A friend recently sent me this Morning Musing by Renda Brumbeloe. I don't know anything about Brumbeloe, but the piece's defense of certainty recalled some recent reading quite to the contrary. The book is Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? by James K.A. Smith, which we read for our Cultural Discerner group this spring. In his chapter on Derrida, he looks at the idea that it's impossible to approach a text without interpreting it–that is, that there's no way to achieve some kind of transcendent, perfectly clear understanding of any text (including the Bible) because language itself requires interpretation.
Often when we read–and biblical commentaries tend to be a great case study for this–we imagine that the text or the language of the book is something we have to get through in order to recover the author's original intention. In other words, the text becomes a hurdle that we have to jump over–or a curtain we need to pass through–in order to get to what is behind the text, such as the author's idea or the referent (the thing to which the text points). Sometimes we concede that such a process requires that bothersome thing called interpretation–as when we're reading a poem or C.S. Lewis's more allegorical works. Then we concede that there is a kind of code that needs to be broken in order to understand the text. But most of the time, we don't think we interpret; we simply read. In these cases we assume that the text under consideration is clear and therefore doesn't require interpretation. We might need some background or context, but once those pieces are in place, we don't need to interpret. Instead, the text takes on a kind of transparency so that we can simply see what it means. … When I read the newspaper, I don't need to 'interpret'; I simply need to read. And most of us think that when we read the Bible, the same is true: yes, some passages are difficult, or the poetry of the Song of Solomon might throw us for a loop, but if we're reading Paul's Epistle to the Romans, things are pretty clear. We simply need to provide a commentary that gives us the background and context. Such a commentary is like a cloth that cleans the text to grant it the transparency that makes interpretation unnecessary. … For Derrida, this is a naive assumption because it fails to recognize that we never really get 'behind' or 'past' texts; we never get beyond the realm of interpretation to some kind of kingdom of pure reading. We are never able to step out of our skins.
Later in the chapter, Smith acknowledges the primary reason many people (Christians in particular) find Derrida's ideas about interpretation disconcerting:
If the claim that there is nothing outside the text means that everything is interpretation, then the gospel would only be an interpretation. If it is only an interpretation, then that means there might be other interpretations. And if the gospel is only an interpretation and there could be other interpretations, we can't know if the gospel is true."
The problem with this fear, Smith points out, is that we often incorrectly equate truth with objectivity, and then interpretation becomes an enemy of truth. However, "the fact that something is a matter of interpretation does not mean that an interpretation cannot be true or a good interpretation." Smith doesn't say that all interpretations are equally good (nor does Derrida), but that we need to be honest about the fact that they are interpretations:
There is a level of interpretive difference that concerns fundamental issues such as what it means to be authentically human and how we fit into the cosmos. In this respect, for instance, Christianity and Buddhism have very different interpretations about the nature of reality. However, we need to consider these as deep differences in interpretation rather than glibly supposing that the Christian account is objectively true and then castigating the Buddhist account for being merely an interpretation. In fact, both are interpretations; neither is objectively true. … To assert that our interpretation is not an interpretation but objectively true often translates into the worst kinds of imperial and colonial agendas, even within a pluralist culture. Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however, translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty. But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn't exactly objective); the loss of objectivity, then, does not entail a loss of kerygmatic boldness about the truth of the gospel. Deconstruction's recognition that everything is interpretation opens a space of questioning–a space to call into question the received and dominant interpretations that often claim not to be interpretations at all. As such, deconstruction is interested in interpretations that have been marginalized and sidelined, activating voices that have been silenced. This is the constructive, yea prophetic, aspect of Derrida's deconstruction: a concern for justice by being concerned about dominant, status quo interpretations that silence those who see differently. Thus, from its inception, deconstruction has been, at root, ethical–concerned for the paradigmatic marginalized described by the Old Testament as 'the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.' To put it differently: Wall Street and Washington both want us to think that their rendering of the world is 'just the way things are.' Deconstruction, but showing the way in which everything is interpretation, empowers us to question the interpretations of trigger-happy presidents and greedy CEOs–in a way not unlike the prophets' questioning of the dominant interpretations of the world. As such, we are free to interpret the world differently.
GOOD interpretation, according to Derrida and Smith, takes place within community–in Smith's case, a Church community where "the same Spirit is both author of the text and illuminator of the reading community."