Fri 1 Apr 2011
Much of my previous literary theory discussion has operated in the realm of the ideal. For example, my discussions of the Experience (judging the “message(s)” or Logos of a literary work) have assumed two things: first, that authors are capable of encoding the (unconscious or intended) message; and second, that readers are capable of decoding it. Likewise, my post on Beauty implies that authors are able, in essence, to first, encapsulate in text the (unconscious or intended) encounter of the mysterious; and second, that the reader is equally capable of entering into that same encounter, feeling the same awe, or pleasure, or disgust that went into its construction. Both of these assertions have one fundamental underlying assumption: namely, that language is capable of accurately transmitting information between speaker and hearer without any loss of that information.
Having taken degrees in both English and Linguistics, I have been exposed to rather contrary views of the nature of language. As a linguist, I want to say that language functions as a science: it follows very specific (if unconscious) rules. From the most basic levels (eg, phonetics and phonemics) to the more complex (eg, morphology and syntax) to the most complex (eg, semantics, pragmatics and speech acts), language can be broken down into its constituent parts; it can be analysed, and the laws governing its construction can be identified. And these laws help us to explain how utterances carry meaning.
But on the other hand, I also hold a degree in English. In that capacity, I saw (and, indeed, contributed to ) the broader activity of interpretation – of drawing meaning from a text, often arguing that the meaning you are identifying has gone unobserved by prior readers. And as any student of literature (or Scripture for that matter) knows, different people often come to different interpretations of the same text. The question one must ask is obvious: if language operates on a system of basic laws (as linguists assert), why do such differences in interpretation occur?
Much of late twentieth century critical theory capitalized on this seeming inability to arrive at definitive interpretations. Indeed, Derrida argued that language is always self-deconstructing; one cannot say anything without using words which simultaneously say the opposite of what one means. In purely biblical terms, one might summarize Derrida by quoting Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more words, the less the meaning.” For Derrida, the issue of language is a simple dichotomy: either language can convey meaning or it cannot. And if it can be shown to fail in one instance, despite the intention of the author, than the entire structure collapses; we can never again trust with any certainty that our language will accurately convey the meaning we intend. It’s Babel all over again.
David Lyle Jeffrey does a good job of breaking down this dichotomy in his 1996 work People of the Book: Christian Identify and Literary Culture.1 Jeffrey asserts that Christians need not make a choice between the two poles; sometimes language carries meaning effectively and sometimes it does not. “Christian literary theories are generally affirmative of an ultimate Truth or Logos,” he writes, “but also firm in their insistence on the limitations of human language more than dimly to refract that Logos.” In other words, language is related to meaning but it seldom has a one-to-one correlation. Because language is imperfect, it often fails to convey intended meaning in its totality. As such, Jeffrey says, it leads sometimes to “endless frustration” and sometimes to “momentary joy.”
It is this simultaneously-good-and-bad nature of language Christians ought to recall when they approach literature. Like all of creation, human language was “subjected to frustration” in the Fall. But it was originally created good. And just as humanity retains some semblance of “the image of God” after the fall, so too human language retains some of its original goodness. We may find that the meaning in literature is often obscured, but there is still some meaning to be found. It’s beauty may be marred, but there is still fragments of beauty. And this is all, as I reflected in my first post on Christianity and literature, because God is still at work in creation – the hidden God working through the vocations of man for the good of the world. When the meaning of a story is successfully experienced via language, it is because God is good. When beauty is successfully crafted by an author and appreciated by the reader, it is because God is good. In the end, that is the most important argument why Christians ought to read literary works: because God is amazingly and undeservedly good. Despite the brokenness of language and literature, he works though them to reveal beauty and truth and goodness. It’s the promise of Pentecost. In good literature, we are the recipients of God’s grace. And so we read, trusting that the “Giver of all good things” will, indeed, give us something good.
[This is the fifth and final article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the essays in the series here.]
1I will say, however, that his tendency to prolixity in the text manifests, if unintentionally so, an occasional impenetrability which has the effect of obfuscating his general purposes. In other words, he uses too many big words. I’m not against flexing your lexical abilities in general, but his sentences are often far heavier than they need to be – perhaps reflecting, in some small way, the very limitations of language he is discussing.
Image credits: (1) Open book image: vichie81 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net. (2) Tower of Babel illustration from Gustave Doré.