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Entries in Vanhoozer (8)


Sometimes, feeling stupid is good

I finished Kevin Vanhoozer's book Is There a Meaning in This Text? I made a note in the beginning of the book when I began it: late November 2012. Yes, it took me a while. That is because not only did I read slowly, but it was not an easy read. There were mornings when I read and concluded at the end of my time: Kim, you really are stupid. Sometimes, feeling stupid is good.

This book is one of the best books I have ever read. As the title suggests, it is a book which deals with a very big question. Some might think it is an unneccessary question, but it is very necessary because postmodern literary approaches influence how we read Scripture.  To put it simply, postmodern literary theory does not teach that there is an objective meaning; the meaning lies within the judgment of the reader. 

Vanhoozer spends the first part examining what the postmodern theorists say and how it affects the reading of Scripture, and then in the second half he presents his position. As I read, I was led to think of things I had perhaps not thought of before: what is meaning? what is understanding? what is knowledge? what is communication? how do we understand? what is the role of my context in reading? what is the difference between reading Scripture and other texts?  

I've been reading for forty-three years; I've never really thought about some of these issues. When we ask "what does this mean?" we could be asking many different things. I think it's good to ask ourselves these questions at times. I learned a lot about my own misunderstanding of what meaning and knowledge are.

One thing I really liked about this book was Vanhoozer's regular call for humility. Reading any text requires humility. We are not capable of absolute knowledge as human beings. We won't get the most out of any book, especially Scripture, with an attitude devoid of humility. We do not stand over the text; we stand underneath it.

This was one of my favourite passages:

To follow the Word is to grow in understanding. Growth demands endurance, the prime requirement of the test of time. Understanding God's word is a vocation: a call to mission and discipleship. To follow this Word may become a matter of death; it certainly is a matter of life and living.

I love that: understanding God's word is a vocation.

This book also had lots of "footnote finds," and my Amazon wish list grew substantially.


Like a hammer

From Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text?

Attaining understanding is a matter of knowing how to respond to something (or someone) according to its (or his) nature. We show that we understand a text when we exercise the right capacities in responding to it. We show that we understand a hammer, for instance, when we "recognize" it and use it correctly.  Similarly, we show we understand Scripture when we recognize Christ, the wisdom of God, and follow him.


Possible, but not easy

From Kevin Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in this Text? 

The clarity of Scripture means that understanding is possible, not that it is easy. Redeeming the text does not mean reconciling all interpretive conflicts. The clarity of Scripture is neither an absolute value nor an abstract property, but a specific function relative to its particular aim: to witness to Christ.

The clarity of Scripture in other words, does not mean that we will know everything there is to know about the text, but that we will know enough to be able, and responsible, to respond to the subject matter. The clarity of Scripture is not a matter of its obviousness so much as its efficacy; the Bible is clear enough to render its communicative action effective.


Interesting picture of authorship

Who is the author of the texts we read? Well, most of us would look at the cover of the book to figure that out, or if it's the bible, consult some study notes.

In Is There a Meaning in This Text? Kevin Vanhoozer spends some time talking about the difference between the historical author - the name on the cover of the book - and the implied author, the one whose narrative voice pervades the text. I'd never thought much about that division before.  If the author really is in control of the text, then he can control all literary devices and expressions so that the voice telling the story is not exactly his voice, although he still maintains control. How's that to make your head spin a little? I think it's kind of fascinating.

Vanhoozer presents a very interesting model for authorship, a sacramental picture:

The view I am here developing - that works mediate their author's intentions - resembles the Reformed tradition's solution to the problem of the mode of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper. For the Reformers, Christ is not physically, but spiritually, present in the sacrament.  Similarly, we might say that the author's "spirit" and thoughts are really "exhibited" by the text, considered as a kind of "sacrament." In the Eucharist, according to Calvin, Christ is offered to humans who receive him in faith and repentance. The faith does not create the offer of Christ - the "communion" - but only receives it.  The sacrament is not only sign but seal; an act regarded as a guarantee that there is something behind the words.  For Calvin, the physical elements are instruments that communicate Christ's real presence to faith.  Similarly the linguistic elements mediate the autor's presence to participants in the covenant of discourse - to those with the faith that seeks textual understanding.  Unbelievers may consume the external signs, but they fait to participate in the thing (or presence) signified. Readers, too, may consume linguistic sings; but if they do not believe in authors, they fail to percieve the agency at work in the text and go away as empty as they came.

This is just a picture for explanation purposes. Vanhoozer doesn't mean to say that books are elements of a sacrament. It's a very compelling picture, I think.


Freedom and responsibility in communication

I've been reading Kevin Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in This Text? This book has given me cause to think about communication in general. A text is, after all, a communicative act. Whether one thinks the authority in interpretation resides with the reader (I don't) or the author, a text communicates.

Vanhoozer talks about "speech acts," i.e. the reality that verbal communication is an active process.  Words have communicative action; they have intention behind them. One of the dimensions Vanhoozer talks about is the interlocutionary dimension. He explains that language is the means of social interaction through messages. This interaction of messages brings freedom and responsibility:

Communicative interaction is quite different from casual interactions. Humans do not relate to one another solely in terms of necessity (i.e., cause and effect), but also in terms of freedom (i.e., action and reaction).  How we use language makes a difference ("the pen is mightier than the sword") ... Personhood is in large part a function of our dignity as communicative agents. From the viewpoint of Christian theology, persons are wholly determined neither by language (socio-linguistics) nor by genes (socio-biology). On the contrary, human persons are convenantal agents, whose stories, like that of Israel, depend in large measure on how they use their communicative freedom and assume their communicative responsibilities.

When Vanhoozer refers to Israel, he refers to the history of Isreal in the Old Testament as a people who responded to God's word, who demonstrated commucative responsibility. How do we as Christians assume our communicatve responsibilities as we respond to the written Word of God?

It may seem unnecessary to think about such things as Christians.  After all, aren't there more practical things to consider?  Isn't this just a lot of eye-glazing, mind-numbing theory?  I don't think so.  Since I've started reading this book, I have thought more intently about what Scripture is, and what language is. Scripture is given to us in a written language, whether we look at the original languages or a translation. The ability to use language is actually quite amazing when we think about it.

Mind-numbing as some of these things may appear, I find them entirely engaging.