As the study of literature has progressed throughout history, we have seen the birth and demise of many theories regarding its interpretation. The current plethora of ideological frameworks in which one may read texts is clear indication of the confusion and disagreement among scholars: feminisms, queer-theory, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, Marxism, new historicism, and so forth and so forth. With such a selection of choices available to us, we may naturally ask, “What is truth?”1 Or rather, as some of our colleagues would have us question: “Is there truth at all?”
For those of us who subscribe to the Christian faith, there can be no question as to our allegiance to truth. We hold not simply that there are facts of matter, nor that there are only truths of convenience, but rather that there is one Absolute and Unchanging Truth overall. Jesus Christ has said, no less than 78 times, “I tell you the truth.”2 And not only does he speak truth, he is the very essence of Truth itself. As he has so explicitly said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”3
This fundamental concept of an Absolute underlies our entire faith. It must be True that there is a God. It must be True that all mankind is sinful. It must be True that God is Love and thus wants none to perish. It must be True that He sent His Son to die in our place, that we might have access to eternal life. It cannot be some personally-comforting strength and it cannot be some personally-fulfilling philosophy. As Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”4 Our faith must be based on reality else it is useless. There is, indeed, truth.
If this be the philosophical framework from which we approach our faith, it must also be the framework from which we approach interpretation. There is truth, in both the small sense and large sense. Yet if there is truth, we must agree that there exists the possibility of misconstruing or misunderstanding that truth. One need only look to the many misinterpretations of Scripture riddling our churches in order to see this fact. It is not difficult for any one person to say that another group is wrong regarding some matter of interpretation. Yet, if we may call certain interpretations “wrong” we agree (whether tacitly or explicitly) that there is a “right” way in which to read. Thus is our approach to Scripture. So too it must be our approach to literature.
When one attempts to read Scripture from a pious Christian perspective (that is, from the originally intended meaning), we subscribe to certain tenets of interpretation. We hold that Scripture is “God-breathed”5 and that it “never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”6 Thus, we say that Scripture is written by God. He is the Author. And as such, His purposes in writing continue down to the present age. Scripture is as unchanging as God Himself, for the Word of God is Jesus Christ. His words still hold meaning for us today.
Yet we do not deny the context in which He writes. He uses mortals as His pen, and each mortal leaves their own mark on their page. If Moses is a red pen, then Paul is a blue. Thus it is that Peter can write of Paul, “He writes the same way in all his letters.”7 We can clearly see how each human author’s own individual personalities give character to the inerrant Word of God.
There is, of course, more context than just the individuals themselves. We must also realize the further contexts of immediate audience and historic cultural environments. The author of Hebrews writes, at the first, to the Hebrews. When Paul writes Galatians he writes to the Galatians. To more fully understand the meaning of the text, one must recognize the original recipients and the culture in which they live. Yet the text has meaning not only to the first audience, but also to others of that time, and to us as well. Paul, when he sends his letter to the Colossians, gives the very specific instructions that “after this letter has been read to you, see to it that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”8 The reason is clear: the same meaning can be accessible to people of different places and circumstances.
And this is true of the Christian’s appraisal of literature. We, though often studying selections from eras not our own, can still come to understand the same meaning as the piece originally intended. We may not always grasp the intended purpose. But it is theoretically possible to do so, and it is to this level of truth we must attempt to raise ourselves.
We have seen how a Christian must approach Scripture when it comes to interpretation. The recognition of the Author with His purpose, as well as the context and means by which He writes are necessary for a full understanding of His work. So too, the study of literature requires us to begin with a framework in which we may read and come to understand the content of a piece.
The first aspect of this framework must be a recognition of the existence of the author. The author does exist. There is a creator behind the creation. Like God, who speaks9 the “Word”10 in order to bring creation into existence, the author writes their creation into existence. Among these, there are those would imitate the creative work of God and those who, in their folly, would seek to replace Him and “be as gods.”11 The author may not be dead. But she is certainly not God either.
As we read an author’s work, we must recognize the distinct personality and character of the author. Her personality colours her creation. Knowledge of the creator, therefore, is of inestimable value in helping to uncover the meaning of the creation. Of course, there is the possibility that an author could choose to write outside his own character. And we must be wary of this possibility. Nevertheless, it is enough to say that when one understands the author, one has a better chance at understanding his work. In addition to this, we must also remember that the author does not draw upon his or herself alone when they create. Unlike God, humanity does not create ex nihilo. The author exists in time and space, in a society and culture. The more we learn about these cultural contexts, the greater our understanding of the outward theories and opinions with which our author is engaging, sometimes in favour, sometimes in conflict. Moreover, we gain knowledge of the audience and thus, some greater insight into the intended meaning. Therefore one must learn to understand both the personal individuality of an author as well as the societal contexts in which she writes if we are to accurately comprehend the purpose of her literature.
And there is, indeed, purpose behind each selection. The author did not simply combine ink and paper in some Darwinian method where, by slow processes of natural evolution, the poems and essays we read today formed themselves. No, we have already recognized the presence of an author. And this author has painstakingly linked lines of ink to form letters, letters to form words, and words to form the piece in question. There is a specific plan. There is order. There is purpose. And thus, our role as interpreters, is to learn to read the piece as the author would have us understand it, as the author herself would understand it. It is to this end that we must apply ourselves. We may not reach perfection. But we may approach it.
Yet our study of literature is not entirely based on historical methods. As we said of Scripture, there is within literature a meaning which may transcend time. There are certain characteristics which are common to peoples in whatever culture and whatever era they live. The primary of these is also the most disheartening. All humanity, since the beginning of creation (or rather, shortly thereafter) have been victims and perpetrators of sin. This is the common thread. Our common humanity, if you will. Sin. And recognizing this fact allows us great insight into the literature we study, as well as ourselves. It is the knowledge of sin, understood to exist by people of all time (though they have disagreed as to exactly what was or was not sin) that is an indelible mark and binding tie on us all. We are one in the flesh.
Yet because all peoples have recognized sin, so too do we share a common desire for the eradication of sin and the suffering it creates. We desire salvation. In order to find this salvation, some have looked to personal fulfillment via material wealth, others to the creation of utopian societies, and others to divine intervention. There have been countless solutions proposed, some approaching goodness, some much more malevolent; some individualist, others communal; some inward-looking; others outward-hopeful. Regardless of the difference of opinion, the fact remains that we desire an answer to the burning issue of sin and suffering. And it is around this fundamental tension of common human experience that all literature circles. Humanity is not perfect. There is a curse upon us, as well as on all of creation. It is for this reason that conflict is the necessity of plot and it is for this reason that suspense exists. Things may not go well for the protagonist. She may suffer terrible tragedy. For that matter, things may not go well for the author. He may suffer terrible tragedy. If there is plot, there will be sin. It may be ignored, it may be covered up, and it may not be dealt with openly. But it exists. And the focus of any piece of literature will inevitably move to answering whether or not the suffering will be solved: “Will salvation come? Will there be a ‘happily ever after’?”
Armed with such knowledge, we may boldly approach the writings of humankind. Combining our knowledge of a shared human experience of sin and desire for salvation, with the study of the context of a piece, we may gain some cognisance of the truth regarding a piece. We may learn to see what the author saw, and while we may disagree with the author’s conclusions (and rightly we should in some cases. As Paul writes, we are to “test everything” and “hold on to the good”12), we will still have understood as the author understood. Such must be the goal of all our literary studies. For when we have first understood, we may then discuss. And when we discuss, we may use our words to bring glory to God. Amen.