intentionally vague about the meaning of a particular story and don’t object to multiple interpretations. For example, my fiance is writing a fairy story in which the reader can either conclude that there are natural explanations for all the events, or supernatural explanations – he leaves it open for interpretation, because in his mind there are two ways of looking at reality: with doubt or with wonder – and whichever perspective you choose, fundamentally changes the way you view reality.

Anyway.

On the other hand, I am fond of a saying I heard in theology class once: “A verse cannot mean something that it didn’t mean.” In other words, when we ascribe meaning to a piece of writing that was assuredly not the intention of the writer, we are twisting the meaning of the verse to fit our own needs. This applies, I believe, to any piece of writing.

The question, then, is how do we know what the writer meant? Usually we have numerous resources to help us out there: notes and interviews from the authors, including articles like this one, and even author biographies can give us a glimpse into a writer’s psyche and clue us in to what they may have been thinking.

However, this brings up a point John mentioned in the earlier discussion. A writer’s worldview will permeate their writing whether or not they are intentional about putting it in. Have you watched any really old cartoons that have black characters? I recommend Warner Brothers’ “Lazy Town.” Everything from the animation to the characters’ way of speaking gives the viewer the overwhelming impression that the animators/writers of the cartoon thought black people were lazy, stupid, subhuman creatures. This was not the point of the cartoon, and probably was not consciously in the thoughts of its creators, and there is one character in the cartoon who does not exemplify these traits, but nonetheless the feeling is that black people, as a whole, are inferior to white people, and given the age of the cartoon, it is probable that the cartoon’s creators felt this way at least to some extent.

Interestingly, this is exactly what any number of professing Christians are doing with God’s Word. No longer do we search the Bible (a self-interpreting work) for the meaning of a scripture, but we contemplate what particular passages “mean to me.” The reader, then, supplants the author, and truth becomes “my truth.”

Back to the question, how do we know what the writer(s) meant? Certainly the authors of the various books of the Bible had a definite message that they communicated in the way they thought would best make sense to their original audience. They communicated using language that was easily understood by their recipients in order to make the message as clear as possible. I believe, therefore, that Scripture does have definite meaning, the meaning intended by the author. If we believe these authors were directed by God to write – to whatever degree – then presumably, the intention of the author is, at the very least, not in opposition to the intention of God. At best, the intention of the authors mirrored or matched God’s intention. Therefore, my belief is that by trying to understand what Scripture would have most clearly, most probably meant to its original readers, we gain a world of insight into its definite meaning.

On the other hand (I’m doing that a lot), I believe that God, being infinite and seeing that these books and letters and poems and songs would be for all humanity, not just a limited audience, may use Scripture to speak to us individually in a personal way. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today, however, any number of people who claim to believe that the Bible is God’s revelation also believe that it is a fluid document, taking meaning from the reader in his varied cultural “situatedness.”

Hebrews 4 tells us that “the Word of God is living and active,” and in context I think it is actually talking about the written word (since chapters 3-4 are basically an exegesis of Psalm 95). It is not a stale, stagnant book that only meant one thing to one particular culture at one particular place and time. For instance, Paul talked to the Corinthians extensively about the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. That is not a situation Western Christians face today; does that mean this passage has become useless for everyone except maybe those who live in places where practices like this still exist? No, because I think we can learn a great deal from the principle of the message (protect the conscience of your brother in Christ). As another example, I read a story once of a Bible translator working in a culture that did not know what snow was. So verses like “your sins . . . will be white as snow” had no meaning to them. If I remember right, she dealt with it by using another metaphor that did make sense to that culture.

We can, however, get too free with this “contemporization,” as we may call it, of the Bible. In fact, I think that the best way to contemporize Scripture is to look seriously at what it meant in its original context and culture. I think a lot of disagreements about theology take place because somebody comes up with an interpretation of certain Scripture that is not based on a knowledge of its context. How much of Paul’s writings would we take in a completely different light, for example, if we didn’t know that he spent a considerable amount of time in the presence of Roman guards and therefore used a lot of soldier/war metaphors? How much would we miss about the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross if we didn’t understand the Hebrew sacrificial system? Or, to be somewhat controversial, different theories about the return of Christ stem from how one understands the phrase “meet him in the air” found in 1st Thessalonians 4:17. A lot of people don’t know that it was a military phrase, or what the phrase referred to, and there is an entire doctrine built partially around the culturally-stripped meaning of that phrase.

Which brings me back to fiction. Do books belong to the author or to the reader? And if to the reader, are those who view the Bible as a fluid document right in their assessment?

I think I answered this, more or less. I think it’s both, but I think they belong more to the writer than the reader. I think the Bible is “fluid” (I don’t like that word; could we use “living” instead?) in some respect, not in the sense that it loses its original cultural meaning or has no original meaning and can only mean whatever the reader wants it to mean, but in the sense that <in addition to is objective meaning, we may discover truths about God that maybe God meant for our culture. Note: since I believe God doesn’t lie and doesn’t change, I believe any of these “personal” truths can only be true if they do not contradict either the original intent of the particular passage or any other part of Scriptue.

If, on the other hand, the Bible is authoritative, an unchanging revelation of God’s person and plan, does that mean that books belong to the author, not the reader, and that part of a reader’s job is to suss out what an author is actually saying?

Well, here’s an example. I have never heard or seen the phrase “suss out” before in my life. I can now decide what I think it means, or decide that it is a typo, or I can look it up to see if the dictionary can give me any information. I look up the word on dictionary.com and I find that “suss” is (chiefly) British slang for “to investigate or figure out (usually followedby out ).” I would have come up with a similar definition to this one on my own, but not with as much precision, and now I have learned a new word that I happen to like.

So yes, I think it is the reader’s job to figure out what the author is actually saying. I have found, through extensive trial and error, emphasis on error, that numerous arguments could be avoided if we would only take the time to figure out what a person is actually saying to us instead of assuming we already know. This is something you learn in premarital counseling, and if you don’t learn this skill, you will be a mess in relationships. Granted, the speaker/writer has an obligation to communicate on their part as clearly as possible, but communication is a two-way street. The clearest writing can be easily misunderstood by a failure to listen.

Okay, I think that covers what I wanted to say.

Zoe
Guest

I’m so sorry, Becky, I saw that you wrote this article when I started reading, and by the time I got to the end I had forgotten. This was a very thought-provoking article, BECKY. I wish I could edit my comments. *sheepish*

Zoe
Guest

Oh, and as a side-note in response to the comment that prompted this whole thing, I think part of the issue was that John had a different definition of “anti-Semitism” than most people do. Most Christians (though not all) believe that Jews, like Gentiles, must be saved through faith in Christ to be saved, and if I read the comments right John believes that this is anti-Semitic, and that the only way not to be anti-Semitic is to believe that all Jews are saved by virtue of being Jews, regardless of their response to Christ (someone correct me if I wrongly interpreted the meaning of that comment’s author – and notice all the buzzwords I’m using from the article). So sometimes a writer and a reader will mean/interpret different things just because they have different beliefs.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

someone correct me if I wrongly interpreted the meaning of that comment’s author

Nope, Zoe, that’s exactly the (flawed) definition of “anti-Semitism” at issue in the previous discussion — making the real issue, not literary criticism, or the sins of other people in history, but the very definitions of Christianity and the Gospel. 🙂

John Weaver
Guest

Actually, Stephen that was only part of the definition, not the whole definition.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

In that case, I’m very glad you’re here to clarify what you meant so that your comments can be in effect “self-interpreting,” even if we’re not speaking face to face! 🙂

John Weaver
Guest

Steven, I gave you guys the definition, which now that I look it up from the previous post did not even partly use the definition Zoe is talking about:

“hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group”

(Webster’s 3rd).

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Yet it also seemed that you were condemning any Christian (novel author or otherwise) for being “anti-Semitic” or hostile toward/discriminating against Jews, only because Christians don’t believe Jews have an alternate path toward salvation. Can you clarify?

Just in case: contrary to popular perception, saying “the Bible gives no other way to be saved but repentance and faith in Christ” is not the same as saying “I hate you” or “I hate your people group (more than I hate others).” I’m sure many professing Christians (or, sadly, real ones who ignore Scripture’s clear teachings about why Christ died) have equated the two, but that doesn’t mean all Christians do — even if you haven’t yet met them personally.

John Weaver
Guest

I was condemning authors for being insensitive to Judaism. While I do believe that saying “unsaved” Jews go to hell is wrong and potentially anti-Semitic, I would be satisfied if evangelical authors just engaged Judaism and the Holocaust more seriously, without changing their fundamental beliefs. A good example of this is Paul Patton’s excellent play “Kurt Gerstein”, which though it does not come to the same conclusions about Christianity that I do, does take the Christian role in the Holocaust seriously and acknowledges our need for repentance and humility towards the Jewish community. And Patton is a conservative evangelical by anyone’s standards.

John

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

While I do believe that saying “unsaved” Jews go to hell is wrong and potentially anti-Semitic

Disagree, here — it likely doesn’t surprise you! — based on Scripture’s rather strong case that all of Judaism’s faith tenets were meant to be fulfilled in Christ, and now there’s no reason to revert to the shadows cast by the now-arrived light of the ultimate Savior.

However, if you grew up with those who commonly said “unsaved Jews won’t go to heaven” and “I hate Jews” in the same sentences, and made this more clear with their behavior, I can understand the confusion.

I think all of us have heard “I believe the Bible” along with flagrantly anti-Biblical beliefs and practices so often that we’ve all gone through a period (and still do, occasionally) of wondering Is what they believe really based on the Bible? But it takes actually reading the book, with both right methods of reading and God’s Spirit in our hearts to guide us, to see that such Christians (real or professing) aren’t following the Book at all, but making stuff up.

I would be satisfied if evangelical authors just engaged Judaism and the Holocaust more seriously, without changing their fundamental beliefs.

On this, though, I can empathize more! For example, I’ve read many nonfiction books that warn of the dangers of outright secular feminism, without having nearly as much to say about the dangers of Christian-ized chauvinism (which oddly enough can serve as a prop for feminism and female-dominated spirituality to creep in via the back door). I don’t mind naming one of those authors: Mark Driscoll, who has a lot to say about how men need to guide their families, husbands should lead sacrificially, etc., but doesn’t say as much — in my view, anyway — about how there are many stupid, anti-Biblical and harmful notions out there about what “male headship” means.

However, Driscoll and others may simply not have the exposure to those wrong notions that I have. Therefore, having found that I (and others) have a “gift” in this area, an awareness of other danger spots, we can all come together, make sure we agree on the basics — what is the Gospel? what is our final authority for life and practice? — and then hash things out, so long as we’re sure that we love the same Christ and Christianity.

Others — many on Speculative Faith, for instance — are familiar with common Christian objections to visionary fiction, or creative works for God’s glory as a whole. They can build relationships with Christians who have strengths in other areas, but not necessarily this one (they may have myths in their minds about it). And together we grow.

Similarly, it sounds like you have a greater awareness of some professing (or, sadly, actual) Christians’ attitudes toward Jews. So if we’re all in the same boat on the basics, we can certainly learn from you how to be more careful in this area of culture, given these sensitivities. And another Christian may know more about origins-science apologetics, and another about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ cult practices and corruptions, and another may have experience with fundamentalist legalism — all part of being the Body, with different gifts and strengths, as Paul said, so long as all are in the same Spirit!

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[…] I was not so firmly on the side of the reader, so I countered with a post of my own at Spec Faith. As I wrote my thoughts and realized that the attitude we have toward reading plays a […]

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[…] Mediocre” and “Another Look At Good Versus Mediocre”) and how a reader reads (see “Readers, Writers, And What Each Understands”) to what a reader […]

Galadriel
Guest

I was reading a textbook today and came across the chapter that discusses different schools of hermanuntics.
*LIGHTBULB* That’s basically what this post is about.

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