Interpretation, Preaching and the Olympic Logo
Early in the 20th Century Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) developed the linguistic aspects of what is known as Structuralism, suggesting that the relationship between words and objects, symbols and meanings, or more properly ‘signifiers’ and the ‘signified’, is purely arbitrary and without an inherent link. What a word signifies is purely dependent upon its place within a social and linguistic structure. Therefore, the meaning of a text, whether written or verbal, can only be properly understood if there is a common structural context. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) developed this concept still further, in his view drawing it to its logical conclusion, acknowledging the existence of social and linguistic structures but considering them invalid and fighting for their removal. Therefore, while de Saussure maintained that a sign derives its significance from its place in a structure based on common usage, Derrida sought to remove (deconstruct) the structure and give all meanings equivalent value. Therefore, according to Derrida, the author’s intention is at best simply one of a myriad of meanings and should take its place in the queue alongside the others, and at worst, it is an authoritarian imposition that should be rejected.
While this ‘deconstructionist’ and supposedly tolerant position might initially sound credible to a post-modern society, which refutes all dogmatism but its own, it inevitably results in the relativising of all claims to knowledge and truth and thereby conflicts with Christian theology on many points. There is certainly much to learn from Postmodernity, recognising that writers and readers have presuppositions and therefore both recording and reading are subjective, and not objective, functions. Also, we must acknowledge that through a text we have only limited access to historical events or truths being conveyed. That said, if a reader is to avoid relativising all interpretations, I fail to see how this can be done without reference to authorial intent. For a text to have any stability, given that words change their meaning over time and that there are a potentially infinite number of reader’s opinions, there must be a ‘stake in the ground’ at some point in time, which helps determine the ‘true’ meaning of a text. The selection of any point other than the original author seems to me to be a purely arbitrary choice which is itself relativism.
So, while the interpretation of texts may not always be easy, we must not think it to be impossible. Kevin Vanhoozer makes this point well in his book Is there a meaning in this text? summarising by quoting E.D.Hirsch:
“it is a logical mistake to confuse the impossibility of certainty in understanding, with the impossibility of understanding.”
While we accept that a reader can never understand a writer fully, even if they are contemporaries, we can understand sufficiently and it is wholly appropriate for the interpreter to focus upon the intended meaning of the author.
Now, while we may laugh at the rather ludicrous suggestion that the word Zion can be found in the 2012 Olympic logo, I wonder if we sometimes handle the Bible in this way. All too often I have heard sermons where the message of the sermon is quite different to the author’s meaning in the text, or where the text is simply a peg on which to hang our own ideas. It is too easy to preach the message we bring to the text, rather than the message we find in the text. It may be Biblical in the sense that we are not preaching error, but is it in that particular text? If we are to “rightly handle the word of truth” 2Ti 2:15, and of course by our example in preaching teach others to do the same, we should look to the author for meaning and avoid the silliness of seeing nonsense where it doesn’t exist, even in Olympic logos!