Monday, July 10, 2006

Yesterday was my turn to preach, and many people commented positively to me afterward. It always interests me to hear what people take away from a homily. As any preacher will tell you, it is not necessarily what one intends, but surely the Holy Spirit has different and better intentions.

Two thoughts came to mind as a result of this:

1) While I am on record as a strong supporter of the necessity of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, some days I am amazed by how subtle interpretation really is and how impossible it is to arrive at any certainty of the 'intended meaning' of the human author. What brings this to mind is that in my homily yesterday, I very consciously used the term 'pre-emptive' in a highly negative way. I was riffing on the theme of powerlessness in all three readings, and noting that we often like to exercise power by pre-emption with regard to others. Now, this has a straight-forward meaning; but I chose the word 'pre-emptive' because of its obvious connection with a present war that I consider to be unjust. I haven't said much about that because I don't think it's a monk's place to get involved in political commentary of that sort. However, the context of what I was saying (I hope) should clearly communicate the fact of my opposition to the war as well as some my reasons.

2) On the question of the much-maligned 'Reader Response' theory of interpretation: to me, this seems to have obvious validity to a point. The idea is that once an author writes something (or a preacher says something), the reader is free to interpret it as he wants, regardless of the intent of the author. The criticism of this approach, usually linked to Prof. Stanley Fish, is that it seems to open the door to any interpretation whatsoever.

This danger certainly exists, but as I wrote above, one can hardly keep people from drawing their own conclusions about the meaning of what I or anyone else says or writes. And the interpretation may be a more valid meaning that the intended message of the author! As an example, the whole idea of the Freudian slip is that the speaker doesn't intend to convey the message that others humorously hear. For a less trivial example, when an opera company dares to perform Die Meistersinger by Wagner, in which Jews come off very badly to say the least, who in the audience can help but read into it the presaging of the holocaust, no matter that Wagner could not have dreamed of the Final Solution as ultimately carried out by the Nazis. One might want to argue that we should give Wagner a break because he didn't mean to connect himself with this horror, but the vitriol of his own views, in my opinion, doesn't let him off the hook that easily.

In Biblical interpretation, let me adduce the magisterial voice of St. Augustine:
"Not only one but perhaps two or more interpretations are understoood from the same words of Scripture. And so, even if the meaning of the writer is unknown [italics mine--the 'meaning of the writer' is the avowed object of critical study!], there is no danger, provided that it is possible to show from other passages of the Scriptures that any one of them is in accord with the truth....In fact, the author perhaps saw that very meaning, too, in the same words which we are anxious to interpret. And, certainly, the Spirit of God who produced these words through him also foresaw that this very meaning would occur to the reader or listener."
--On Christian Instruction 3: 27


Scott said...

Dear Prior Peter, thank you for these comments about interpretation, and I'm in complete agreement with you. On this Solemnity of Our Holy Father Benedict, my greetings and prayers to you and all of the monks of Holy Cross Monastery. Looking forward to the unveiling of the new Web site!

Let the multitude of the faithful exult in the glory of blessed Benedict; let the army of monks and nuns lead in praising on earth the father of monks, with whom the saints in heaven are rejoicing.

Anonymous said...

Disclaimer: I am not a scholarly reader of the Bible.

Doesn't God's meaning take precedence over the human author's meaning with regard to the Scriptures (for a believer, anyway)?

When I read the Bible, this is what I'm looking for. What is the Lord saying to me? When things get too academic, or the preacher says things like, "Well, this is usually mistranslated, so what it really means is _________," leaving me with the impression that I really can't understand what the Bible is saying unless I'm fluent in Greek and a host of other biblical languages, that's where he loses me.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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