is there a meaning in this (old) text?

Today is the day when New Zealanders give special attention to Te Tiriti O Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), the text on which our nation is founded—and signed 184 years ago.

But how is it that old texts convey meaning in today’s world? This is a question that is never too far away for interpreters of the Bible, but also for interpreters of documents like Te Tiriti

There seem to be three basic approaches. One is to live in the intention of the author who wrote the text. This takes us back to historical features and ‘the world behind the text’. Another is to live in the text itself, wrestling with what the words mean and how they relate to each other. This takes us into literary features and ‘the world within the text’. The final approach is centred on the reader, with the response that the text creates among contemporary readers and communities—’the world in front of the text’—guiding the meaning.

Behind. Within. In Front Of. These words are so helpful. While they are attributed to different people—I first encountered them in W. Randolph Tate’s Biblical Interpretation (Hendrickson, 1991), where they provide the structure for his book.

By way of illustration, consider the parables of Jesus: ‘that novice preacher’s dream and experienced preacher’s nightmare’. They appear to be straightforward, but they can become tricky. More has been written about finding the meaning of a parable than any other type of text in the Bible, except apocalyptic literature. And you know what happens in the story? You can almost split the twentieth century into ‘thirds’ and watch how the focus shifts from author to text and then on to reader. It is uncanny (and something over which I laboured to demonstrate in my thesis).

But in expressing it this way, let’s not mistake history as something that unfolds in successive eras that totally eclipse each other. History works more like adding lanes to a highway—and in the final decades of the twentieth century the busy and fast lane became the ‘reader’ lane.

life in the reader lane

The easiest place, inevitably simplistic, to turn is the evolving high school curriculum and a subject like English. When I was at school Shakespeare was in the curriculum, with the key to the meaning of KIng Lear (which I did in my final year) discovered to be living in the world of both author and text. We entered Shakespeare’s world and laboured with his intention, while also attending closely to the words on the pages in front of us. This was the key to meaning. It wasn’t too many years later that essays/exams shifted more to a reader being able to express some kind of response to King Lear and this becomes its meaning for them. So meaning becomes more fluid and subjective, varying from reader to reader. Then, as things like postcolonialism entered ‘the world in front of the text’, the fate of Shakespeare was pretty much sealed. As a vestige from another world, far away and long ago, there was less confidence that it could be meaning-full for students and so it was replaced.

Alternatively, consider the fate of small group Bible studies. When they happen, is there not a tendency to go around the room, with each person responding to ‘what did you get from this passage?’ A jumble of interpretations accumulate, with nobody flinching when completely contradictory things are expressed! No one can be wrong. Everyone’s view, being true for them, is affirmed. The reader becomes king and queen of interpretation. In practice, but never in theory(!), the author and text are more overstood then understood. This plays havoc with my line of work—training preachers of the Bible—because the role of (a pretty important) author and (a pretty important) text is diminished!

From where does all this come?

Again, a little simplistically, it helps to recognise that not only does history unfold as lanes, it also does so as levels. Ideas are debated and take root at a deeper level, far from the eye and experience of popular culture. Philosophy stuff. Eventually, sometimes decades later, these ideas sprout, becoming more visible and audible. One of these debates was around the meaning of texts. When it all sprouted we find the focus shifting from a search for truth in the text to more of a recognition of the power at work in the interpretation of texts—a power that can be abusive of readers. While it is one reason why the encyclopedia has given way to wikipedia, it is also why there are all these different ‘readings’ of the text today—postcolonial, feminist, gay, African-American, eco etc. Authors with their texts have been used as instruments of power. History is in need of revision. Curriculum is in need of reshaping. It is no longer the author who is lord of the text, it is the reader. At its extreme, “the author must die if the text is to live and the reader liberated” (Vanhoozer, 69).

a way forward

As the twentieth-century drew to a close a fresh approach began to emerge.

Going back to that book by Tate (in 1991), he provides us with an example. He calls for an ‘integrated approach’, where there is “a conversation … an interplay” (xx) between author, text and reader as the means by which an old text provides its meaning to us.

Afterall when the reader runs the show alone, it can be difficult for them to hear anything hard in the text. It can become so subjective, as the text is remade in the image of their context and concerns. But, let’s be fair here, when the author runs the show, it can be difficult to hear anything fresh in the text. It can become so objective, as the text is captive to a familiar meaning that has been handed down the generations.

But is ‘conversation…interplay’ a dynamic enough model? With the parables I like the image of a three-sided trampoline in which author, text and reader all contribute to the dynamic, or ‘bounce’, in a parable’s matted meaning—but there is also a sense in which each constrains the excesses of the other.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, I was helped by a book by Kevin Vanhoozer, from which I’ve already quoted: Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Zondervan, 1998). 450 pages! Just like the way Tate’s structure lives on in my mind—behind, within, in front of—so also does Vanhoozer’s structure for the way ahead: “resurrecting the author … redeeming the text … reforming the reader”.

Coming back to Te Tiriti

I am fascinated by an irony and a question.

When the world around us—in academia, in media, in politics—has moved so decisively towards the reader, remaking old texts into the image of contemporary communities and causes in order to make them meaning-full, what is happening with Te Tiriti? Are we not being called back to author and text? Are we not being asked to let historical and literary features have the upperhand? Are we not being taken back to authorial intention and purpose, with words like covenant being used to describe the document? Are we not being drawn back to what words in the original text actually mean and how they are best translated? Are we not being urged “to keep our finger on the text”, as Walter Kaiser trained me to do with biblical exegesis?

Yes, we are and I, for one, like it like this. But is it just me? Being taken back to author and text in this way, especially in this contemporary world, seems so ironic. It doesn’t appear to be the reader-centred instinct that we’d expect, does it? Am I missing something? I even struggle to see how it is inherently postcolonial. It just seems like good exegesis to me. In asking “is there a meaning in this (old) text?”, surely this is the appropriate and respectful place with which to begin—and by which to be constrained? It is with the Bible, including its parables. Let’s do it with Te Tiriti.

But what becomes of the reader—given their prominent place in this discussion of how an old text provides its meaning in today’s world? Who are they? Where are they? Have we already included them—all of them? Where and how does ‘interplay’ and ‘conversation’, even trampolining, happen—if it needs to happen all? Is there a ‘resurrecting the author … redeeming the text … reforming the reader’ template that is to be part of this interpretive journey as well? Yes, lots of questions on my mind to which I do not know the answers.

nice chatting, as I yield myself to greater minds than mine :).

Paul

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

7 Comments

  1. John on February 6, 2024 at 9:15 am

    Thank you Paul for these really helpful thoughts. I am really helped to be shown how reader centric we have become and that balance needs to be restored by giving greater respect to author and text. I would love to hear Anne Salmonds response to the approach you suggest (and the questions we all have).

    • Paul Windsor on February 8, 2024 at 9:42 am

      Thanks, John, for your response. I am glad that some of these thoughts can be helpful to you. After I had posted it, my mind went across to the Constitution of the USA with it’s troublesome ‘right to bear arms’, born as it was in the years of the Wild West. I wonder how that phrase might evolve in this author-text-reader kind of tension? Maybe it gets translated as the ‘right to bare arms’ :). Best wishes, Paul.

  2. Tim Hodge on February 8, 2024 at 1:44 pm

    Super helpful observations here, as I relate to people with divergent views on Waitangi. I hadn’t thought about the counter-cultural desire to let author and text instead of reader prevail in terms of the Treaty, but I will be musing on that much more and in conversation with others. Thanks Paul.

    • Paul Windsor on February 10, 2024 at 5:08 am

      Thanks, Tim — I am glad it can feed some conversations. They can be long days at Hagley, can’t they? 🙂

  3. Phillip Larking on February 8, 2024 at 4:54 pm

    Hi Paul, all very interesting, thanks so much. I wonder about the te ao Maori understanding of whakapapa, in which, in the case of te tiriti, the reader is in relationship with the author. And, more than this, a relationship which bears responsibility on the reader. That strength of relationship is powerful. Does that say something to our relationship with, for example, St Paul, and our responsibility to our spiritual tupuna (ancestors), and how we read their text?

    • Paul Windsor on February 10, 2024 at 5:27 pm

      Yes, Philip, so true — there is something precious going on in this aspect of te ao Maori — and St Paul, too.

      But my deeper questions remain. In a world that is socialised and educated to consider the reader (and the listener, the viewer, the consumer etc) to be sovereign in determining how a ‘text’ becomes meaning-full, how do we urge them to honour Te Tiriti by taking the author and the text seriously — something, as Tim says, that is ‘counter-cultural’? I am thinking especially of those who are not Maori, who make Aotearoa-NZ their home and who are not yet convinced of the need to honour Te Tiriti? How will their minds be changed, when they’ve been trained to believe that a text can mean whatever they want it to mean?

      You might remember that video resource on mission in a postChristian world, coming out of the Newbigin/Gospel & Culture world — “It’s No Good Shouting!”. I don’t think that is the answer here either.

      By the way, I thought this piece by Kate Frykberg that I just saw today was very good. Did you see it? http://tinyurl.com/nhe8zwpz

      Good to hear from you — Paul

  4. Phillip Larking on February 25, 2024 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks Paul, really appreciate your questions, and the way in which they invite us to see more clearly what’s going on around us. And thanks too for the link to the Frykberg resource, great stuff.

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