My life is a text. Is there meaning in that text?
Jerry Rivard asks: “I would really love a short, direct, easy to read explanation of Christianity. I am confused about it, always have been, and I don’t think I’m alone.”
Christianity is first of all a form of theism. Why be a theist? Why believe there is such a being as God? This little essay will offer one approach to the matter.
When I went to university I majored in English. It was a natural step as I had always been an avid reader. My first triumph was Mr. Pine’s Purple House, a delightful exploration in the futile quest for non-conformity which I read at the age of four. Soon I was consuming Richard Peck, Judy Blume and E.B. White. By the time I was eleven I was reading Richard Adams’ Watership Down and William Horwood’s Duncton Wood (I was big into animal fiction for awhile). And so it went. Consequently, it was a natural step to focus on English in my university education.
As I began my study I gradually came to confront a most extraordinary fact. Many literary critics and philosophers were profoundly skeptical about the very notion of authorial intention. That is, they doubted that authors could place meanings in texts which could be identified by readers. I kept hearing about the “death of the author”. I was told the only meaning to be found in a text is the meaning that the reader brings to it.
While I was reading this from the critics, I wasn’t getting it from my professors. I was studying at a Christian liberal arts university, and my professors disagreed sharply with the skepticism of many of their secular peers.
I shared the skepticism of my professors. The whole idea that we should deny objective meaning in texts seemed not only wrong, it was downright preposterous. (And for those literary critics busily writing essays to undermine the notion that there was authorial meaning to be found in texts, it seemed that it was self-refuting as well. As philosopher John Searle pointed out, these critics deeply resented it when people misread their texts.)
I didn’t have all the problems with this skeptical literary criticism sorted in my mind. But I knew enough to be deeply suspicious. I was unapologetic about retaining the primacy of authorial intention in my engagement with texts. There was objective meaning to be found in texts. It wasn’t always easy to find (Faulkner, Joyce…) but hard work would be rewarded with increased understanding.
And so I kept reading texts with a commitment to their objective meaning and the drive of finding that meaning. I may not have had a clear rejoinder to all the skeptic’s reasons for denying that objective meaning, that real presence. But to deny the presence of that objective meaning was absurd. And so instead I rejected the skeptics.
Our lives are like texts. In the same way that the reader searches for an objective meaning, an authorial intention, in the words written on a page, so we naturally search for meaning in the texts of our lives.
And just as there are skeptics who declare the death of the author and who claim the only meaning to be found in texts is the meaning we bring to them, so there are those who proclaim the death of the author behind the texts of our lives and who claim that the only meaning in our lives is the meaning we bring to them.
Is “Winnie the Pooh” a post-existentialist exploration of the deconstructed homoeroticism of youth? It is if you want it to be, or so says the reader who thinks he’s at liberty to create his own meanings.
I demur. “Winnie the Pooh” has nothing to do with the morbid imagination of the wayward graduate student. The author has not been lost and he is not dead. He is to be found in the text, if we only have the time and care to read and listen.
In the same way that some people think they can make of a text whatever they want, so some think they can make of a life whatever they want. They claim that the only meaning to be found in a life is the meaning the one living the life brings to it. Our response to the story we find ourselves in is the beginning and end of meaning and purpose.
This is wrong. Objective meaning exists as surely within the texts of our lives as it exists in the texts of our libraries. And just as our successful engagement with a literary text depends on our getting at that meaning, so it is with our lives.
The author is not dead. Let us read carefully the texts in which we find ourselves.