The Redemption of Meaning: Freedom with Respect

Ah.  This is a wall of text.  Again.  I’ve tried to cut it down.  I really have!  I’m sorry, but bumper-sticker discussions just aren’t my thing….

Over the past few weeks we’ve struck both horns of the philosophical modernist-postmodernist dilemma when it comes to reading and writing.  We are told we must either submit ourselves to the tyranny of the author or accept some form of relativism in order to enjoy the free play of the mind.  Thankfully, I strongly believe that this is a false dilemma.  There are other, better ways to answer the questions posed to both reader and author, ways in which we can indeed allow for freedom of an even more awesome sort than the purest relativism can offer without having to ask the author to commit suicide in his/her own text.

Part of the issue here is with postmodern philosophy itself.  In the absence of  knowable truth-claims, it needs something to define itself:  something to animate its worldview.  Philosophical relativism is one such point (of many, but a significant one).  Another, thanks to Michel Foucault, is power.  In the words of Lord Voldemort (very much a thoughtful philosophical postmodernist), “There is no good and evil, only power, and those too weak to seek it….”  For a notable slice of culture (particularly the academics) that has absorbed postmodern thinking, power theory translates into the idea that in the absence of right, wrong, and reason, people are justified in doing whatever is necessary to get others to accept their point of view.(1)  The false dilemma of the author-tyrant and the freedom of postmodernism is one manifestation of this.  It is designed to control the debate and predestine our choice:  Accept a specific point of view or you must admit yourself a slave to another.(2)

If we refuse to let ourselves be defined by someone else’s dilemma, though, a whole new world begins to open up.  Meaning, and our ability to convey it, is the wardrobe through which we step.  The fact that authors can imbue a text with meaning is what gives readers a chance to transcend their own limitations.  It draws us outside ourselves and gives us the raw materials we need in order to create wonderful things.  The problem is, as postmodernists have argued, can we realistically accept even the idea of “meaning”?

Christians in particular have a good philosophically consistent case for their belief in meaning because it is grounded in a transcendent cause:  God Himself.(3)  We think and communicate because, simply put, God Himself does.  To further J. R. R. Tolkien’s idea of the sub-creator, we become, in effect, “sub-communicators.”  God possesses the ability to imbue language with meaning and so does the human race, being made in His image.  Therefore, quite literally, words and symbols take on meaning because we give it to them.  We are able to communicate those ideas from one mind to another (albeit in imperfect imitation) because God can do so.  If we can give meaning to language, then authors have a reason to think that they can say something in a text.  The author has a chance to really mean something.

(Of course, we are not God.  We are not even little gods.  We cannot even begin to expect to do any of this absolutely, as God does, and any time we try it will be only a poor copy.  As authors and artists, we can create a mountain, as God did–but who has ever seen a mountain in a painting or a story that compares to actually walking one?  As good as our imitations may be, the Real thing is better.)

Going a step farther, as God does not force Himself on His creations, authors cannot force themselves onto their readers.  His truths are there for us to engage, but He doesn’t just write them wholesale over our brain matter.  He expects each of us will approach Him on our own and we will come to our own conclusions.  He even gives us the freedom to come to the wrong conclusion.  Authors relate to readers in exactly the same way.  Authors can put profound meaning into their prose for readers to discover, they can make it as easy as possible for people to see it, but they don’t have the ability to force anyone to understand or accept it.

I doubt our context is as unique as these guys…

When it comes to readers, it is very true that each person has his/her own unique context that radically affects the process of reading.  Postmodernism is 100% correct on that point.  This means of course that every person who comes to a text will have a his/her own individualized reading experience and also his/her own particular difficulties in identifying the author’s meaning.  This is similar to the fact that every believer who interacts with God has his/her own story to tell.  That experience in reading is as valid as the author’s in writing, but it doesn’t follow that since it is the former therefore obliterates the latter.  On the contrary, it would not be possible without it.

All of this points to a compelling dynamic growing from the collision of innovative thoughts that, while resembling elements of modernism and postmodernism, is far bigger than both.  In an ideal world, authors emerge as creators who imbue texts with original, knowable meaning.  Readers bring their own life experiences to the text, each person’s context like no other.  Each reading is therefore relative, but not to itself, as postmodernism implies.  It is relative to the primal meaning of the text, but flavored by the identity of the individual reader.  This is an important distinction, because the powerful, even life-changing result of a reading is created by the union of the author’s meaning and the reader’s specific context.  It is not simply a case of the reader forcing his/her own meaning onto a passive piece of prose.  As a result, the reader’s insight is every bit as valid as the author’s meaning because it is separate from that meaning.  It rises above the text and becomes something new without having to redefine the initial intent.

What results is an mutually beneficial experience–entirely original without denigrating anyone.  The author is respected and owed a debt of gratitude by the reader, who would likely never have had that particular experience without picking up that specific book.  The reader fully realizes the effects and truth of his/her context and they enable the reader to create something one-of-a-kind and (hopefully) beautiful every time a fresh text is read.  Ideas and feelings come into existence no one else would ever have been able to create, not even the author.

Saying it is one thing; knowing it first-hand is another.  Try thinking this over as your read your next book.  Give the author his/her due and search out the intended meaning as best you can.  Take that meaning, mix it into your own context, and watch something remarkable and even magical happen.  Then, consider sharing that experience with others by taking up the pen yourself to share your insights.  Become a link in the chain of literature that stretches even into eternity, providing someone else the chances to create that you were afforded!

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(1) Now, I have no doubt most regular people influenced by postmodernism have never thought it through to that extent and are, to the best of their ability, quite honest and open–but the movement that sparked their worldview puts it quite differently.  I know I’ve seen more and more of it in the media and in “scholarship.”  Facebook virtually drips with it–just dare to say something un-PC and watch what happens.

(2) Another falsehood modernism began and postmodernism conveniently leaves unchallenged in this case is the idea that the only valid answer is a recent answer.  Once we accept that premise, we arbitrarily close ourselves off to the wealth of information and wisdom that preceded whatever is “current”.  Of course, since the postmodern era (or the post-postmodern one) is the only “new” worldview on the block, we are expected to look there for our answers.

(3) It is beyond the scope of this article to argue for God’s existence–that doesn’t imply that I think doing so is unnecessary.  If you can grant me that hypothetically or at least are willing to allow for meaning and communication as coming from another source, the rest of the article might be of use.

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

The Demeaning of Meaning: Why it Matters, Biblically

In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.

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This week I am speaking specifically to Christians, particularly those who take their Christianity seriously.  Therefore, I am assuming a few things I know I would need to defend elsewhere.  Perhaps it will “sound like a sermon,” but I think the ideas important enough to take that risk. Choosing to accept postmodernism and the relativism it brings with it–often through the back door–can appear on the surface to be both beautiful and empowering.  Unfortunately, postmodernism is also philosophically shallow, and it doesn’t take much digging before you reach the rotten parts underneath.  For Christians, the postmodern way of reading in particular is deadly to a living, breathing belief in Christ and cannot be lightly held.

To say that postmodernism, properly understood, is completely incompatible with Christianity seems to be a drastic, over-the-top statement to many these days.  After all, postmodernism is thinking outside the box and giving voice to your own, unique ideas.  It opens the doors to your imagination by defying the stultifying structures of the past that arbitrarily box us in.  As we mentioned last week, it clears away the possibility of authorial idolization, and it encourages the reader to search for new insights in the text.   It has, for Christians, helped people to move beyond simple “hellfire and damnation” legalism to a freer, more caring belief that focuses on God’s acceptance and love–something that was definitely needed at points in the Twentieth Century.  What could possibly be so wrong about it that I think I’m justified in calling it “deadly“?

To be a “Christian” is to strive to be “like Christ.”  We base our lives and our beliefs off the incredible fact that the Son of God deigned to debase Himself and enter into our world in mortal form, just like us.  More amazingly, He didn’t just do it to stop by to say “hi” or to try out something new as a way to escape cosmic boredom.  He intentionally suffered one of the most painful deaths imaginable to a human being in order to span the gulf between us and God.  In doing so, he took on the sins of an entire race’s existence* on His shoulders.  Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian uni-multi-verse, and the main theme of the Story that God has written into the foundations of space and time, from which our own stories emanate.  Further, Christians are People of the Book.  Without the Bible, we have no reliable knowledge of Christ or of His Story other than to say He existed.  There is the testimony of nature and the “inner light” (for lack of a better description), but the backbone of it all is the Book, and Christians explicitly say they worship the Author of the Universe.

What's in  book?  What a bit, if you're a Christian...
What’s in book? Quite a bit, if you’re a Christian…

The fundamental premise of all forms of postmodernism I’ve ever encountered–relativism–undoes and invalidates all of this.  Indeed, it assaults the very idea of the author, not only in the text but in our lives.  If we regard God as postmodernism regards the author, then at best we’ll be gracious enough give Him a passing nod; at worst we’ll be taught to completely disdain Him and to actively rebel against Him.  Simply put, we set ourselves in His place. (This is starting to sound familiar….)  Can we trust the Bible–a book–if we don’t believe that books have meaning or that they convey the mind of the author?  Should we believe that there is Meaning to the universe if we don’t believe there is meaning in even the little piece of it we hold between two covers in our hand?  Should we share a faith with someone else if we don’t believe that any one narrative is truer than another?

The short answer is that we if we accept a postmodern worldview, we have no compelling reason to say “yes” to any of those questions.  We can try, and that is what many Christians who have incompletely understood postmodernism attempt to do.  They accept contradictory premises:  The Bible is accurate and Christianity is the exclusive way to salvation while also insisting on and applying a worldview that denies authors matter, books can communicate objectively, or indeed there is anything we can know is true.  The result is the lukewarm Christianity that we see around us.**  People accept a premise from scripture to be true only while it is convenient.  When it ceases to be easy, they invent a new interpretation of it that suits them better, imposing their will (more often, that of others) onto the plain meaning of the text.  It is, in fact, the death of Christianity by any real, historical definition and the realization of the serpent’s promise to Eve:  We are defining our right and wrong over God.

But there is a better way.  Christians don’t have to accept the false dilemma posed by postmodernism.  The Biblical worldview provides us with a way to understand both author and reader that will allow us to transcend the cold confines or modernism without having to drink the poison of its successor.  We can give respect to the author without neglecting the reader, and the combination of the two can allow for powerful new evolutionary ideas.  More of that, next week.

Next Week:  A Better Way

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*Perhaps He was righting the entire universe.  After all, He has only told us our story.  Other stories might be more incredible still–and that is saying something!

**You might say, “But I don’t believe that, and I consider myself a postmodernist!”  Perhaps you don’t, but you are feeding your mind and your spirit on a steady diet culled from a society of thinkers who do?    Further, what premises did you unknowingly have to accept in order to decide you were a postmodernist in the first place?  For example, in deciding to express a postmodern love and respect for all points of view did you accept the reasoning behind it–that they are all equally valid and no one is “more true” than another?

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

The Demeaning of Meaning: The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished

In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.

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Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?

–Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin in The Patriot

Last week we established (I hope) that while critics of the author have created something of a bugaboo in their depiction of the author as tyrant, there are some sincere concerns we could raise concerning authorial idolization.  This week we see the pendulum swing, as it so often will, to an equally dangerous extreme.  Western literature in the late Twentieth  Century, claiming to be terrified by the threat posed to innocent readers,  reacted by utterly destroying all that it meant to be an author.  In place of the author, they offered a real Tyrant of the Text, or more precisely, millions of tiny tyrants.  However, rather than freeing readers this approach instead enslaved them to a sort of petty ruler that is harder than ever resist: themselves.

In the late Nineteenth Century, there had indeed been a very strong focus on the author as the arbiter of the text, even if it did not rise to the boogeyman-tyrant some have alleged.  At times, the text itself and its plain meaning were both lost in the search for the writer’s intent and biography.  In response to this over emphasis, the New Criticism broke the text off from the author, insisting it had a life of its own.  They began to study it separately, taking it apart much as the scientists of the period might enthusiastically vivisect some poor animal.

In divorcing the text from the author, they therefore broke it away from the writer’s meaning and intent.  While the New Critics were personally still sincere in their search for meaning, it didn’t take long for a new movement to ask the obvious question:  If a text has no permanent tie to its author, how can it mean anything?

Three thousand tyrants on the march....
Three thousand tyrants on the march….

Enter postmodernism.  Disgusted with the arrogance and failed promises of the “Enlightenment” and early progressivism, postmodernism called everything previous generations had believed so fervently into question.  While postmodernism is a very diverse thing, it can usually be boiled down to this: the application of the idea of relativism to a particular field of study.  (That can look radically different in different contexts–hence why some scholars miss the connection.)  With no absolutes, there was no Truth, no transcendent right and wrong, no objective meaning to life in general.  Further, the very idea that an author could communicate at all came under siege from the deconstructionists, who insisted in their relativism that language could communicate nothing of objective value.  After all, words must mean one thing and not another regardless of context for language to be useful, and it was strongly argued (ironically through language itself) that this was impossible.  Language was simply a relativistic arrangement of arbitrary symbols that could be interpreted however the reader felt like interpreting them.  My truth might be different from your truth and I might take your arrangement of symbols to say something completely different than what you intended because my context was different.

Of course, there had always been problems interpreting authorial intent, but now postmodern readers  ceased to even make an effort to discover it.  If it was not even theoretically possible for the text to mean something, if the language in which it was written communicated nothing objective or reliable, why even try?  This obviously not only “emancipated” the reader from the “tyranny” of the author, it obliterated the author entirely.  Carried to its logical end, this idea makes the reader the sum total of the reading experience.  The text means nothing and anything the reader takes from it is relative to that reader and to his or her experiences and thoughts.  The reader imposes his or her will onto the text, rather than taking something from it.  For many people, it is a liberating experience to think that they not only have something to offer, they define the process.  In a grander way, it is a chance to fulfill that which humanity has sought since Eden:  to revel in the power of a god, to determine our own truth, and to create our own reality in the text (albeit on a pitifully small scale).

We have, however, traded the one hypothetical tyrant three thousand miles away for the three thousand very real tyrants one mile away.  Worse, they are lords of an impoverished state who can never offer us more than we already have.  While I have made what I think are strong arguments against postmodernism elsewhere*, I begin to find a selfish one to be the most potent of all:  the idea that the reader is the essence of the text is not, and could never be, fulfilling to anyone who aspires to rise above the level of a narcissist.   When I read a book, an article, or a story, I’m looking to go beyond myself.  I want to experience something new, something bigger than me.  I want to read a story or see a world I could never have thought of on my own.  I want to engage with a mind different than mine, one that will show me ideas and consequences that would never have occurred to me.  If postmodernism were to be correct (and thankfully I don’t believe that it is), none of that is possible.  How can the text introduce me to something bigger, grander than myself if it has nothing to offer me other than what I bring to it?  Further, this must be universally true for all readers, if the text is truly relative to them and not to some higher standard.  A genius could never transcend his own brilliance anymore than a dullard could be free of his ignorance. They each look into a text and see only themselves starting back out.

I would prefer to suffer under the “tyranny” of an author with the hope he or she could open some new door to me I hadn’t noticed before than to know I’m forever stuck looking at the same four windowless walls through different sets of reflective glasses.

But there is an even greater danger in this debate for those who call themselves “Christian.”  It has the ability to shake, indeed to invalidate, our entire faith.  We’ll look into that question next.

Next Week:  Why It Matters, Biblically 

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*i.e  They really mean to say there is no meaning?  They use language to insist that language communicates nothing? There are no absolutes except the absolute that there are no absolutes?  Only academics could take nonsense like that and pretend it’s profound, let along take it seriously.  It would be more respectable intellectually for them to simply spend their time twiddling their thumbs.

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

FAITH, HOPE, LOVE

I had the privilege at a recent Mythcon (annual meeting of the Mythopoeic Society) in Berkeley, CA (Aug. 2012), to sit on a panel about the relationship between myth and religion with Father G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.

One of Father Murphy’s Books

Father Murphy made the excellent point that Christian Faith cannot be understood in the abstract or by itself, but only as it is related to the other virtues Paul lists along with it: “There then abide Faith, Hope, and Charity (love), these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).  Christians doesn’t just have faith as an abstract intellectual exercise: They trust and hope in One that they have learned to love.  My thoughts about their interrelationships on the flight back to Georgia coalesced into this poem.

THERE THEN ABIDE THESE THREE

For Father G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.

Curtal Sonnet # 21

And what is Faith?  Not simply to believe,

Unless Hope is no more than wishful thinking

Or Love a cynical disguise for lust.

Evidence and Reason can relieve

All valid doubt and yet still leave us shrinking

From what we do not love and will not trust.

Reason is necessary, not enough.

Soul-conquering Love must come alongside, linking

The mind in Hope to One who felt the thrust

Of all our hate and still looked back in Love:

In Him we trust.

Did I get it right?

One of Dr. Williams’ Books

 

For more poetry where this one came from, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), $15.00 + shipping.  See also Dr. Willliams’ other Lantern Hollow books, Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters.

 

Lewis and Linearity

LEWIS AND LINEARITY

I have an acquaintance who has been marveling over the fact that she knows people who just can’t seem to get into C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity.  That wouldn’t be so astonishing in itself.  But these people complain that this masterpiece of winsomeness and clarity is wordy and confusing!  What can be going on here?

C. S. Lewis

I can empathize with this lady’s mystification at her friends’ inability to follow Lewis, but I have run into the phenomenon myself too many times to be surprised by it any more.  Because some of the people whom I’ve encountered with this disability have been my students, I have had an opportunity to study the syndrome up close in some detail.  It is not due to any lack of clarity or failure to be engaging on Lewis’s part.  The real culprit for many postmodern readers is their inability to follow a linear argument–any linear argument.  Often in reading Lewis, in other words, the ability to “get” the paragraph you are in depends on your having gotten the one that preceded it.  Many people today have such short attention spans that they can only deal with soundbytes and get frustrated by anyone who expects them to put two and two together to arrive at four, however plainly he maps out the path for them.  Or, worse, they have actually been taught to be suspicious of discursive Reason as something that has nothing to do with reality and which can only lead them astray.

C. S. Lewis

Lewis’s linearity is a virtue, not a fault, and I stoutly maintain that we should not respond to the abysmal failure of our educational system to teach critical thinking (or even foster the conditions that make it possible) by dumbing down the Faith (or its most winsome representative).  That would be to falsify and misrepresent it, and therefore to lose the very reason why we should be caring whether people can follow it in the first place.  For some (if they have the patience for it, or an ornery professor who won’t let them out of it), Lewis can be a bridge out of the soundbyte solipsism they naturally inhabit into the larger world of rationality.  For some; not all.  That even Lewis cannot reach many is the greatest indictment of our so-called education system I can think of.  Remember that Mere Christianity was written for uneducated British laymen of the 1940’s.  They got it because they had not had their ability to think destroyed like “educated” modern Americans have.

Chapel, Magdalene College Cambridge: Lewis’s Stomping Grounds

It’s all in Lewis!  It’s all in Lewis!  What DO they teach them in those schools?

Check out Dr. Williams’ books at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/!  Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  Each is $15.00 + shipping.