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What Does It Mean?

Thomas Whitley

I'm deep in the process of studying for my MA comprehensive exams...sort of. Well, I'm studying at least, which is a good think since they are in 2 weeks. Today I have been studying for my Literature and Religion exam. This process has included re-reading texts that we read in that seminar and annotating them. Essentially that means that I am trying to identify the theme(s) of the text and make any notes that may be helpful should that text be one I have to write an essay on. This process brought an old question to the forefront of my mind, though. That question deals mainly with interpretation and what a text "means." I used to staunchly believe that the only real meaning a text could hold is what its author intended it to hold. Thus, when we read a text like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge we can see meaning behind the albatross and the wedding that the story-teller is at, but it isn't really there and isn't really significant unless the author intended it to be so. Over the years, however, my view has changed a bit. I now see that texts can have meaning that the author never intended or imagined. For example, Arthur Hugh Clough may never have intended for "Epi-Strauss-ium" to imply that certain things (the truth) can be more purely illuminated when other things are removed, but I, and many others, certainly read it that way today.

All of this has implications in other areas of reading besides British literature, though. Specifically, for religious folk the implications could be vast. The question is often asked in religious circles of "what a text means". While the question may not be inherently flawed, the predilections that we bring to the question and our answers may be. For we are usually able to agree that a poem may mean something to me that the author never intended it to mean, but we are much less quick to say the same about a biblical passage. Why is that? Well, I know why it is. It is the question of the inerrancy of scripture and the question of inspiration. I must ask, though, are we as readers of the texts any less inspired today than the writers were when they wrote the text?

My wife is currently at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Houston, TX. She has been tweeting her experience, as have many others, and she tweeted a quote from one of the speakers earlier today:

@TrinityJoy: Younger... The Hebrew doesn't paint the complete picture. There is room for you to tell the story, use imagination! #cbfassembly

While I know that this was spoken in a specific context, it highlights something very important. We lack imagination. If you prefer the less "crass" and more "spiritual" version, our faith is too small to handle an interpretation or understanding that we haven't had drilled in our heads our entire lives. Why is that? Why are we so scared of non-traditional interpretations? Why are we so scared that we may see something in the text that actually is true and real even though we've never heard anyone else express that same view?

Most would respond to this by saying that we cannot be open to new and different interpretations because we are seeking "THE Truth". To that I say, "good luck." As for me, however, I will continue to find meaning in the text and that meaning just may not be what the author intended, but it doesn't mean that it is any less true, any less real, any less meaningful. Watch out, though, because if we're not careful we just may discover that God is bigger than one person; bigger than me, bigger than you.