In regular communication, we use a sort-of shorthand to express how we interact with media such as texts, audio, movies, etc. Essentially, we personify it. “The movie talks about…,” “The book says…” This makes a certain amount of sense. Rather than having a meta-discourse about the author or director or actor every time we want to communicate something about their work, we refer to the work itself. This is helpful because it is simpler, but it also points to the implicit distinction we are making between the work and the creator, author, or messenger of the work. We realize they are not the same thing, yet we grasp that the message cannot be fully separated from the messenger, either.
We don’t cede complete control of the message to its creator, but we tend to align the truth of a discourse about a text or other media with its degree of coherence to the creator’s understanding or intention. Take for example the founding documents of the United States of America. Whatever party could successfully convince us of the founding fathers intentions would be thought to have the upper hand in the debate, because we assign a high truth value to the degree of coherence with “original” intent.
The step that we tend to overlook in the process of reading, watching, or listening, is our own significant role in interpretation. Our act of receiving a text must necessarily involve interpretation, and this interpretation is not passive or neutral. It is irreversibly colored by our own experience, biases, and prejudices that are aimed toward simplification and self-protection; in other words, we are designed to work in our own favor. We prefer to see ourselves as passive funnels through which messages can pass unscathed when we are in fact active workers in the process of translation and interpretation.
Why is this complicated chain of interpretation significant? Because it destabilizes the notion that we can achieve an objective understanding of a text, that we can identify, analyze, and dismiss the myriad factors that contribute to our interpretation, and the interpretations of all others, to achieve a primordial meaning. Not only that, but it also puts the lie to the idea that the text does any talking on its own. In his work Sex and the Single Savior, New Testament scholar Dale Martin describes this problem with Biblical interpretation. People tend to think that reading the Bible is a simple two-party transaction where it “talks” and we “listen.” To amplify this transaction a little more, a Christian might think that the Bible and God are essentially synonymous as far as the text is concerned, so when reading the Bible, I’m hearing from God. Then, it’s just a matter of hearing the words, right? Martin calls this the “myth of textual agency.”
The underlying concern is that this understanding of interpretation can lead to serious ethical problems. If we cede responsibility to the text, especially if we divinize the text and don’t recognize our active role in interpretation, this can legitimize bigoted, sexist, or racist interpretations that we otherwise might not tolerate. When I have presented this to my introductory classes to Christianity in the past, their heads are usually nodding at this point. They can see and accept easily how silly it was that people in 19th century America actively used Biblical texts to support the perpetuation of slavery.
When applying it to unchallenged ideas, though, students become more resistant. The idea, for example, that the Genesis account is two or more separate accounts have been sewn together with the seams hanging out and we have chosen the reading that reinforces traditional patriarchal gender roles seems unlikely. We all think, of course, that we choose our understanding of the text because it is the best understanding, rather than that it was the best understanding within a particular and dynamic context that may no longer be operative. The former entails a puzzle to solve once and move on; the latter entails an ongoing challenge to be perpetually readdressed.