Meaning and the written word.

The above image has been making it’s way around the internet. Tony Jones thankfully reminded me of its existence the other day and I’m thankful for this because it gives me the perfect jumping off point for something I’ve been mulling over the past couple days.  Specifically, what meaning does the written word hold for people? I think a brief anecdote might help explain my thought process a little better.

Recently, I was in my hometown for a friends’ wedding. My wife and I decided to attend church with my family on Sunday morning, since it means a lot to them and really, why not? My family attends a Calvary Chapel, which if you aren’t familiar with, is a non-denominational “association” of churches that all have the same basic theological framework. Central to this framework is the the belief in sola scriptura, or “scripture alone,” a method of interpreting the Bible that seeks the most literal interpretation possible. It essentially means to cut away other interpretative lenses and get the “clear meaning of scripture” without favoring ones ideological stance. This was pretty clear in the pastor’s sermon on Sunday, as he laboriously wadded through fourteen verses of the 21st chapter of Acts. I was trying to be on board with the message, as I typically attempt to glean what is useful from any speech or sermon I hear instead of always focusing on the negative. And I was, as there was talk of intentionally forming community and the like, things that I generally agree with. I was unfortunately thrown out of the boat when he came to a passage talking about “virgin daughters.” It’s been my understanding that, when the Bible speaks of “virgin,” it’s not in the chaste manner we modern people think. Rather, it is to denote an unmarried status. This pastor completely bypassed that historical reading by stating that this characters daughters were “saving themselves for marriage.” I was floored. He had just extrapolated an entire theological system from a literal, present day, ahistorical reading of a single word! This shouldn’t have surprised me though. This is what sola scriptura allows for.

The above story is an example not just of how one particular brand of Christianity reads, but of how the majority of the culture reads. What most people are searching for, when not reading fiction, is the literal meaning of the words. They want someone to give them the facts and that’s it. Plain, simple, journalistically. Anything else is hyperbolic. This irks me because I recognize that this is never able to happen. Words do not contain intrinsic meanings. There is no plain sense, because words only have sense in their relations with other words. Or, they only make sense in the frame that we think of them. In the case of the pastor above, virgin only made sense because his frame of reference was the plain-sense, literalistic understanding that sexuality is between a man and woman inside of marriage. Virign just supports that, but it does not imply that from the text.

In a similar fashion, I wonder how challenging people what their readings to be? This is not a swipe at anyone’s intelligence, but wrapped in the desire for a literalistic reading of anything is the notion that reading should be enjoyable, present, and make sense to me. That’s why the image above is so telling and hilarious. Because it makes the “word of god” into something that is enjoyable, present and makes clear sense to the reader. This is what a large segment of Christianity wants from their Bible, their interpretations. This is what our culture has trained us to do when reading books, because the first question asked is always “did you like it?” Well, sure, you could like it. But did it make you think harder? Dig deeper? Question more? Did this reading enhance your life besides giving you warm fuzzies? And more telling, were you satisfied with a simple understanding of the text? If you were, I would challenge anyone to read again and do some research on what you are reading. Wether it be the Bible, a novel, a poem, or an essay, think critically about the text you are reading and being presented. There’s a beautiful world of meaning out there, and sticking to one plain-sense interpretation is just too narrow of a path to tread.

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