I’ve had some interesting conversations when I tell people that I study religion. I’ve learned to avoid the conversation by saying I study violence, or martyrdom, or something else, because if I say I study religion, there are typically one of two responses. The first and more common response is to ask if I am training to be a minister. This is understandable, except that ministerial training is not to be found at a state institution. So, when I respond negatively, they ask, “Hmmm…so what are you going to do with that?” Overall, that is the easier conversation. I mumble something about teaching and researching, and that’s usually the end of it. The other response people have is more dangerous, and more time-consuming. You can tell it’s coming when someone’s eyes light up when you use the word “religion.” Before you know it, they’ve launched into their own perspective on the state of religious affairs in the world or a special bit of religious insight they have. Interest in religion means being a sounding board for people’s thoughts.
This happens in the most surprising of places. A few years ago, I had to go to the Doc in the Box for something…bronchitis, I think. In response to his question about what I do, I stated that I study religion. The doctor’s eyes lit up. Uh oh. He pulled a pen out his pocket and said, “Check this out.” He began to write the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, in a triangle formation on the exam table paper. He proceeded to explain to me in significant detail how Yeshua, the Hebrew word for Jesus, is found within each book by taking out letters at a fixed interval. He was genuinely excited about how this proved the coming of the Messiah through Biblical numerology. (He followed his numerological explanation up by suggesting that evolution is disproven by a jar of peanut butter. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth watching.)
I managed to get him back to diagnosing my illness and prescribing my medication and I left relatively unscathed. I note this experience because numerology was this doctor’s method of supporting his existing worldview. While perhaps not many of us would actively cite numerological claims as religious proofs or put much stock in them, we might accept other methods that provide the same deceptive sense of objectivity. If we recognize, as most do in a practical sense, that interpretation varies from person to person, the next natural step would be to try to limit the variables of interpretation as much as possible, to establish criteria by which we can attempt to ensure the accuracy of our interpretation.
Two common methods Martin (who I introduced yesterday) notes by which we shore up our interpretations are authorial intention and historical criticism. These methods are often used by pastors and scholars as well. Authorial intention makes two assumptions, neither one correct. First, it assumes that we can determine the author’s intent if we just read the text correctly. (How do we know we read the text correctly? By finding the author’s intent, of course! Wait a minute…) Second, it assumes that the author’s intended meaning is the only one, or the most important one. While the author’s intention is an important consideration, it is not the only consideration.
When my son first heard about the f*** word, he decided to try it out and see what I thought. I heard him behind me coming down the stairs: “Buckin’…muckin’…luckin’…” I knew what was coming. “F***in…” There was a little pause as he let it sink in. We had a conversation about how if he said that word at school, he might get in a bit of trouble. I didn’t just say, “Go for it, son. If you mean it in a nice way, it’s okay!” Neither did I punish him for saying an evil word, because I doubted his intentions were malicious (and because words aren’t evil). All of us are more judicious in our dealings with people than applying a simple formula to determine meaning. It is the same with text.
The second method Martin notes, historical criticism, argues that the true meaning of the text is found when we examine its original context, the environment in which it was written. This may include the author, but in the case of Biblical texts it also works against the author’s intent, since historical criticism is a modern method. The fact that despite the preference of this method neither scholars nor churches can seem to agree on its results should provide some indication of its limitations. So although it sounds really heady when one talks about the socio-economic situation of the group responsible for the gospel of Matthew, for example, it provides no hermeneutic key for reading the text. I’ve often heard generalizations about how the people of such-and-such place were in this particular environment so they would have meant exactly this when they said this. However, I would never feel comfortable with one of those generalizations applied to myself. “Well, he lives in Idaho, so that must mean he’s a conservative.” “He’s from the Northwest, so he probably drinks coffee, drives a Subaru covered with liberal bumper stickers with a dog in the back and wears flannel year-round.” If I am usually uncomfortable with these stereotypes, am I at liberty to say that the author of the past was more a mirror of his environment than I am?
It is not that these methods cannot contribute to a workable meaning. Rather, it is that none of them allows us to escape the hard work of interpretation. Anxiety over the possibility of an anarchy of interpretation drives many to continue providing normative readings of texts, and thus traditions, but these readings are often contradictory and push certain groups of people to the margins of society. What if instead we admitted that there are no constraints on the understanding of text other than social ones? Would numerologists suddenly rule the world? I doubt it.