The Redemption of Meaning: Freedom with Respect

Ah.  This is a wall of text.  Again.  I’ve tried to cut it down.  I really have!  I’m sorry, but bumper-sticker discussions just aren’t my thing….

Over the past few weeks we’ve struck both horns of the philosophical modernist-postmodernist dilemma when it comes to reading and writing.  We are told that we must either submit ourselves to the tyranny of the author or accept some form of relativism in order to enjoy the free play of the mind.  Thankfully, I strongly believe that this is a false dilemma.  There are other, better ways to answer the questions posed to both reader and author–ways in which we can indeed allow for freedom of an even more awesome sort than the purest relativism can offer without having to ask the author to commit suicide in his/her own text.

Part of the issue here is with postmodern philosophy itself.  In the absence of  knowable truth-claims, it needs something to define itself–something to animate its worldview.  Philosophical relativism is one such point (of many, but a significant one).  Another, thanks to Michel Foucault, is power.  In the words of Lord Voldemort (very much a thoughtful philosophical postmodernist), “There is no good and evil, only power, and those too weak to seek it….”  For a notable slice of culture (particularly the academics) that has absorbed postmodern thinking, power theory translates into the idea that in the absence of right, wrong, and reason, people are justified in doing whatever is necessary to get others to accept their point of view.(1)  The false dilemma of the author-tyrant and the freedom of postmodernism is one manifestation of this.  It is designed to control the debate and predestine our choice:  Accept a specific point of view or you must admit yourself a slave to another.(2)

If we refuse to let ourselves be defined by someone else’s dilemma, though, a whole new world begins to open up.  Meaning, and our ability to convey it, is the wardrobe through which we step.  The fact that authors can imbue a text with meaning is what gives readers a chance to transcend their own limitations.  It draws us outside ourselves and gives us the raw materials we need in order to create wonderful things.  The problem is, as postmodernists have argued, can we realistically accept even the idea of “meaning”?

Christians in particular have a good philosophically consistent case for their belief in meaning because it is grounded in a transcendent cause:  God Himself.(3)  We think and communicate because, simply put, God Himself does.  To further J. R. R. Tolkien’s idea of the sub-creator, we become, in effect, “sub-communicators.”  God possesses the ability to imbue language with meaning and so does the human race, being made in His image.  Therefore, quite literally, words and symbols take on meaning because we give it to them.  We are able to communicate those ideas from one mind to another (albeit in imperfect imitation) because God can do so.  If we can give meaning to language, then authors have a reason to think that they can say something in a text.  The author has a chance to really mean something.

(Of course, we are not God.  We are not even little gods.  We cannot even begin to expect to do any of this absolutely, as God does, and any time we try it will be only a poor copy.  As authors and artists, we can create a mountain, as God did–but who has ever seen a mountain in a painting or a story that compares to actually walking one?  As good as our imitations may be, the Real thing is better.)

Going a step farther, as God does not force Himself on His creations, authors cannot force themselves onto their readers.  His truths are there for us to engage, but He doesn’t just write them wholesale over our brain matter.  He expects that each of us will approach Him on our own and we will come to our own conclusions.  He even gives us the freedom to come to the wrong conclusion.  Authors relate to readers in exactly the same way.  Authors can put profound meaning into their prose for readers to discover, they can make it as easy as possible for people to see it, but they don’t have the ability for force anyone to understand or accept it.

I doubt our context is as unique as these guys…

When it comes to readers, it is very true that each person has his/her own unique context and experience–postmodernism is 100% correct on that point.  This means of course that every person who comes to a text will have a his/her own unique experience and also his/her own unique difficulties in identifying the author’s meaning just the same as every believer who comes to Christ does.  That experience is as valid as the author’s in writing the text, but it doesn’t follow that since it is it therefore obliterates the author’s the original meaning.

All of this points to a compelling dynamic growing from the collision of innovative thoughts that, while resembling elements of modernism and postmodernism, is far bigger than both.  In an ideal world, authors emerge as unique creators who imbue texts with original, knowable meaning.  Readers bring their own life experiences to the text, each one like no other.  These experiences mean that each reading is relative, but not to itself, as postmodernism implies.  It is relative to the primal meaning of the text, but flavored by the individual reader.  This is an important distinction, because the powerful, even life-changing result of a reading is created by the union of the author’s meaning and the reader’s specific context.  It is not simply a case of the reader forcing his/her own meaning onto a passive piece of prose.  As a result, the reader’s insight is every bit as valid as the author’s meaning because it is separate from that meaning.  It rises above the text and becomes something new without having to redefine the initial intent.

What results is an experience that is entirely new and original but denigrates no one.  The author is respected and owed a debt of gratitude by the reader, who would likely never have had that particular experience without picking up that specific book.  The reader fully realizes  the effects and truth of his/her context and they enable the reader to create something new and (hopefully) beautiful every time a new text is read.  Ideas and feelings come into existence that no one else would ever have been able to create, not even the author.

Saying it is one thing; knowing it first-hand is another.  Try thinking this over as your read your next book.  Give the author his/her due and search out the intended meaning as best you can.  Take that meaning, mix it into your own context, and watch something new and even magical happen.  Then, consider sharing that experience with others by taking up the pen yourself to share your insights.  Become a link in the chain of literature that stretches even into eternity, providing someone else the chances to create that you were afforded!

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(1) Now, I have no doubt that most regular people influenced by postmodernism have never thought it through to that extent and are, to the best of their ability, quite honest and open–but the movement that sparked their worldview puts it quite differently.  I know I’ve seen more and more of it in the media and in “scholarship.”  Facebook virtually drips with it–just dare to say something un-PC and watch what happens.

(2) Another falsehood that modernism began and postmodernism conveniently leaves unchallenged in this case is the idea that the only valid answer is a new answer.  Once we accept that premise, we arbitrarily close ourselves off to the wealth of information and wisdom that preceded the modernist period.  Of course, since the postmodern era is the only “new” worldview on the block, we are expected to look there for our answers.

(3) It is beyond the scope of this article to argue for God’s existence–that doesn’t imply that I think doing so is unnecessary.  If you can grant me that hypothetically or at least are willing to allow for meaning and communication as coming from another source, the rest of the article might be of use.

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

The Goal of Our Instruction–What it means to be a Professor

 

iamproftshirt

The T-Shirt you see above has been appearing all over Facebook of late, as if it conveyed some self-evident and profound message. Instead, I find it contrary to every value a professor ought to profess. Why not rather tell your students to assume you are wrong unless and until you make a solid case that you are right? Why not tell them to search the Scriptures daily to see if you are right or not? If your professor wears this shirt, run, do not walk, to Drop-Add, and save yourself a wasted semester.

One who taught me the how as well as the what of thinking

One who taught me the how as well as the what of thinking

Are we professors there in the classroom to teach our students what to think, or how to think? I certainly have some ideas that I think are true and important, and I hope that my students adopt them. But unless I teach them how to think, how to know when to swallow something and when not to, it won’t really matter whether they swallow my ideas or not. They would only last until the next authoritative pontificator contradicts them anyway.

Another who taught me as much about the how as the what of thinking

Another who taught me as much about the how as the what of thinking

What to think or how? You cannot do the former profitably until you have done the latter. And you can’t do the latter if your students are not encouraged to question–even to question you. They need to learn to do it courteously and respectfully, but they need to know they are encouraged to do it.

 
Now these [the members of the Jewish synagogue at Berea] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, searching the Scripures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Me when my students embrace good ideas for the right reasons

Me when my students embrace good ideas for the right reasons

Let’s raise up more noble Bereans!

Dr. Williams hopes his books are good models of how to think as well as what to think.  Order them at the Lantern Hollow Press estore!

http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

Times in the Appalachian High Country

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

It is now 1979-80. I have finished my course work for the PhD and am serving as Temporary Lecturer in English at the University of Georgia while doing the research for my dissertation on the influence of the English Reformers on Edmund Spenser in Book V of the Fairie Queene. So perhaps it is not surprising that the first poem of that year was a long narrative in Spenserian Stanza, “The True History of the Holy Graal.” It is far too long for a blog entry, but I assure you it is very good. (You can read it in Stars through the Clouds, my collected poetry, available from Lantern Hollow Press.) The next poem continued one of the prominent themes of the previous year.

TIMES IN THE APPALACHIAN HIGH COUNTRY

DeSotoFallsCreek

There is a time for walking and breathing hard
From the work of pushing ancient mountains down
Until they stand beneath your weary feet.
There is the time for stopping to wipe the fog
From off your glasses so you can see more fog,
The dim walls on your left, and on your right
The sun-bright moving shadows of the mist.
There is the time when unexpectedly
The wind whips ’round a corner, and the fog
Cowers before it, breaks its ranks, and runs,
Falls back, regroups, and thus becomes a cloud,
Leaving the sun unchallenged in its claim
To rule the island peaks. There is a time
For stopping to drink from the last spring that runs
Before there is no mountain left to gather
The moisture from the sky and send it down
To fill the running stream-beds far below.
There is the time you say, “This is the top.”
But you will say that several times before
There’s finally nowhere left to go but down.
But it seems false to say there is a time
For standing all alone upon the peak,
Not under, now, so much as in the sky.
It makes no difference that your watch-hand still
Moves like it always has. If this is time,
It is a time that’s like no other time.
The watch ticks on, but leaves us far behind,
Which is why we catch up to it with a jerk
And barely can get back to camp by nightfall.
Is it because they’ve seen so much of time
That they can almost lift us out of it–
Does it grow thinner, flowing o’er their backs
The way the wind does, so there’s less of it
To shield us from the blazing depths of heaven–
Have they seen something through it that we haven’t?
The mountains will remain when we have gone
Back down beneath the clouds, but we will take
Our glimpses of the mystery back with us
To prod us into poems or metaphysics,
Or merely silent thinking by the fire.
Meanwhile, the stones are silent in the starlight
Until there is a time we can return.

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Remember: for more poetry like this, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest book from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And don’t forget Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

The Demeaning of Meaning: Why it Matters, Biblically

In recent years, we’ve been told that we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one that I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but, regardless,  I hope you find it as engaging as I do.

newrule

This week I am speaking specifically to Christians, particularly those who take their Christianity seriously.  Therefore, I am assuming a few things I know I would need to defend elsewhere.  Perhaps it will “sound like a sermon,” but I think the ideas important enough to take that risk. Choosing to accept postmodernism and the relativism it brings with it–often through the back door–can appear on the surface to be both beautiful and empowering.  Unfortunately, postmodernism is also philosophically shallow, and it doesn’t take much digging before you reach the rotten parts underneath.  For Christians, the postmodern way of reading in particular is deadly to a living, breathing belief in Christ and cannot be lightly held.

To say that postmodernism, properly understood, is completely incompatible with Christianity seems to be a drastic, over-the-top statement to many these days.  After all, postmodernism is thinking outside the box and giving voice to your own, unique ideas.  It opens the doors to your imagination by defying the stultifying structures of the past that arbitrarily box us in.  As we mentioned last week, it clears away the possibility of authorial idolization, and it encourages the reader to search for new insights in the text.   It has, for Christians, helped people to move beyond simple “hellfire and damnation” legalism to a freer, more caring belief that focuses on God’s acceptance and love–something that was definitely needed at points in the Twentieth Century.  What could possibly be so wrong about it that I think I’m justified in calling it “deadly“?

To be a “Christian” is to strive to be “like Christ.”  We base our lives and our beliefs off the incredible fact that the Son of God deigned to debase Himself and enter into our world in mortal form, just like us.  More amazingly, He didn’t just do it to stop by to say “hi” or to try out something new as a way to escape cosmic boredom.  He intentionally suffered one of the most painful deaths imaginable to a human being in order to span the gulf between us and God.  In doing so, he took on the sins of an entire race’s existence* on His shoulders.  Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian uni-multi-verse, and the main theme of the Story that God has written into the foundations of space and time, from which our own stories emanate.  Further, Christians are People of the Book.  Without the Bible, we have no reliable knowledge of Christ or of His Story other than to say He existed.  There is the testimony of nature and the “inner light” (for lack of a better description), but the backbone of it all is the Book, and Christians explicitly say they worship the Author of the Universe.

What's in  book?  What a bit, if you're a Christian...

What’s in book? Quite a bit, if you’re a Christian…

The fundamental premise of all forms of postmodernism I’ve ever encountered–relativism–undoes and invalidates all of this.  Indeed, it assaults the very idea of the author, not only in the text but in our lives.  If we regard God as postmodernism regards the author, then at best we’ll be gracious enough give Him a passing nod; at worst we’ll be taught to completely disdain Him and to actively rebel against Him.  Simply put, we set ourselves in His place. (This is starting to sound familiar….)  Can we trust the Bible–a book–if we don’t believe that books have meaning or that they convey the mind of the author?  Should we believe that there is Meaning to the universe if we don’t believe there is meaning in even the little piece of it we hold between two covers in our hand?  Should we share a faith with someone else if we don’t believe that any one narrative is truer than another?

The short answer is that we if we accept a postmodern worldview, we have no compelling reason to say “yes” to any of those questions.  We can try, and that is what many Christians who have incompletely understood postmodernism attempt to do.  They accept contradictory premises:  That the Bible is accurate and that Christianity is the exclusive way to salvation while also insisting on and applying a worldview that denies that authors matter, that books can communicate objectively, or that indeed that there is anything that we can know is true.  The result is the lukewarm Christianity that we see around us.**  People accept a premise from scripture to be true only while it is convenient.  When it ceases to be easy, they invent a new interpretation of it that suits them better, imposing their will (more often, that of others) onto the plain meaning of the text.  It is, in fact, the death of Christianity by any real, historical definition and the realization of the serpent’s promise to Eve:  We are defining our right and wrong over God.

But there is a better way.  Christians don’t have to accept the false dilemma posed by postmodernism.  The Biblical worldview provides us with a way to understand both author and reader that will allow us to transcend the cold confines or modernism without having to drink the poising of its successor.  We can give respect to the author without neglecting the reader, and the combination of the two can allow for powerful new evolutionary ideas.  More of that, next week.

Next Week:  A Better Way

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*Perhaps He was righting the entire universe.  After all, He has only told us our story.  Other stories might be more incredible still–and that is saying something!

**You might say, “But I don’t believe that, and I consider myself a postmodernist!”  Perhaps you don’t, but you are feeding your mind and your spirit on a steady diet culled from a society of thinkers who do?    Further, what premises did you unknowingly have to accept in order to decide you were a postmodernist in the first place?  For example, in deciding to express a postmodern love and respect for all points of view did you accept the reasoning behind it–that they are all equally valid and no one is “more true” than another?

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

The Heart of Light and C. S. Lewis’s Last Short Story–Check it out!

Charlie Starr has some great offering over on his website.  Check them out when you have a moment!