Communication — The Central Issue
Certainly the reader has the freedom to interpret a text any way he or she chooses. No one will force you to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as political satire (except maybe an English professor). So the author has control of the meaning only so far as the reader allows him to. But suppose, for example, that you receive a mushy love poem written to you by your girlfriend or boyfriend (remember the email from Whitney earlier in the course?). As you read each word and line of the poem, you will be searching for the meaning that your girlfriend or boyfriend intended. You will want to know what he or she is trying to say to you. In this situation you will be following the authorial intention approach because you are viewing the text as communication between the author and yourself. You know the author and you want to know what the author is saying to you. You will be asking the interpretive question, What does the author mean?
Let’s assume, however, that one day as you walk through the woods, you find a piece of paper on the ground with a love poem written on it. The author is not even identified. The poem, however, is beautiful, and you enjoy it as you read. In this situation you may not care what the author intended or what the author meant. You do not even know who the author is. You have the freedom in this situation to read and interpret according to reader response. Your interpretive question will change to What does this mean to me? In the woods with an anonymous poem you are free to ignore the author and his or her intended meaning.
Sometimes we even consciously change the meaning that the author intended because we do not like that meaning. For example, John Lennon of the Beatles wrote a song back in the sixties entitled, “Just a Little Help from My Friends.” This is a good song for singing in the shower. The opening line is especially appropriate for us (“What would you do if I sang out of tune?”). The song has a catchy melody and nice wholesome lyrics, if one interprets it literally as referring to the people whom we call friends.
However, if we study the historical context and probe into the likely intent of the author, we realize that Lennon is probably using the term friends to refer to drugs. Of course, this connection ruins the song for us, so we intentionally change Lennon’s meaning for the term friends, when we sing the song, to refer to people. In that situation, we don’t really care what Lennon is trying to say in this song. We do not look to him for any philosophical guidance. So the song does not function as communication between us. Once the song loses its status as a communication medium, then we, as readers, are free to interpret it as we like. But we can only do this because we are uninterested in Lennon’s thoughts and his attempts to convey them to us through his songs. Also, there are no negative consequences of changing Lennon’s meaning; in fact, the consequences are positive.
In many situations, however, it is extremely important that we search for the author’s meaning because of serious negative consequences that will come if we misunderstand or intentionally ignore the meaning the author intended. For example, one of the most common literary texts in America is the big word STOP painted on the red octagonal signs at many street intersections across the country. If you choose to, you can follow a reader response approach and interpret the text to mean: slow down just a bit, look for cars, and then speed on through the intersection. The police, however, believe strongly in authorial intent for the determination of meaning, so they will respond to your interpretation with a traffic ticket and fine.
Likewise, suppose you get a bill from the electric company, charging you $111 for the electricity that you used in the previous month. Do you have the option to determine the meaning of that text (the bill)? Can you say that what the text means to you is that you should pay eleven dollars, not one hundred and eleven? Certainly you can say that! But you will soon start reading your texts in the dark because the electric company will shut off your power! Some texts are obviously written to communicate important messages to their readers. To ignore the author’s intention in these texts can produce serious consequences for the reader!
The issue of communication, therefore, lies at the heart of one’s decision about how to interpret a text. If you, the reader, see the text as a communication between the author and yourself, then you should search for the meaning that the author intended. If, however, you as the reader do not care to communicate with the author, then you are free to follow reader response and interpret the text without asking what the author meant. In some cases, however, there may be negative consequences for such a reading.
Can you see how this discussion applies to reading and interpreting the Bible? This is an important issue—one that lies at the foundation of our approach to interpreting Scripture. If you read the Bible merely as great literature, merely for its aesthetic value, or merely for its suggestive moral guidance, not as communication from God, then you can interpret the text in any way you choose. Your main interpretive question will be: What does this text mean to me? If, however, you believe that the Bible is God’s revelatory Word to you and that the Scriptures function as communication from God to you, you should interpret the Bible by looking for the meaning that God, the author, intended. Your interpretive question should be: What is the meaning God intended in this text?
We believe strongly that the Bible is a revelation from God to us. God’s purpose is to communicate with us about himself and his will for us. We can choose to ignore his message and interpret biblical texts according to our feelings and desires, but if we do, we will suffer the consequences of disobedience—traffic fines will appear and the lights will go out. We will also miss out on knowing God in the way he desires. So it is essential that we follow the authorial intent approach to interpreting the Bible. In biblical interpretation, the reader does not control the meaning; the author controls the meaning. This conclusion leads us to one of the most basic principles of our interpretive approach: We do not create the meaning. Rather, we seek to discover the meaning that has been placed there by the author.