Authors can often get too much credit for the their work. It is just very easy to praise the author because they wrote it the text and to credit the author with the ownership of a powerful meaning of a work. This is not appropriate because the author is unable to express every possible meaning and they are not the only person reading their work. Similarly, the text itself can gain praise for what it is- the words written- and the meanings that the words can create. In order for the text to rightly deserve credit for the meaning which it conveys, the text must be able to “stand on its own.” The text must be able to express its meaning without the author being present [to explain its meaning]. Thus, the text needs to be autonomous from the author; it must be able to give meaning without the assistance of another source. Therefore, it is the readers and neither the text nor the author who determines the meaning of a work. The readers have their own unique background and are capable of better getting messages across and elaborating on interpretations than the author and the text. What really sets the readers apart from the author and the text is that they have a fresh set of eyes that have not experienced the same things as the author. They have a different perspective from the author and this is vital to the value of their interpretation because it allows them to read the text with no prior history with the text, and thus they would only be able to read the text as it is written. Furthermore, the readers are the persons through whom the meaning of the work can be explained when the author is no longer present and the text is lost or indecipherable by itself.
The Bible is a great example of how valuable the readers are. The authors of the Bible are no longer present, so it is impossible to truly know what they meant. Secondly, we cannot even confirm whether or not they wrote the Bible. Additionally, the text itself can be very hard to fully understand. It is then on the readers to determine how important the text is to the meaning it is trying to get across. The readers also choose how to apply the meaning they gather from the work. Thus, readers hold a lot of the power to dictate which interpretation to take away from the work making their interpretations matter the most. The readers are the ones who preserve the meanings of the work and more readily and efficiently disseminate their interpretations to the masses. The readers, then, give meaning to the Bible; without the readers the Bible has no meaning.
Throughout history, many groups and individuals have taken up the Bible as a text from which they can learn about life and how one should live. However, interpretations of the Bible have varied, causing many disputes even amongst people of the same faith. One cause for this is the fact that the Bible is an incredibly hard text to read. Disregarding the length of the sacred text, the wording of the book is much different than that of modern-day books as a result of developments in language made over long periods of time. Many passages can be very abstract and difficult for one to wrap their heads around. Because the text can be indecipherable at times, readers end up being responsible for creating meaning from it and make it relevant to their lives, their reality, their world. After all, the readers are the individuals who are actively engaging in the world in which they live, and it is they who will determine the future, and for that reason they need to have priority in the “interpretation hierarchy” because they affect the things that will come. For when the Bible is decipherable, it is still up to the readers to give meaning to the text and ponder what they read in order for them to make sense of it.
Humans are unique beings: they have different backgrounds, mindsets, and experiences. Due to this, people are going to have different opinions and interpret things in a variety of ways. This allows for readers to have several meanings for even one phrase, let alone an entire book. Even groups that consist of individuals with very similar beliefs struggle to come up with one clear interpretation. This is partly because humans can be stubborn, but also because it is very difficult to have a group of people in which every member interprets things the exact same way. The text, in contrast, is unable to debate that which is written. Sure, some words have multiple meanings, but it is ultimately the readers who choose which meaning of a word or phrase to take and interpret. The text is an inanimate thing that cannot, on its own, argue for a certain meaning. According to E. D. Hirsch, the text is dependent on the readers for its meaning, and in terms of the author and their intent having significance, the critics as he mentions are the readers and the second an interpretation is made on the work, the author is removed from the work. As for the author, they are likely to have multiple ideas pass through their head, possibly causing them to lose track of their intent. This makes it extremely difficult and even impossible for the reader to even try to figure out the point or argument of the work.
My argument is not that the author or the text has no value, but that in terms of caring about the meaning of a work, neither the authorial intent nor the text has any greater significance than the reader’s equally viable interpretation. An undisputable fact about the Bible is that the authors are no longer alive or able to directly communicate their intent. But, even if they were, their intent does not matter. If there is no confirmed authorial intent, why bother looking for it or giving it attention? The text, by itself, is incapable of having an intent. Furthermore, the text can be read as straightforward or as cryptic, but again it is the readers who achieve those readings. Therefore, readers have the authority and ultimately the final say in assigning meaning to any work because they determine how the text affects them.
There are also just too many ways to interpret the Bible. Aside from each individual’s interpretation, nearly every sect of Christianity (and a few denominations of other religions), has different ways of interpreting the Bible. Examples of biblical interpretations include: interpreting passages as “the Word of God,” as a historical document, as midrash, or as folklore. To interpret the Bible as “the Word of God” is to interpret the passages as they are written because that which is written is exactly the words of God that were simply transcribed through his messengers. According to the source “Methods of Interpreting the Meaning of Bible Passages,” to interpret the Bible as a historical document is to believe that human beings wrote the contents of the Bible without the voice of God, and they did so for their own personal purposes. In addition, the authors made errors both in writing the work and in rewriting the contents with each new edition and the evolution of language. I am not in total agreement with this definition of reading the Bible as a historical document, but it still provides an additional way of interpreting the Bible. To interpret the Bible as midrash is to focus on the experience(s) of the past that allow a praiseworthy event to occur in the present. To interpret the Bible as the result of years of oral tradition is to say that the stories told within the Bible have been repeated and altered even if only slightly. Each of these examples proves how vital the reader is to the meaning of a work. For each interpretation can only be held by the reader who chooses their own way of reading. H. J. B. Combrink agrees and asserts that a text, especially the Bible, is very open to multiple interpretations, and that interpretation and application should not be separated from one another. This further supports the claim of the readers’ interpretations mattering the most because they will have various interpretations, but also the readers are the ones applying the interpretations to the world around them.
A specific example of how even a Biblical verse relies on the readers is the verse “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).” This is a verse that is very popular and utilized quite often because it can be interpreted to provide false hope to the world in exchange for something so few actually have: faith in God. Popular belief holds that this verse states that it is possible to succeed and thrive simply by having faith in God. However, it can also mean that “ in Christ we find the sufficient comfort and support to carry on through all adversity,” and not that anything is possible and everything will turn out for the best because one has trust in God. Additionally, a reader could interpret this verse as a reason to live poorly, perform badly academically or career-wise, break the law, or become depressed, due to the “loose-phrasing” of the text and the ability of the reader to interpret things in various ways. The text is not specific enough, and even if it were more specific, it is incapable of being so specific that only one meaning can be drawn from it: that is one inevitable truth about literature. Therefore, looking at this one verse out of the approximately thirty-one thousand verses, it is apparent how the author(s) holds no authority in assigning meaning. It also shows how the text inadequately gets a message across uniformly. The text is just not able to provide a definite and universal meaning that will mean the same thing to everyone. Most importantly, this example shows how the reader grants meaning to the verse by assigning their own meaning to something in order for it to make sense and function in their world.
The readers must be the factor that determines the meaning of a poem, novel, play, or movie. The author can get lost in their work or in their own head and lose meaning. The thoughts circling around in the author’s head compounded with even a quick break of concentration can cause the author to lose track of their intended meaning. Above all, the author cannot exist forever; they cannot constantly be available to somehow adjust readers’ interpretations to fit their intentions. The text, which can potentially exist forever, lacks the ability to communicate a message in multiple ways to assist with conveying the message. Readers also possess the ability to alter their reading of the text to forgo its original, intended meaning for a new, readerly-imposed meaning. So long as humans (or intelligence) exist, readers shall exist. Thus, the readers undeniably determine the meaning of a poem, novel, play or movie; they have the most valuable interpretation.
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