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By Scott Reynolds

What gives words meaning? Is it the author, the words themselves, the reader, or something else altogether? At different points in history all the above had a place of authority giving words their meaning. However, as the world changes and the power behind words change it causes great change in culture. Exploring the power of words is an extension of exploring the power of culture and who has the power to shape culture.

What Words Tell Us About Culture

Jacques Derrida and the Postmodern Revolution

 Jacques Derrida stands at the center of the radical postmodern literary revolution. He is burdened by the idea that anyone can use a text to position authority over someone else. The idea of equality found at the table of interpretation includes more than accepting other readers who might use it for their own advantage but also includes the reader’s equality with the author and the text itself. Derrida’s criticism of literary theory includes a deconstruction of understanding. His goal was to move beyond the written text and the spoken word, and into the fabric of metaphysics, methodology, and the morals of meaning.

Three Ages of Transition in Literary Interpretation

Kevin Vanhoozer uses the work of Derrida to highlight the three ages of transition in literary interpretation. The division of his work follows the critical analysis of the three ages: the age of the author, the age of the text, and the age of the reader. Each section explores the historicity of the age, the mentality of the reader regarding truth, as well as the issues that contributed to advancing a transition away from the prima facie interpretation of objective truth or the author’s meaning found in the text. As Vanhoozer looks at Derrida’s work he is asking the reader to decide whether the meaning of a text is objectively fixed by the author or by the text itself, or whether it maintains the freedom to vary from reader to reader.

Pre-Modern, Modern, and Postmodern Periods

If the three interpretational methodology transitions are broken down historically, they seem to follow the transitions of Western society through the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern periods. The pre-modern period is defined by absolute authority. The reader had limited access to the written word and any word written carried the full weight and authority of the author. The modern period ushered in the age of enlightenment and with it an explosion in education. The quest for knowledge placed an emphasis on the reader’s exegetical skills to interpret the text. The authority no longer rested with the intentions of the author but in the educated hermeneutical methodology of the reader. The 20th century ushered in postmodern era, after two world wars, Western culture began questioning all authority. The institutions of government, marriage, the church, and education all became vulnerable to the removal of objective authority. Regarding the literary interpretation of the postmodern reader Vanhoozer states a word “interprets with a no reality principle (the way it is), only a pleasure principle (the way I want it to be).” The foundational question in the theology of literary interpretation is authority. The battle over authority is critical in how a person approaches interpretation and how they determine whose interpretation is correct.

Reformation and the Battle of Interpretation

Historically, the battle of the Reformation was in part a battle of interpretation. Luther and others questioned Papal Infallibility or the Soul Inerrancy of the Pope. The reformers rejected that the Pope had interpretational inerrancy. The interpretational transition of the Reformation saw the authority move from a single point of Soul Inerrancy to the acceptance of a new idea called Soul Competency. However, as the reformers allowed the average reader access to the Bible, they would still hold the reader to the belief of determinacy in their interpretations. Everyone was welcomed to study and work to interpret the Scriptures as long as they realized that being Soul Competent meant that you could find God’s meanings in the Scriptures. It did not mean that you were Soul Inerrant, meaning that you could wrongly interpret the Scriptures.

Calvin’s goal in interpretation, was clear; “It is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.” In contrast is Derrida’s “death of an author” which is a direct consequence of Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God. The death of God means the death of absolute authority. The current state of cultural affairs has drawn an increasing number of biblical scholars to adopt and advocate strategies for translating the Bible, influenced by the work of Derrida. Derrida and his deconstructionist have correctly analyzed the postmodern culture and have declared victory by bracketing out orthodox Christian belief. They also believe that once a text is freed from the author, it can become a canvas on which a reader can exercise their own creativity. The death of the author was critical in moving from premodern to modern, and from modern to postmodern culture.

Spiritual Implications for Biblical Authority

What are the spiritual implications for removing the biblical author’s authority? “The answer is brief but massive: biblical authority is undone. The un-doers effectively strip the Bible of any stable meaning so that it cannot state a fact, issue a command, or make a promise.” The death of the author gave rise to the power of the words themselves. The transition is tame compared to the problems with postmodern philosophies; however, some believed that commentaries were being developed and could be used by anyone to push an agenda on the text. Richard Coggins feared that commentaries would become weapons of propaganda. Today, the church is the living consequences of these transitions and postmodern relativism has left the current culture in a legitimate crisis in biblical understanding.

DETERMINISM

Determinism means that a text has a definite meaning, one that can be qualified and defined. The next step down from determinacy is textuality, “where the autonomous text offers no more resources for limiting the play of meaning than does the strangulated voice of the anonymous author.” Even those modern scholars who helped refine interpretation theory as a science of the text could not stop the downward spiral of deconstruction. Eventually, the second pillar fell, and society experienced the death of the text and with it the possibility of literary knowledge.

POSTMODERN THINKING

Postmodern thinkers have deemed it unnecessary to investigate truths about the world, especially when it comes to epistemology. They believed “the light of reason is no longer needed for the growth of knowledge.”  The ideal of objective knowledge is no longer a truth to pursue but a myth to debunk. These thinkers reject objective knowledge found in a text due to bias found in a theoretical or interpretive framework: “knowledge in the postmodern world is always contextual, always perspectival, always relative to some point of view or other.”

LOGOCENTRISM

Some postmodern thinkers like Paul Ricoeur are not as radical as Derrida in their attack on logocentrism, the catchall term used to describe Western thinkers who are preoccupied with meaning, rationality, and truth. Derrida believes that having a stable point of commonality outside of language, like reason, revelation, or even Platonic ideals, feeds the traditional view of authoritative truth. He uses the name “grammatology” for a study of writing that is no longer governed by logocentrism.

POINTS OF FAILURE

Derrida’s views create a tension, which he classified as a battle between what a text wants to say and what it is systematically constrained to say. “As a deconstructionist he is able to identify points of failure in a system, points at which it is able to feign coherence only by excluding and forgetting that which it cannot assimilate, that which is ‘other’ to it.” Derrida repeatedly finds the best way to escape problems with his belief system is to simply not recognize those issues that will not assimilate into his views. Those authoritative views like objective and absolute truth found in the Scriptures are simply deemed to live outside his interpretative community. When interpretation moves from a methodology used to understanding a text to the primary purpose of the text then all authority is stripped away and only the current relevant meaning of a closed interpretative community remains.

Use of Metaphors

The use of metaphors in ancient writings has leant to the ever-evolving creation of meaning. “It is one thing to interpret metaphors, however, and quite another to interpret metaphorically.” Derrida held that there is nothing outside the text and therefore the whole world is a metaphor. Language is a collection of signs used to promote different views about the world. He believed that the “metaphoricity is the logic of contamination and the contamination of logic.” The metaphorical indeterminacy allows a reader to choose metaphors about God and his relation to the world that best fit and promote their worldview about God.

Derrida’s deconstructionist views on reason, authoritative revelation, and objective truth all stem from his radical views about authority in general. Disillusioned with authority, he states that “reason is what serves our ethico-political interest. Behind rationality lies values (ethics) and power (politics). Deconstruction is a kind of sophistic acid that strips away the layers of rhetoric that disguise values and truths.” The goal was nothing short of incoherent relativism in a world freed from oppressive authorities.

The third age of criticism he explores the transition from textuality to contextuality. “The reader is not a canvas to be molded but an active participate in developing meaning to a text based on what the reader brings to it. Those looking to deconstruct meaning, study the effects of a reader’s social, historical, and theological bents on their personal interpretation of a text. The idea of a reader-response methodology to interpretation opened the door to criticism from many conservatives. The radical reader-response critics continue to reject the traditional role of the reader and insist that the text conform to the reading instead of the reading conforming to the text.

The battle for interpretative freedom and true meaning has deep cross-cultural implications knowing that both moderns and post-moderns are claiming the high ground in the battle for literary theory. Defending the position of the author, Vanhoozer refers to the post-modern reader’s use of a text as a ventriloquist’s dummy serving as the conduit to voice their own opinion.  He recognizes that the current age of criticism is defined by egotistical entitlement that simply refuses to look to the truth found in the past but instead is committed to the unintelligible ideas of their own voice.

  Stanley Fish has declared, “The authorizing agency of interpretational authority is not the author, the text, or even the reader, but the interpretative community.” The worldview of the crowd dictates the range of what is or is not an acceptable interpretation of a text. A conservative might say, I believe it means X, (X being the traditional, authoritative interpretation), but if the culture is bent towards a different liberal view, then having the view of X is outside the range of an acceptable interpretation of the text. The implications of Fish’s conclusion is that truth is demoted from its prior status as timeless and absolute to what the mob perceives is good and acceptable in this moment. Truth, metaphysically, morally, and meaning simply becomes a label we assign to our beliefs. As along as a reader’s beliefs fit inside the acceptable worldview of the interpretative community, then any interpretation that seem right to the interpretative community at the moment or given to advance their beliefs is deemed as good and true.

Derrida’s Deconstructionism

Derrida’s deconstructionism’s underlying purpose is promoting and supporting an inconsistent ideology with the goal of removing institutional authority. As the chart shows the interpretative plurality speaks about approaching a text with different interpretative methods. The idea is that it might take multiple interpretative approaches to get a thick description of meaning out of a text. In contrast, hermeneutical pluralism maintains conflicting interpretations are viewed as equally valid. The deconstructionist represents a small, but growing, number of people who truly believe that a determinate meaning cannot be known from a text. When asked whether a determinate meaning can be determined, the majority of people think yes, even if they will not say so publicly. The power of their interpretive community and the perceived oppression by traditional institutions rallies the average reader to forsake logic and follow an inconsistent ideology.  Derrida’s criticism of literary theory includes a deconstruction of understanding.

Vanhoozer has observed how the work of orality in Rabbinical Sages to create independent and authoritative discourse outside the historical norms shows great similarities to Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism: “Derrida attends only to the signifiers, not the signified.”  In other words, like the rabbis, Derrida is focused on someone’s speaking and has no concern for what they are saying. The social implications of Derrida’s deconstructionism can be seen in the plurality of Israel’s monotheistic culture. Thus, “The Alexandrian Therapeutae, the Yakhad of Qumran, the Pharisees, and the primitive Jesus-communities, all appear to have been conversionist associations formed to pursue a collective transformative discipline under the guidance of persuasive teachers.”  Vanhoozer promotes critical realism as a middle position between letterism (epistemological absolutism) and deconstructionism (epistemological relativism).

Pre-Deconstructionism: The Next Step?

Could Pre-Deconstructionism be the next step after post-modernism? Premodern was bound by authoritative religions, modernism is bound by scholastic academia, postmodern is bound by the individual, and pre-deconstructionism is bound by the interpretative community. Interpretative Communities could be the next phase of cultural evolution, returning words to premodern authoritative positions, this time not held by the church but multiplied by mobs of interpretative communities.

Recommended resources related to the topic:

Counter Culture Christian: Is There Truth in Religion? (DVD) by Frank Turek

How Philosophy Can Help Your Theology by Richard Howe (MP3 Set), (mp4 Download Set), and (DVD Set)

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Dr. Scott Reynolds earned his D.Min from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Theology and Apologetics program at Liberty University. In addition to his doctoral pursuits, he has earned degrees from Troy University. Dr. Reynolds has traveled the world and has served as an archaeologist with some of the biggest names in the field. He brings a passion for biblical studies, biblical history, and an expertise in archaeological studies. Dr. Reynolds is a retired pastor and church planter. He has taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and now is now working archaeological digs in a pursuit of discovering the apologetic properties of archaeology. Scott and his wife Lori have two grown children, one granddaughter and a very spoiled dog.

Original blog: https://bit.ly/38nofpb

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