This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
In a previous article, ‘Literary Criticism and Postmodernism’, I explored some of the ways that Postmodern theory undermines our ability to offer objective interpretations of literary texts. I showed that Postmodernism does this is by dismissing the importance of authorial intent, leaving the reader free to impose his or her own meaning onto a text.
In that article I also suggested that many Christians have unwittingly imbibed a postmodern approach to scripture through a failure to properly distinguish between interpretation and application. The question ‘What does this verse mean to me?’ often takes precedent over the prior question, ‘What did the author of this verse mean by it?”
I would like to now broaden this discussion by suggesting some additional ways that we, as Christians, often unwittingly approach literary texts through a postmodernist lens. This will pave the way for exploring what a distinctively Christian approach to literary criticism might look like.
The Starting Point
I begin with a statement that is, or at least ought to be, self-evident to us as believers, namely that as Christians we must approach every subject through the lens of a Biblical worldview. Whether the subject is art, psychology, politics or modern farming methods, the grid by which we view every issue should always be that of the Bible.
Consequently, when we come to a question such as how to interpret literary texts, this too must be done under the rubric of the Bible’s teaching.
Before going forward, it may be useful to pause and consider a common objection. When making the point that we need to interpret every facet of experience through the lens of the Bible, I have sometimes received a retort that goes something like this: “How can the Biblical worldview apply to all of life when there are many departments that the Bible just never addresses?”
This question is best answered by sharing an analogy that I got from Ranald Macaulay. Mr. Macaulay was once speaking in a cathedral which didn’t have any electric lights but was lit up by shafts of light coming through the windows. The shafts of light came down in spotlights, directly lighting up certain areas but indirectly lighting up the entire building. He then suggested that Biblical authority functions like that.
The Bible does not address every area of life, just as the shafts of light did not spotlight every inch of the cathedral’s interior. In order to do that the Bible would have to be not only true, but exhaustive. Although the Bible is not exhaustive, what it does do is to spotlight certain areas of life, and in doing so the light of God’s truth diffuses to every other area of life. The areas of life that the Bible does directly address create principles that we can then apply (in wisdom and in conjunction with other principles) to every other area of existence, just as the light coming down in shafts through the windows of the cathedral shed light into other areas not directly covered by those shafts.
While there is no department of life that the Bible does not address, it only directly addresses certain areas. To be a Biblical thinker (or what I sometimes call a ‘worldview’ thinker) means that one will seek to learn how the Bible applies either directly or indirectly to every area of life. This is in contrast both to the error of Biblicism, which erroneously believes that the Bible directly lights up every area of life, or as well as the error of certain strands of liberalism, which asserts that because the Bible only addresses certain ‘religious’ issues, we are left to make up our own mind on everything else.
OK, back to literary criticism. Given the framework I just laid out, it follows that when we say a Christian approach to literary criticism must be explicitly rooted in the Biblical worldview, we are talking about an approach which takes seriously the Bible’s direct teaching when applicable, and the Bible’s indirect teaching at all other times.
Getting Beyond the Moral
So what does that look like in practice? One very basic way to approach texts with a Biblical worldview is to simply note what lessons we can learn from the characters in the text – characters who either confirm or contradict the truths revealed in scripture. So if our text is Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, we might ask what the character of Captain Ahab tells us about human futility and folly. Or if we were reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we might appropriately note how the character of Scrooge illustrates the Biblical principle that the love of money is at the root of all evils.
Many Christians who are rightly convinced of the need to think in worldview categories never progress beyond this level in their engagement with literary texts. Books are plundered for their moral value, in much the same way that we might learn a lesson from one of Aesop’s fables.
Whenever I teach literature, I tend to pass through this level very quickly. There is a practical reason for this. If interpreting texts through the lens of the Biblical worldview amounts to little more than seeing what lessons we can learn from a text, then how is it possible to think Biblically about a work (say Shelley’s ‘The Cloud’) which doesn’t have specific characters we can learn lessons from? Or how is it possible to bring the Biblical worldview to bear on a paragraph or specific portion of, say, Moby-Dick where there is only a description of the sea and no immediate lessons?
If it were true that interpreting through the lens of the Biblical worldview amounts to little more than learning lessons about ethical behavior from the characters, then we would have to say that certain texts, or portions of texts, that don’t have any characters fall outside that which can be assessed Biblically. Yet this cannot be right because we have already seen that the Biblical worldview applies to every area of life.
Meaning and Authorial Intent
But there is another more principled reason why we should be uncomfortable using texts simply as fodder for didactic teaching. To approach a text like this is not to actually interpret the work, in the sense of engaging with what the author intended when he or she wrote it. Unless the author’s purpose in writing a work is specifically to give us a lessons about moral behavior – as is the case with Aesop’s Fables, for example – to treat such lessons as if they are the meaning we must take out of the text is to commit the same error as the postmodernist when he says the authorial intent is irrelevant to the literary critic.
In my article “Literary Criticism and Postmodernism” I explained how, “Unhinged from authorial intent, the science of literary criticism is collapsing into merely another instrument for furthering political agendas and ideologies.” Many Christian educators fall into this same error, treating the intent of the artist as irrelevant. This happens when Christians use literary works as instruments for furthering their own Christian ideology instead of anchoring their interpretation in a critical engagement of what the author actually meant, even when what the author meant was explicitly anti-Biblical. This is essentially a Christianized version of the error committed by the 20th century art philosophers W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley who wrote in their paper, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” (I have written a systematic refutation of their views in my 2008 blog post, “Artistic Intent.”)
By dispensing with the relevance of authorial intent, postmodern literary critics (and, unfortunately, many Christian too) essentially confuse interpretation with application, in addition to conflating three different levels with which we can engage with literary texts. (I am indebted to the literary theorist Stanley Fish for this basic nomenclature).
Three Ways to Engage With Literary Texts
The first level is to simply explore what a text means. At this level we are concerned with questions of interpretation and we are seeking to clarify the work’s meaning with reference to the intention of the author. So if we were studying Milton’s Samson Agonistes, we might ask how Milton’s blindness helps us to understand what he was trying to say in this tragic drama about Samson’s blindness.
Second, we can approach literary texts through the lens of reception history. So we might ask explore questions like, “How has Samson Agonistes been received throughout its history? What have other people throughout history thought that this play meant?”
Thirdly, we can play around with the text and find new and creative ways to apply it to our unique personal and political situations. So we might ask, “What new insights does Milton’s play shed on religiously motivated violence in a post-9/11 world?”
All three levels are legitimate areas for us as literary critics, and while there may be some overlap between the different levels, it is important to keep them separate. However, postmodern literary theory conflates level one with level three. We see this in the way contemporary critics interpret a text’s meaning in light of their own political and mental circumstances. Thus, they will make statements like, “After 9/11, Samson Agonistes can never mean the same thing again?” Or “After Auschwitz, we can never return to pre-Sanders’ interpretations of the Pauline corpus.”
Sorry folks, but the meaning of Samson Agonistes did not change when the Twin Towers were bombed. The text means the same thing as it did when Milton wrote it. Similarly, while Hitler may have changed a lot of things when he invaded Poland, not even he could alter the meaning of Saint Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.
While there is nothing wrong with using Samson Agonistes to yield fresh insight into religiously motivated violence, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that in doing this we are clarifying the work’s meaning. The postmodernist’s error is precisely his failure to properly distinguish between our own ideologically-motivated readings of texts and the objective meaning of a work grounded in the intent of the author.
Postmodernists do not have a monopoly on this confusion. I have already mentioned the way the Christian community sometimes falls into the same trap, viewing the meaning of a literary work through the lens of its ethical or theological functionality rather than surrendering to the intent of the author. For example, I have a book in my office in which a Christian educator argues that the church in Dorothy Sayers’ murder mystery The Nine Tailors functions as a microcosm of the universe as well as being analogue to Noah’s ark. I have another book in which a Christian educator argues that the King in Shakespeare’s Henry V should actually be seen as portraying “the opposite of a Christian king, everything a Christian king should not be” since he invaded someone else’s territory. But maybe, just maybe, Shakespeare intended Henry V to be taken at face value without us needing to wait nearly 500 years to discover that he actually meant the hero to be an anti-hero.
Once again, most of these problems can be avoided if we distinguish between our own ideologically-motivated readings of texts and the objective meaning of a work grounded in the intent of the author.
If we are committed to interpreting texts through the lens of authorial intent, then this should restrain our eagerness to impose Christian morals on a text that was not written specifically for that purpose. While there is a place to play around with texts to find applications that can be adapted to us as Christians (level three), this should never be confused with interpretation (level one).
Enjoyment and Surrender
I opened this article by asking how we can interpret literary texts in a way that does justice to our obligation to bring all departments of life in subjection to the knowledge of God. Most of this article has been spent undermining certain wrong ways of answering this question rather than developing a positive case. But there is a positive answer to this question and it is two-fold. Literary criticism with a Biblical worldview involves (1) enjoying literary works for their own sake regardless of any functional value; (2) surrendering to artworks in a way that causes us to grow into richer and deeper people. I will unpack both of these in a following article in this series on literary criticism.