It’s A Wonderful Wife

My wife (who is not originally from the United States) watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life all the way through for the first time over the past few days. Her reaction, once it was all over, was that the movie is about how Mary, George Bailey’s wife, repeatedly comes to his rescue when he is in a crisis.

Is that the, or at least a, point of the story? It is worth asking such questions, and for allowing them to lead us to think about theological matters as well. The most frequent and most problematic approach to the Bible in North America is for various groups to read it and assume that what they understand it to mean is what it really means, and what it would have meant in its original context.

But if one takes seriously our distance in time and space from the cultural and historical context of the Biblical world(s), it seems that the best assumption would be that the obvious meaning is not likely to be what the author intended, unless we have evidence to the contrary.

Of course, even taking a historical-contextual approach doesn’t settle things. The are authors who have been “ahead of their time”, and ones who considered themselves terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries. A historical-contextual approach isn’t absolute – it is just the best way of approaching a text and making sense of it, all other things being equal.

On the other end of the process, if we consider interpreters living in the same context, with the same basic assumptions, we find that nonetheless they may well reach different conclusions. If the “plain sense” of a text were straightforward to obtain, wouldn’t all those who say they accept the Bible’s authority and take it literally agree on what it means? Anyone who thinks meaning is obvious may have advanced degrees in Biblical interpretation – but is most likely unmarried, and is certainly naive.

On the other hand, when it comes to the meaning of the movie, my wife’s interpretation is surely correct, because I’ve learned over the years that my wife is always right.

If only matters of Biblical interpretation were so easily solved!

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  • Richard M

    I would also add, as a psychiatrist, that this idea can be expanded to include at least three more layers of difficulty in determining meaning, all of which ultimately boil down to the idea that meaning is far more personally idiosyncratic than I think most people realize.When one learns the art of psychotherapy, or even just goes through it as a patient, it becomes pretty clear that there is, really, no more intimate a question you can ask of someone than “what does x mean to you?” In it, you go to the heart of the dense web of emotional/affective associations that connects x to everything he has ever seen, heard, thought, or felt about it. And you just cant know those things unless (a) you ask and (b) the person knows and (c) he’s willing to tell you. In psychotherapy, those three conditions exist…. which is what I personally find so wonderful about it. You never know what a person means (about anything)more deeply than in therapy.This kind of emotional meaning may not map *exactly* onto the more public concept of declarative meaning you’re discussing but, I think its obvious that when we’re talking about words like “God” and “forgiveness” and “love”, there are few more emotionally-laden ideas in human language, so meaning, here, is inevitably going to be highly personal from the get-go.And when you add the next layer, that many of our meanings are unconscious and thus unknown to us, it gets even more obviously problematic. We dont always (usually?) really know *ourselves* what we mean. It takes no small degree of *emotional* maturity (not necessarily intellecutal!) to be open to ones own experience, and thereby acknowledge ones own emotional life, and thereby known ones own meanings.And finally, all these meanings usually occur within an interpersonal context of two flesh and bloood individuals face-to-face. There is an enomorous amount of communication done through facial gestures and intonation, as we all know but easily forget. Part of the reason our brains are so big is likely that that is what is needed to process all non-verbal communication, which in turn subserves our complex social networks. Meaning is thus, to varying degrees, biological, as well as interpersonal.So, I agree with your stance here. Meaning is so difficult to obtain that many postmodernists, as I understand them (though pomo has always been my personal stumbling block) gave up on the concept of authorial intent altogether. Thats a bit extreme, IMHO, but I understand the impetus. Even in the best of circumstance, an implicit and obvious fallibilism ought to be just accepted, and gotten over. We will never be sure what the author meant,but we can make a pretty good guess…sometimes. Ive tried this approach on my own wife. I tried suggesting to her that her unconscious meanings belie her real ones, and that her intonations and gestures tell the true story, and that she really ought to try to know herself a little better.Lets just say that the exception proves the rule, and that her meanings become *very* clear when I try to say that sort of thing.

  • Scott F

    What Richard M said…and, I concur that the whole point of Harry Potter is that men are glory seeking morons who need an intelligent female around to bail them out at every opportunity.