Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: "Is There a Meaning in This Text?"

"Neither standing nor understanding, however, is the final word in interpretation. The final word belongs to following. The church should be that community of humbly confident interpreter-believers whose consciences, seared and sealed by the Spirit, are captive to the Word, and whose commentaries and communities seek progressively to embody the meaning and significance of the text. Readers who work and pray over the text, who interpret freely and responsibly, and who follow its itineraries of meaning, will be progressively transformed into the image of him who is the ultimate object of the biblical witness." ~ Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge

For many centuries, really since the founding of human language, there has been the assumption by the majority of humanity that a written text has a distinct authorial intent and that the reader, using the right interpretive methods, can access it. Today, that conviction is no longer a given. Prominent postmodern literary and hermeneutic theory believes the exact opposite, i.e. meaning is relative to the encounter of the reader and the text. There is no meaning that is independent of our attempts to interpret anything—the text only reflects the reality of the reader. Nietzsche once said, "Ultimately, man finds in things nothing but what he himself has imported into them." For postmodern philosophers this axiom not only holds true for written texts but for the world itself. Everything is a text, yet there is no inherent meaning in any text. Postmodernism, tersely stated, is "incredulity towards meaning."

The Christian reader can easily see where this philosophy takes Biblical interpretation. Under these assumptions, Scripture has no inherent meaning, therefore meaning is not dependent on what God said but what the reader brings to the text. How can Christianity possibly function in this philosophical environment? Is there a meaning in the text, the Bible? As one can see by the title, that is the big question that Vanhoozer sets out to answer. Vanhoozer says, "the project for the present work: to articulate and defend the possibility, in the vale of the shadow of Derrida, that readers can legitimately and responsibly attain literary knowledge of the Bible."

I have written a review of this formidable, philosophical work. The review itself was difficult to write (at least within a reasonable page limit) because of the breadth of argument, the extent of Vanhoozer's cultural knowledge, and density of the material. However, I think I did an adequate job of reflecting his core arguments faithfully, but it is not going to be one of those reviews that replaces reading the book. Hopefully it will encourage you to read Vanhoozer's work. You can read the full review here but below is my conclusion to give you a taste:
In conclusion, the two flaws mentioned above pale in comparison to the usefulness of this book as a whole for the case for Biblical meaning and interpretation, and we are overall very impressed with this book. It is not for the faint of heart, however. While readable, it is philosophically heavy and complex. It, of course, has to be given the subject matter of the book. We would not recommend this for the average Joe in the Church. We do think that pastors, theologians, and seminary students need to read this book. The cultural landscape that we preach and teach in is thoroughly entrenched in many of the presuppositions and ideals of Postmodernism that Vanhoozer describes. We need to learn to interact with those presuppositions, expose them to our people in understandable ways, and offer them a strong alternative so they can go to their Scriptures with humility, conviction, and confidence. In a postmodern world, our people need to be able to trust that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
By His Grace,

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