Tuesday 16 December 2008

Kevin J. Vanhoozer on Is There a Meaning in This Text?

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 496pp., ISBN 0851114636.

[Several versions of a review of this book appeared in Third Way, Anvil, and on the London School of Theology website in late 1998.]

Those who read references in articles by Vanhoozer published throughout the 1990s to his ‘forthcoming book’, and had their appetites well and truly whetted, will have been delighted when the meal was finally served. Here’s a work of major significance, a text which deserves readers’ ‘ethical’ duty of engagement which the author calls for interpretation of texts in general.

The bulk of the volume is divided into two main parts, each with three chapters, with headings almost sermonically delivered (a characteristic feature of his writing through the book as a whole, and which only occasionally feels forced). Part One – Undoing Interpretation: Authority, Allegory, Anarchy – sets up the discussion in its three chapters (1) Undoing the Author: Authority and Intentionality; (2) Undoing the Book: Textuality and Indeterminacy; (3) Undoing the Reader: Contextuality and Ideology. Part Two – Redoing Interpretation: Agency, Action, Affect – answers to Part One in its three chapters: (1) Resurrecting the Author: Meaning As Communicative Action; (2) Redeeming the Text: the Rationality of Literary Acts; (3) Reforming the Reader: Interpretive Virtue, Spirituality, and Communicative Efficacy. The whole is topped and tailed with an Introduction (Theology and Literary Theory) and a Conclusion (A Hermeneutics of the Cross).

The literary relationship between author, text, and reader thus dominates Vanhoozer’s discussion, and he challenges the largely current consensus that meaning is relative to the encounter of text and reader, taking up a position against the ‘Undoers’ (postmodern deconstructors) and ‘Users’ (postmodern pragmatists).

What of ‘meaning’, then? With regard to the author, Vanhoozer argues for ‘hermeneutic realism’. Authorial intention is based on the notion of the author as a communicative agent. To describe meaning is to describe the author’s intended action – not the plan with which the author set out, nor the consequences an author hoped to achieve. (Author’s intentions are not to be confused with what an author planned to write or unintentionally brings about.)

With regard to the text, Vanhoozer argues for ‘hermeneutic rationality’. Texts are communicative acts, not dumb objects, or mirrors in which I see only myself. A text is a complex literary act, which embodies intention, and needs to be understood ‘thickly’ (rather than ‘thinly’) in its various dimensions, including linguistics, genre, and canon.

With regard to the reader, Vanhoozer argues for ‘hermeneutic responsibility’. In reading, we are called not to play or create, but to encounter an ‘other’ that calls us to respond, to ‘follow’ the text.

Vanhoozer contends that the current crisis in hermeneutics is theological. He thus seeks to expose the philosophical and theological presuppositions which underlie debates about biblical interpretation (indeed, interpretation more generally), and appeals to the Trinity as underwriting the notion of meaningful communication. God is a communicative agent, whose speaking enacts a ‘covenant of discourse’: speaker (Father), Word (Son), and reception (Spirit). God’s own communicative action is thus the model of all sending and receiving of messages. Human beings, created in his image, are likewise communicative agents. In fact, interpretation of texts in general, Vanhoozer claims, rests on ‘theological’ beliefs about God, the world and ourselves. These refreshing theological assumptions are implicit and helpfully teased out throughout the work.

Not that he doesn’t engage with literary issues more strictly conceived. Throughout, Vanhoozer dialogues with philosophers and critical theorists (Derrida, Fish, Habermas, Hirsch, Nietzsche, Ricoeur, Rorty, Searle, and Steiner prominent among them). And he takes in standard topics of discussion in biblical interpretation (authorial intention, genre, speech-act theory, reader-response criticism, deconstruction, epistemology) along the way – always stimulating, and often providing a fresh perspective.

In all this, Vanhoozer consistently refuses to be drawn on the all-or-nothing choice between anarchic and absolute knowledge. He grants a place and role to authentic subjectivity; but postmodern theorists, he holds, have not satisfactorily shown that interpretation is impossible. Interpretation of texts may not be absolute, but it may still be adequate – for the purposes of understanding and appropriating. We may not know everything, but we may know enough. Knowledge must be tempered with humility (we acknowledge our limits) and conviction (although knowledge is provisional, we may still be confident). Humility and conviction enable us to avoid the equal and opposite errors of dogmatism and skepticism.

And for Christians, biblical interpretation is as much a way of life as a way of reading. Following the word entails embodying the word. The fundamental form of practical interpretation is the way we live our lives as believing individuals and as believing communities. A proper response to God’s ‘speech-acts’ demands more than assent; it demands living a certain way, fostering a certain kind of culture, belonging to a community of people shaped by the Spirit of God, constantly conforming to his word.

Doubtless there will be quibbles here and there. Biblical studies scholars may mourn the relative lack of application of theory to specific Old and New Testament texts; theologians may wish for more constructive theology; philosophers and literary theorists may debate his description and application of aspects of critical theory. The small amount of truth in those sentiments, however, is more than outweighed by the contribution of this lengthy and programmatic prolegomena, and encourages us to look forward to what else might be ‘forthcoming’ from Vanhoozer in the future (may the wait not be as long). The book is by no means easy. Those already familiar with aspects of current hermeneutical and philosophical thought will have a more pleasant reading experience. But all will have a rewarding experience; anyone interested in current theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics ought to feel obliged to read, and will profit greatly from engaging with, Vanhoozer and his text.

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