Do Unto Authors

Do Unto Authors

The author is the source of meaning, and the text is the means of meaning. Because the text is public, readers are able to attend to the author’s intention embedded in his words. And good readers attend both to the explicit and implicit dimensions of an author’s meaning.

Picture yourself in a group Bible study. Your small group is studying the book of Ephesians, and you’ve made it to chapter 5. Someone reads aloud verse 18: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” Then Steve, the new guy, says, “Well, Paul clearly forbids getting drunk on wine. I’m just thankful that he said nothing about getting drunk on whiskey. That’s my favorite way to become intoxicated.”

We all intuitively recognize that Steve is mistaken. We might even think him absurd. But how do we explain his error? My guess is that we would say something like, “Steve, that’s not what the Bible means. Paul intended to prohibit all drunkenness, not just drunkenness from wine.” To which Steve might reply, “But that’s not what the Bible says. Paul mentioned wine only. I’m sticking to the text.” Or he might say, “That’s just your interpretation. I’m talking about what the Bible means to me.”

Learn the Habit of Reading Well

When people ask what I do for a living, I often say, “My job is to teach college students how to read.” This is only half a joke, because the reality is that our educational system and society has left many people incapable of reading well. That’s why, at Bethlehem College & Seminary, our approach to education centers on imparting to our students certain habits of heart and mind.

In all of our programs, we aim to enable and motivate students

  • to observe their subject matter accurately and thoroughly,
  • to understand clearly what they have observed,
  • to evaluate fairly what they have understood by deciding what is true and valuable,
  • to feel intensely according to the value of what they have evaluated,
  • to apply wisely and helpfully in life what they understand and feel, and
  • to express in speech and writing and deeds what they have seen, understood, felt, and applied in such a way that its accuracy, clarity, truth, value, and helpfulness can be known and enjoyed by others.

There is a certain order to these habits. Before you can feel appropriately, you must evaluate rightly. And before you can evaluate rightly, you must first observe accurately and understand clearly. Note this: evaluation depends upon understanding. Without clear understanding of what someone has said or written, evaluation is impossible, because you have nothing to evaluate. You can’t say whether something is true or false, good or bad, until you first know what the something is.

Meaning and Significance Are Not the Same

My own experience as a teacher suggests that there are many confusions and pitfalls around the question of “meaning” when we read a text. Consider this a crash course on the meaning of meaning.

Let’s begin with the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). When it comes to reading, we ought to practice Golden Rule Interpretation. That is, we ought to treat authors the way we want to be treated. No one wants his own words treated like a wax nose that a reader can bend according to his will. No one likes to have his words twisted into something he didn’t intend. When we speak or write, we mean something, and we want that meaning to stand—to be understood and respected as ours (even if others disagree with us). And so, given that’s how we want to be treated, we ought to treat authors the same.

To do this, we must distinguish between what the author meant by his words and the effects of his words on subsequent people and events. For clarity, let’s refer to the first as meaning. Texts mean what authors mean by them. The second we may call significance. The author’s meaning can be related to different texts, contexts, concepts, situations, people, places—anything you can think of, really.

Meaning and significance are distinct. Meaning is stable through time; significance may and does change. Meaning is about what authors do in public by means of words (as one theologian puts it). Significance is about the effects of those words on everything else. Meaning is fixed and bounded; significance is, in principle, limitless. When an author writes something, he means this and not that. But significance has to do with the relation between the author’s meaning and this, that, and the other.

With this basic distinction in hand, let’s consider four puzzles in relation to meaning: the source of meaning, the means of meaning, the levels of intent, and the boundaries of meaning. To aid in solving these puzzles, we’ll use Steve’s surprising interpretation of what the Bible says in Ephesians 5:18 as a test case.

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