What readers bring to texts

Last week we learned of the discovery of another example in an increasingly long line of forged memoirs: Margaret “Jones” Seltzer was discovered to have forged the story of her life as a gang-affiliated, drug-running youth in LA, when her sister saw her picture in the NY Times and ratted her out. Of the many journalists covering the incident and those like it,NPR’s Scott Simon makes several points worth remembering (they’ve been made many times before) about the nature of genre in literature:

“Now if some Brooklyn or London novelist had written a story set among drug gangs and uttered those words [referring to an audio clip by Seltzer] people might have dismissed them as pretentious nonsense. Put those sentences into a so-called memoir and people call it ‘gritty and real’, or ‘raw, tender and tough-minded’ like the New York Times did.”

The point that this raises, for the purposes of this post, is that the meaning of a text cannot be divorced from the expectations brought to it by its reader(s). Simon also says “the people who wrote these frauds knew that if they had presented their books as novels they would have had to withstand a whole different kind of criticism; what critic will bash the literary style of a memoir by someone who was suckled by wolves, ran with gangs, or was dragooned into being a child soldier? Calling these books ‘memoirs’ allows their flaws to masquerade as proof that they’re ‘raw and real.'”

This has obvious implications for reading sacred literature that are already visible in the genre “sacred literature”. What it reveals is not so much about what the text contains as it does about what is invested in the texts by certain communities. Compare, for example, Herodotus with Samuel-Kings, or the Iliad with Genesis or Isaiah. It’s only because we have such a genre that we can have courses called “Bible as Literature,” in which the professor proclaims (already in the title) that the text will not be read from a denominational standpoint, but rather from an altogether different perspective (whatever “literature” means).

This idea has enjoyed a consistent discussion in the bloggernacle. For example, Brad Kramer has outlined the advantages of a reading of the Book of Mormon that treats the narrators as unreliable, and TT has discussed the bearing of AfroAmerican and Feminist Hermeneutics on our reading of our canon, as well as the importance and question of a Mormon Hermeneutics. I also have argued along similar lines in stating that a source-critical reading of Exodus 34 changes the meaning completely. (Of course I’m leaving out many relevant examples–feel free to point them out.) In addition to these more intellectual discussions and calls-to-arms, Latter-day Saints implicitly recognize the heavy burden placed on the reader in the generation of meaning nearly every Sunday. Few of the laity would argue with the contention that the text means different things to different readers, especially in light of Nephi’s injunction to “liken” the scriptures to individualized situations, or with the observation that meaning will change even for a single reader at different times in her life as she reads the text in different circumstances.

My question is this: If intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike agree broadly on the fact that readers are complicit in meaning-making, what governs the range of acceptable interpretation? When do readings become illegitimate in the eyes of a community? What happens to our own texts when generic lines are blurred?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “What readers bring to texts

  1. lxxluthor

    Great questions. As I’ve begun to broaden my range of what I deem potentially acceptable by way of interpretation of the scriptures my views have changed significantly in certain areas. For the most part this has been an enlightening and liberating experience.

    My experience is that most members have not had this experience and feel threatened by some of the things that have been shared with them that have stemmed from this more broad interpretation. This occurs most often when ideas are significantly to radically different from generally accepted interpretations and norms, especially ones espoused by General Authorities.

    One of the consequences that I have found from blurring generic lines is that I see more of people in the scriptures and less of God. This really bothered me at first, my reaction being that anything that takes any part of God out of the scriptures must be evil. But as I examined things further what I found was that I had many more lessons to learn because I could critique other people’s lives and thoughts and biases. Even prophets. It made the prophets human for me and gave me hope for my imperfect self.

    The other side of this coin was that I looked more carefully for God in the texts and cherished what I found a little more because I was more confident of its source. This has helped me to refine and clarify my picture of God and his nature. And that’s a pretty significant, positive consequence. Naturally, not all people will have positive outcomes from this sort of thinking but for me it has been a good thing.

  2. jupiterschild

    One of the consequences that I have found from blurring generic lines is that I see more of people in the scriptures and less of God. This really bothered me at first, my reaction being that anything that takes any part of God out of the scriptures must be evil. But as I examined things further what I found was that I had many more lessons to learn because I could critique other people’s lives and thoughts and biases. Even prophets. It made the prophets human for me and gave me hope for my imperfect self.

    This is well-put, and certainly liberating.

  3. Great post. I think the memoir example is a very good way to illustrate this point, I may have to steal that at some point! (I’ll try to remember I read it here first)

  4. Secco

    One could argue that most of what the Church does is precisely what this post is about: describe the “appropriate” way to approach texts. I think I’ve heard that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book more than I’ve actually heard its contents quoted, for example. And wasn’t the reaction to higher criticism largely a reflex against bringing something other than faith, and faith alone, to the Bible? I’d venture that one of the reasons that Provo remains able to be the center that defines Mormon orthodoxy is in part because it is where what is considered normative to bring to the text is defined at a day-to-day level.

    Some of the best SS lessons I’ve heard are when a teacher brings a new approach or framework to a given text. But where are those boundaries, you ask? Pretty tightly defined, in my experience. Even bringing in a non-KJV translation to a SS class has been cause for formal reprimand, and that seems quite innocuous.

  5. jupiterschild

    Secco,

    Thanks. Your comment makes me think that what is most important is the preservation of the category, of the approach, as you say. The reason David Wright was excommunicated was because he disrupted the tidy borders around the genre of “Scripture”, calling instead for a different mode of approach, even though it was one that still sought to preserve the importance and even normativity of the text. He fiddled with the process of the production of scripture, and that was enough to earn the ire and axe of Salt Lake.

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