What is an Author?

What is an Author? June 1, 2007

As Mormons I think that we are deeply invested in authorial intent as the source of authority in the scriptures. We share this belief with many historical-critics, who have also left unhistoricized this assumption. In this view, the author’s voice is the voice of author-ity, the one who determines meaning and from whose perspective we are able to survey the situation. Certainly, we are allowed to be suspicious of the author’s claims from time to time, but even here it is the author’s voice that we doubt.

The most egregious example of this type of authorial privilege belongs to Paul. These are “his” communities. The communities are writing to him for answers. His voice settles the issue and the community can only agree or disagree with him. The problem with this view is that it gives away precisely what is being contested in Paul’s writings. He is writing because his authority is in question, nay, because he needs to produce his authority. Paul’s leadership was not a given, it is something which had to be earned, won, convinced. By automatically deferring to his voice, we miss that he is trying to convince us to listen to him.

The choice to privilege Paul’s message in his writings is already an interpretive choice which needs to be investigated. When we read fiction, satire, or historically demonized authors, we know how we are supposed to evaluate the voice of the author. But there is always a risk that we “misread” these texts. For Paul, we are taught that what he says is important and we deliberately ignore the other voices in the text so as to not “misread” him. The problem here is that the canon only contains the words that are authoritative, not their interpretations.

Feminist critics have been vocal that the reliance on the author as the sole voice of meaning in the text necessarily privileges the privileged, namely, those who can write and those who are male. As such, we automatically exclude the voices of women, the poor, slaves, and others from our historical and theological inquiries. What were Paul’s opponents and readers saying about the gospel? Does their message have any value? Drawing on the insights of desconstruction, the voices of the opponents, often women (as in 1 Cor) are restored and given a hearing. In this case Paul sought to silence prophetic women in the community because they appealed to a different authority than Paul himself.

Does such a reading strategy have anything to offer Mormons? Are we bound to accept authority in the form of the author because we so closely link the author to divine authority? Are we not able to see contestation over truth in our texts because the voice of the prophet reproduces the voice of God, in which case contestation is always a sign of misunderstanding? Is authorship the only criteria for truth available in Mormonism? While other interpretive practices have problematized this epistemology, and instead locate ethics as the criteria for evaluating truth claims (though sometimes problematically), are we simply incapable of separating the value from the source?

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