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 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 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 to 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 that radically affects the process of reading.  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 individualized reading experience and also his/her own particular difficulties in identifying the author’s meaning.  This is similar to the fact that every believer who interacts with God has his/her own story to tell.  That experience in reading is as valid as the author’s in writing, but it doesn’t follow that since it is the former therefore obliterates the latter.  On the contrary, it would not be possible without it.

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 creators who imbue texts with original, knowable meaning.  Readers bring their own life experiences to the text, each person’s context like no other.  Each reading is therefore relative, but not to itself, as postmodernism implies.  It is relative to the primal meaning of the text, but flavored by the identity of 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 mutually beneficial experience–entirely original without denigrating anyone.  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 one-of-a-kind and (hopefully) beautiful every time a fresh text is read.  Ideas and feelings come into existence 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 remarkable 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!


(1) Now, I have no doubt 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 modernism began and postmodernism conveniently leaves unchallenged in this case is the idea that the only valid answer is a recent answer.  Once we accept that premise, we arbitrarily close ourselves off to the wealth of information and wisdom that preceded whatever is “current”.  Of course, since the postmodern era (or the post-postmodern one) 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

About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on August 28, 2014, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, Literary Criticism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Brian is right to connect meaning to the existence of God and our creation in His image. Meaning is an inherently personal category. In order for meaning to exist, there must be some *person* capable of *meaning* it. If there is no God, only finite persons, then meaning does not disappear, but it becomes inevitably arbitrary, because there is no way to ground it in anything more stable than their finite and fallible individual subjectivity. But if God exists, then a meaning that is not merely arbitrary becomes theoretically possible.

    Therefore, the inescapable and undeniable existence of meaning becomes in itself evidence for the existence of God. For nobody can consistently act as if all meaning is arbitrary. The Deconstructionist secretly makes an exception for his own writing when he claims it is. For his own claim that all meaning is arbitrary must be exempted for his project ever to get off the ground. He *means* (i.e., intends) to say that the non-existence of objective truth and meaning is an objective truth with meaning that cannot be dismissed. Thus the existence of non-arbitrary meaning, and hence of God, is a necessary prerequisite even to the endeavor to deny these things. Derrida is quite explicit that his epistemology is the attempt to work out consistently the premise of the death of God. What he does not realize is that, even if he succeeds, he fails.

    If we cannot live as if God does not exist, no matter how hard we try, maybe we should be honest enough to consider whether He does. Hmmm.

  2. “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.” Well-put.

    I agree with pretty much everything here, which either suggests that our meanings were never far off, or that we are able to draw the same conclusions from differing perspectives. A combination of the two seems likely, to me. 🙂
    Postmodernism, as opposed to Modernism, at least leaves the door into past wisdom open, even if, in practice, going through that door is very rare. There may be examples in philosophy that I do not know about, but I rarely, if ever, hear a Postmodernist calling for the destruction of museums as some Modernist movements did. Looking down at/devaluing the past seems to suggest, to me, that the mark of Modernism characterized by superiority of the Now to the Past, and the Future to the Now is still bright and clear on the face of Western culture.

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