“It Is” and “It Means”

I’m still several posts away from actually addressing the importance of community in individual interpretation, but it appears I am one step closer. What I am interested in for this post has been inspired by a number of relatively unrelated pieces of information I have recently come across:

  • A story from Stanley Fish’s book, Is There a Text in This Class?, in which a group of well-intentioned students is able to “interpret” the meaning of a “Medieval Christian Iconographic Poem,” which is actually just a list of names.
  • A news item about Jesus appearing on an iron, featuring the 44-year-old Mary Jo Coady, who was raised Catholic. She and her two college-age daughters agree that the image looks like Jesus and is proof that “he’s listening.”
  • A (closely paraphrased) tongue-in-cheek quote from James H. Evans Jr. : “Any time an image of Jesus immerges on a potato chip, iron, or cave wall, I have the same question: Not whether it is Jesus or not, but why is it that every appearance of a 30 year-old bearded man is presumed to be Jesus. Why not Che Guevara?”

What I’m working with certainly isn’t a new thought as such, either for me or for the world, however it has had a certain grip on me as of late and so I’m putting it out there.  The guts of it are in a statement and two corresponding questions:

S: Often we confuse our interpretation of something with the thing itself.

Q1: What would change in the world if we said that some of the things we “know” to be true might just seem true to us?

Q2: Is anything lost if we give up saying we know things for sure?

Given how broad the questions are I think it is important to emphasize that I do not intend them to be rhetorical.  In particular I wonder about the second.  To some degree this has been popping up because I recently began reading Carl Raschke’s book, GLOBOChrist. I haven’t finished it yet, but right in its forward, James K.A. Smith hits on something that I have found to be absolutely true, “Contrary to those who espouse a postmodern account of mission or evangelism as a cover for engaging in “transformative dialogue” (or various other technical translations of kumbaya), the core argument of GloboChrist suggests that the church’s missional task in postmodernity is inevitably a vocation of conflict.”

As someone who uses the phrase “transformative dialogue,” often and is actually an employee of an organization whose very name is The Transformative Language Arts Network, I am under direct, and appropriate, fire.  How earnest am I being when I say that other viewpoints are just as good as mine? Do I really believe that or am I just saying that to cover over the fact that some hard things to deal with are just irreconcilable?

Now, I’m not even sure that Q1 is even remotely a realistic possibilty, and wouldn’t even know where (NVC notwithstanding) to begin institutionalizing it, but it doesn’t seem that radical, because the might in it still leaves open the possibility that the things we believe are, in fact, completely and absolutely true.  It doesn’t say nothing is true, just opens up the possibility that we might be misguided.

Regardless of feasibility of the first, Q2 fascinates me all the more because a part of me feels like I’m missing something.  I don’t seem to feel like admitting that my own knowledge is contingent seems to be a problem most of the time, but maybe by doing so there’s something I’m not experiencing… like I’ve inserted this philosophical and phenomonological safety epoche’ to buffer myself from the more strident emotions and firmer commitments of the world.  Perhaps if I was more assertive I would feel differently about things.  Maybe I’m missing out because I’m “hedging my bets.”    Hmmmm…. more fodder for the grist mill I suppose.  The only thing to do is keep on keeping on.  Which reminds me:

I’ve got some lunch to eat.

3 Responses

  1. Interesting stuff. I have GloboChrist sitting in my stack. I may have to pick it up over the holiday break.

    I’m not sure I am willing to give up on the phrase “transformative dialogue.” Just based on the Smith quotation, I wonder if it is possible to own that phrase in such a way that conflict is not ignored nor minimalized. I would not want to participate in such a dialogue in order to reduce myself and the other to some sort of lowest common denominator, but to put my own hermeneutical understanding at risk such that it may have to change. I’m not even sure I am really partaking in dialogue unless that is a possibility.

  2. Callid, great post. Your last bit of monologue about the bible being a sort of mirror that reflects the person reading it, is very insightful. It got me thinking about the Greek story of Narcissus. I love McLuahn’s take on the story (I know you love him too). Most people think Narcissus looked in the mirror, saw himself and fell in love, but McLuhan submits that he was deceived by the medium. Narcissus did not know he was looking at himself, he didn’t understand how the medium worked, thus we was imprisoned and controlled by it.


Leave a Reply