Saturday, 30 July 2011

Engaging the “Other” in Reading

In response to an email from our friend Joseph McAuley back in June, I began to write a post on hermeneutics and authorial intention. However, I soon realised that I was opening Pandora's Box, and that a single blog post could not adequately address all the issues at stake in this conversation. So I began to do a little reading and thinking, and Michael Frost and I have had some helpful discussions around this topic as well. So what follows is my first attempt, among many to come, to articulate my position regarding hermeneutics and authorial intentions. I realise this is a technical discussion but I'm hoping to translate most of the technical discussion so that others can join in the conversation... So please feel free to ask questions, raise issues and concerns or flat out object. This is a work in progress...

attempt 1: begin...

Alan Jacobs in his book, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, argues that genuine reading and interpretation of someone’s writing, is an act of love or it is an act of abuse.[1] What this means is that either we, (intentionally or not), treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart that we can then trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a treacherous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power. Tom Wright has elaborated a similar view with regards to an epistemology/hermeneutic of love which is a helpful aid to the act of reading.

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself… When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understanding it, of living with it and continuing to listen… Each stage of this process becomes a conversation, in which misunderstanding is likely, perhaps even inevitable, but in which, through patient listening, real understanding (and real access to external reality) is actually possible and attainable.[2]

Texts must thus be viewed as “an extension of one’s self into the world, through communicative action.”[3] Therefore, through textual interpretation we are engaging with the voice of another, and that voice must be respected in the interpretive process. As Wolterstorff has noted, reading is therefore an act of “engagement with a person that is mediated by the artefact.”[4] Because we are engaging with the voice of another through a text, there is an ethical dimension to our reading and interpretation.[5]

This ethic of interpretation is necessary “to guard the otherness of the text: to preserve its ability to say something to and affect the reader, thus creating the possibility of self-transcendence.”[6] We must be aware that interpretation does not become “a hostile act in which [the] interpreter victimises [a] text.”[7] Reading therefore requires a careful and patient listening and discerning process as we grapple to understand the voice of another. This requires that we pay attention to the concerns and convictions in the voice and message of another, and not dominate their offering and contribution with our own concerns and convictions, however valid those may be. “The interpreter has an ethical responsibility to allow the communicative aim of the text to guide the reader to its intended meaning.”[8] This provides the necessary foundation for a responsible hermeneutic that seeks to understand and represent faithfully the communication of the other, in various texts.[9]

Does that make sense? Clear as mud?


[1] Alan Jacobs, A Theology Of Reading: The Hermeneutics Of Love. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001).

[2] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. (London: SPCK, 1992), 64. This theory of reading is set within the context of Wright’s critical realist epistemology which provides the necessary framework for such a view.

[3] K. J. Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge. (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 229.

[4] See Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Resuscitating the Author” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K. A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson. (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2006), 35-50. This point is also well made by Theologians such as Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 465.

[5] Vanhoozer, 376, notes that only a realist hermeneutic can “respect” the voice of the other, because the “non-realist does not believe that there is anything to be respected.” K. J. Vanhoozer, “A Lamp in the Labyrinth: The Hermeneutics of ‘Aesthetic’ Theology,” Trinity Journal 88 (1987): 25-56, introduces Speech-Act Theory to show how we engage with authors through texts. See John Searle, Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. (London: Cambridge University, 1969) and how this is developed in Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text? In telling section, Vanhoozer, 55, notes that “If the text is a speech act, it seems as far-fetched to separate an author from his language and literature as it does an agent from his action. The author “belongs” to his text. He is responsible for his illocutionary acts… [T]o misinterpret a text is akin to attributing an action to the author that he did not commit.”

[6] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 383.

[7] Mark C. Taylor, “Text as Victim,” in Thomas Altizer and Carl Raschke, Deconstruction and Theology. (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 65. Vanhoozer, “A Lamp in the Labyrinth,” 53 uses stronger language to note that, “wilful misunderstanding of texts is somehow guilty of doing violence to the author. Purposely to misinterpret an author seems akin to disrespect, a kind of semantic rape.”

[8] G. R. Osborne, “Hermeneutics,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments. eds. Ralph P. Martin, Peter H. Davids, (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press) 2000, c1998, [Online] Available: Logos Library System.

[9] Vanhoozer, “A Lamp in the Labyrinth,” 55, “In combining intention and convention, speaker meaning and sentence meaning, speech act theory is able to preserve the emphasis on the present form of a text while at the same time preserving a normative role for the author and his author-ity. With speech act theory, the author has begun to rediscover his voice.”


  1. I really like the langauge of the text expressing the voice of the author. This hits the nail on the head.

    As a side note, preserving the "otherness of the other" is an important precondition for growth and transformation. We have our horizon of understanding expanded by hearing the voice of another and not simply the echo of our own.


  2. How do you do that if you have no idea what the author is saying or what context he is speaking into?
    Could you in your attempt to hear & engage with the author be actually doing the opposite because we have misunderstood what the author is saying?

    It is interesting you mention an ethic of love in reading the text, Peter Rollins mentions something very similar in: How not to speak of God. His outworking of that concept is not to the author but to the world. His concept is one where we read and understand to show love and if we are not growing in love we have read wrong.

  3. If you have no idea what the author is saying, and no idea what the context is, you have a BIG problem. Since context shapes understanding, that is an important issue. My best guess would be to wrestle with the text, and those who have offered understandings of the text, and then begin long hermeneutical spiral of attempting to understand the author. Sometimes it just takes patience and time, but also sometimes an author has been ambiguous to the point where there is no specific intention.

    I like Rollins movement towards the world, but would suggest that we first move into the text before moving towards the world. In the case of Scripture, we are given directives as to how to love the world, which we would completely miss and be unaware of without the voice and vision of the Scriptural authors. So I think Rollins needs to be challenged on that front. Our theological and missiological framework comes from Scripture and moves us toward engaging with the world, but that assumes that we have heard the voice of the "Other" in the Scriptures first.