The search for meaning

Words matter.

So does the way we choose to phrase things, even the little things. Words matter because when you string enough of them together, they are imbued with meaning. All of a sudden, this string of words conveys an idea. It speaks. That is the very purpose of words. Their purpose is the communication of meaning.

But where do words find their meaning?

Roaming around on my regular string of news sites, I ran across a great example of this today. In a recent meeting between President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, our president was presented with a gift from Netanyahu. It was the book of Esther. This book of the Bible is one that is used by both Judaism and Christianity. It exists as part of both the Jewish canon and our own. It is, for lack of a better word, a shared resource, one that both Jew and Christian should hold as significant. Obama is, by confession, a Christian and Netanyahu is, by ethnicity, a Jew.

The gift was deeply symbolic and meant to call Obama to a decision about the state of affairs concerning Israel and the Middle East.

In the book of Esther, we find a story of a king, a potential uprising, an evil villain, and the heroes who intercede to secure the king’s favor. Netanyahu went on to speak briefly about these characters in terms of anti-Semitism and the decision that lay with the powerful king concerning the action he must take in dealing with the potential destruction of Israel.

Clearly, Netanyahu is interpreting the story to mean that Obama, if he is to do right by this piece of religious literature (that is supposedly sacred to him), would lead our nation to side with Israel against Iran.

On the CNN religion blog, Stephen Prothero responds with his thoughts on this event. You can find the article here. I would suggest reading it before you go any further through my post, as what I have to say will not make much sense otherwise.

Prothero’s argument focuses on the decision that must be made by Obama. In his article he comments on the meaning that Netanyahu gives to the book of Esther. Recounting a trip to Israel during Purim (the festival that celebrates the events of Esther), Prothero recalls a sermon he heard by a Jewish rabbi at the Wailing Wall. This sermon carried none of the overtones of war or taking sides at all. It talked of the completely internal struggle to love everyone. It was about forgetting differences.

Concluding his thoughts, Prothero says that Obama must decide what meaning he will give to the story. Unfortunately, the problem with Netanyahu’s backhanded purpose for giving a copy of Esther, the sentimental sermon given by the rabbi at the Wailing Wall, and even Prothero’s article itself may go unnoticed by many evangelical Christians today.

So, what is the problem?

The issue this article so clearly details is one of meaning.  The purpose of words is to communicate meaning.  Inside a phrase, sentence, or passage exists some idea that must be conveyed. It is why you read books, it is why businesses post billboards on the side of the road, and it is why I write these blog posts.

However, alongside the growth of postmodernism, subtle shifts have taken place in the way people think about a text and its meaning. The rise of “reader-response” has fundamentally changed how we find the meaning of the text.

Up until the modern era, people sought to discover the meaning the author of the text intended. In this way, the reader was a detective, searching for the meaning.  Ever since the dawn of the written age thousands of year ago, this approach was the way a passage conveyed meaning. But in the last 50 years, the reader-response movement has turned this idea on its head.

According to reader-response, it is impossible to truly know the author’s meaning, and it is not the purpose for the text anyway. Instead, the text exists as a tool for the readers to find their own meaning. No longer is the reader a detective, now they are a creator, giving the text its meaning.

In the article above, all parties assume reader-response. Netanyahu twists the biblical text to make a political point of his own choosing. The sentimental rabbi at the Wailing Wall uses the exact same text to proclaim a meaning that does not seem rooted in the text at all, and Prothero concludes by saying Obama must give the text his own meaning.

When we attempt to give the biblical text our own meaning, we seek to overthrow the one God gave it. If we approach the Bible as the determiner of meaning, then it no longer serves as an authority in our lives, but becomes a tool at our disposal. It can no longer correct our thinking or actions, because it no longer has a voice. In a reader response approach, the Bible sits silent while the reader uses it as flimsy backing for whatever they believe.

Yet, before we throw stones at these three public figures for draining the God-given meaning out of scripture and replacing it with their own, we must consider how we use it in the church today. Do we not often do the same thing?

Reader-response is alive and well in the church. We sit around in a circle asking questions like, “And what does this mean to you?” It sounds harmless, but in this way, we become the master of the text, instead of letting it master us. Soon, you have as many opinions about the text as you do people, and then the actual meaning the author imbued into that text is lost.

To be a detective is far harder work when it comes to the Bible. It is far easier to give it a quick read and see how it makes you feel, to become the creator of meaning. However, when we remove the God-given meaning from the Bible, we also remove its power.

When it comes to the God’s word are you a detective or a creator?

 

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