In an article I wrote last year for the Colson Center, titled 'Literary Criticism and the Biblical Worldview Part 1', I suggested that there are three different levels of engagement with literary texts and it is crucial to keep these levels distinct in our minds.
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?”
Third, 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 Shakespeare 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).