The Authority of Text, Institution, and Individual

The Authority of Text, Institution, and Individual October 18, 2018

One major focus of the questions students at McCormick Seminary asked in response to my book Theology and Science Fiction was about canon (and that was just based on what I wrote in the book, without them knowing that I had invented a card game to foster discussion of the subject in class!)

One reason I think the subject of canon is particularly important is how it clarifies a key point about authority. George Lucas may or may not be the Star Wars equivalent of the Pope. But if most fans do not accept his authority to decide what is and isn’t canon, in the movies he made and then his revisions to them, then it reveals that authority actually lies with us, with individuals and communities. An authority figure may have the power to kill you if you don’t articulate adherence to their teachings, but they simply do not have the authority to define canon for everyone unless everyone acknowledges, embraces, and submits to that authority. The authority thus lies with us, even when we give it away.

The conversation also gave us a chance to talk about authoritative pronouncements and social media. J. K. Rowling has been actively trying to maintain control of how the Harry Potter franchise is interpreted, including on Twitter. The mention of whether tweets are authoritative led to some knowing glances, but that wasn’t where I wanted to go with the conversation. Rather I was thinking about the fact that (despite widespread misperception about this) if you follow Pope Francis on Twitter, you are not getting official statements that the Roman Catholic Church considers infallible. One student interprets Harry Potter as the imaginary world into which an abused child takes refuge from reality, much to the annoyance of fans in the seminar room. I asked whether it mightn’t be worth exploring comparably different approaches to interpreting the Book of Revelation – as a genuine mystical experience, as simply someone writing in that genre, and as the dream world of a persecuted and exiled individual trying to cope with the trauma of that experience.

Daniel Kirk recently shared some thoughts on Facebook about Protestantism’s emphasis on the authority of the individual to interpret scripture. I responded to that by highlighting the disconnect between that Protestant emphasis and where fundamentalism detoured it to. Fundamentalist Protestantism became ludicrous and self-contradictory when it insisted that the key to salvation is for the individual to make sure that they use their “authority to read and interpret the Bible” to draw only the “one correct interpretation” that fundamentalists authorize them to. Fundamentalist dogmatism is thus fundamentally (pun intended) at odds with the general Protestant emphasis (as well as the even more prominent Baptist emphasis) on freedom of conscience and of interpretation on the part of the individual.

I love the ways that bringing science fiction and speculative fiction fandoms into the conversation can help to highlight important matters related to the Bible and its interpretation!

Of related interest, there is a job opening for an assistant professor of science fiction and/or fantasy literature…

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  • robrecht

    Jar Jar Binks redivivus is the antichrist.

  • robrecht

    יר יר בינכס שוב חי

    Gematria = 888

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    With George Lucas, we have the advantage(?) of knowing he’s the person producing content. It’s his world that he’s created to make money for himself. So, when it comes to declaring who has the right to set the canon, it’s easier to give a lot of weight to Lucas’ opinion on that.

    With the biblical texts, authorship is a much foggier issue and, even where it can be determined, no single author produced all the different writings. Kind of by nature of the case, the biblical canon has to be defined by receptive communities.

  • John MacDonald

    Derrida says there is “nothing outside the text,” which means while the author’s intention is of fundamental importance, the ultimate arbiter is the text itself, which may in fact speak against the author’s intent or purpose. For instance, maybe there will be an unintended bigotry that undermines an author’s ethical program. Or, maybe there will be something in a Philosophical system that causes that very system to tremble (e.g., Kant contra Hume – “destruktion” in Heidegger’s German, regarding the deconstruction of the history of ontology, and in fact of ontology itself).

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Derrida is way smarter than I am, but how can the text itself be an “arbiter?” Wouldn’t even the detection of unintended bigotry be something observed by the reader? And if a reader brought this to the author’s attention and the author said, “That’s not how I meant it,” how would the text itself arbitrate between them?

      • John MacDonald

        Like I said, it doesn’t mean ignoring the author’s intent, but, for instance, if Hume is trying to provide an empiricist interpretation of reality, and there is something in his discussion that doesn’t square with human experience (Kant takes him up on the issue of causality), then Hume’s text fights against Hume. Similarly, contemporary feminist interpreters may find things in 19th century English literature that may speak against the idyllic portrayal those 19th century authors were intending. Things like that.

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Right, but aren’t those all instances of the readers’ response? In other words, the text -itself- is just words on the page. Everyone can agree what physical words are physically on the page. But it seems to me that adjudicating interpretations is always subjective. We might debate on how much “authority” an author should have against readers, but the text itself arbitrates nothing, the way I see it.

          • John MacDonald

            Phil said:

            But it seems to me that adjudicating interpretations is always subjective.

            Certainly, there is scarcity and ambiguity in texts that leads to polysemia, such as Jesus being interpreted as an apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah, prophet of social change, Euhemerized mythical being, etc. Derrida isn’t talking about reader response, but rather addressing those who view texts as having an objective transcendental signified meaning (the intention of the author) that we can reliably reconstruct.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Ok, I think I’m following.

            So, in conversation with the statement, “The author’s intent is an objective meaning that we can reliably reconstruct,” I can get behind a statement like, “No, there is nothing but the text itself.”

            At the same time, I’d say a consistent application of this is that the text itself is not any kind of arbiter of meaning except insofar as it uses words that we probably know the dictionary definitions of. I’d want to avoid replacing an idea of “objective author’s intent” with “the text itself” as we discuss meanings.

            Texts themselves cannot be authorities on their own meaning. The derivation of meaning is a subjective activity. Obviously, as we discuss likely meanings of a text, the words in the text are our primary source material for having that discussion, but the text cannot arbitrate that discussion in any way. I can’t settle a debate on meaning with, “The words on the page are….”

          • John MacDonald

            Yes. As Nietzsche says, we only ever dip our pen in our own inkwell. So, when we are teaching children to read, we encourage metacognition by having them make explicit the connections they are making to their own lives while reading – analogical thinking. This is not just “a” way of making meaning, it is fundamental. In this way, we can’t expect a 4 year old to appropriate a text about romance/sex the way an adult can because the child doesn’t have the relevant life experiences to interpret from. Similarly, when we teach children to write, we encourage them to utilize sensory and emotive language because this is something they may share with their reader, and so will assist the reader and making meaning.

            Derrida’s point is an ethical one, and only hermeneutic in a secondary manner. When Hume constructs his empiricist “System (Totality, in the sense of Totalitarianism)” to explain reality, his “System” or “Totality” functions by attempting to appropriate the manifold haecceities (because this is what normal totalitarian interpretation try to do). However, Derrida says there is a certain “infinity” we sometimes encounter in the face of the suffering Other (widow, orphan, alien, and persecuting enemy) that is going to cause my appropriating ethical system to shutter with a “infinite responsibility” that overflows my ability to appropriate it into my existing structure, and so causes my ethical totality to be deconstructed and reconstructed with this more inclusive mandate in mind. The totality (which Derrida calls a “metaphysics of presence” whose essence is “obviousness” and “certainty”) has been undermined by the haeccieity of the marginalized and forgotten. This happens, for instance, when the “obviousness” of the traditional concept of marriage is called into question by marginalized LGBTQ love – an infinite responsibility to the call of the other who is suffering, being ignored, marginalized, etc.

            Plato talks about this in terms of a surplus (epekeina tes ousias, a phrase from Plato’s Republic 509b) that our guiding perspective can’t appropriate, and a wonder (thaumazein) at a block in the path of appropriation (an “aporia”) which is the foundation for us to rethink our guiding perspective – the heart of all genuinely Philosophical thinking. An example of this is a religious fundamentalist who can no longer maintain their worldview because of a failure of it to reconcile it with the evidence, and so becomes a liberal or secular person.

          • John MacDonald

            And retooling the System (staying with the example of the “obviousness” of the traditional definition of marriage), even with the best of intentions, may not remedy the problem, because then poly-relationships (polygamy, polyamory) may call out in protest because they are not being included in the new LGBTQ-friendly definition of marriage. Think how long “ethically progressive” thinkers ignored things like Women, Black rights (etc.) This is why (1) Deconstruction is always on Derrida’s mind, along with (2) Dissemination, (3) Différance, and (4) Undecideability. These are Derrida’s four key concepts that every student of Derrrida needs to be able to explain.

  • John MacDonald

    I checked out the posting for the job as Assistant Professor of Science-Fiction / Fantasy Literature. Wow! Talk about a dream job! If I had a PhD in English Literature I’d be all over that one!

  • Neil Brown

    George Lucas isn’t the Pope, He is The Force.