Where Is the Meaning? (Interpreting Spiritual Texts, part I)

Bloggernacle conversations over the past few months (especially those on women and temple covenants) have got me thinking about issues of textual interpretation. So, I decided to do a series of posts thinking about how we interpret spiritual/religious texts and whether or not there’s anything we can learn from people in the academy whose job it is to interpret texts (i.e. literary theorists). Here’s attempt #1.

In the old days, textual meaning was located in one of a couple of places. The first place it could be located was with the author of the text. People spent time trying to study and determine what the author “really intended,” and authorial intent was celebrated as the ultimate meaning of the text. The second place it could be located was in the text itself. New Criticism argued that each text has one unified meaning and that we should read the text closely to figure out that meaning. (Remember all those fun English classes where the teachers made you do “close readings”? You can thank the New Critics for that.)

When the structuralists came along in the middle of the twentieth century, they turned everything upside-down. Structuralism engendered a radical reconceptualization of the text; no more locating meaning with an author-figure or with a unified text. Instead, all texts were part of larger structures of meaning. The structuralists argued that all texts used linguistic and cultural codes as their methods of conveying meaning. These linguistic and cultural codes could be found in all texts, and it was these codes/structures that gave texts meaning.

Because of structuralism, “intertextuality” (or links between different texts)Â begins to be important because if all texts are part of larger codes or structures of meaning, then it follows that all texts are connected. The structures of meaning in one text may resemble or contradict the structures of meaning in another, and we can better understand these texts by looking at them together. Structuralism also emphasized the role of the reader in meaning-finding. The reader was important because she is the one who understands and deciphers the codes in each text.

Deconstruction and other post-structuralist theories pushed the moves made by structuralism even further. For example, deconstruction’s intertextuality was not about figuring out how texts were linked by different structural codes. Instead, it was a way of pointing at the inherent instability of meaning. In deconstruction’s intertextuality, you move from one text to the next to the next along a chain of associated meanings. There is no stopping place in this chain of intertextual referencing–you are always on shifting ground, and the meaning is never stable. If you reference one text, you are referencing them all, because each text can be linked to all others infinitely; no structure, text, or meaning has ultimate authority.

Deconstruction is primarily concerned with pointing out how there is no authoritative, certain meaning–we can only access meaning through language, and all language is transitory and contradictory. Deconstruction opposes the philosophical idea of essentialism (read the first quote by Diana Fuss), and instead, posits that how we access the nature and meaning of things is through language and culturally-mediated experiences. While structuralism examined the role of culture, deconstruction took it one step further because it destabilized the cultural codes that were seen as the meaning-makers in structuralism. Deconstructionists showed that these codes/structures were not as clear or straightforward as the structuralists believed.

So, in summary,structuralism and deconstruction are important because they emphasized the importance of intertextuality, the influence of culture on language, and the importance of the reader in determining meaning. Furthermore, they highlighted how language follows specific structures and patterns, but that those patterns are often more arbitrary and confusing than is commonly accepted.

So, what does this mean for meaning and interpretation in church contexts? First, when you add religion and God to the practices of meaning-making and interpretation, the equation changes. “Logocentrism,” the term Derrida uses to critique the belief that meaning has one central source, is important and even celebrated in the church. The “word” is God. We are to determine His meaning, interpret scriptures using His guidelines and spirit. To a large extent, the “meaning” of the text is God and His will. Of course, the problem with this is that as mortals, we are unable to fully understand and comprehend God’s meanings. Our texts are imperfect manifestations, written according to our understanding, and it becomes very difficult when faced with a variety of texts and conflicting messages to figure out the intentionality of God, especially since he wasn’t the direct author of all of our scriptural and ritual texts.

So, on one level there is an inherent tension between religious readings of texts and structuralist and post-structuralist readings. The question for me is to what extent can we embrace the arguments of the literary theorists that language is culturally-informed and unstable? How do we acknowledge this (which, in my mind, is an important acknowledgment) while still accepting the transcendence and centrality of God and His role in meaning-making?

The literary theories I’ve discussed above also introduce additional ideas that are important to consider (these are questions I’ll be returning to in the upcoming posts in this series): How should we think about intertextuality? Do certain texts have priority when thinking about performing intertextual analyses? If so, how should we use them? And how do we avoid the intertextual associations of non-LDS (or non-canonical) texts? Do we want to avoid these associations? How much influence does culture have on scriptural texts, and how does this affect our influence our belief in a text’s scriptural nature or divine origin? What is the place and role of the reader when interpreting scriptural texts? Is the reader the central figure for determining meaning (as posited by structuralism)? If so, how does that position of meaning-making function? What kind of readers are ideal readers (if there is such a thing)? And how should these readers go about interpreting texts?


  1. Fascinating ideas and questions, Seraphine. I’m not sure that deconstruction and post-modernism in general makes a very good bedfellow of religion. One claims ultimate authority and the other calls all authority into question.

    I’m wondering where ideas about metaphorical or mythical versus literalistic readings of texts fits in to this discussion, or if it does. In my own reading of scripture, I derive more meaning when I look at the stories metaphorically.

    I’ve also been troubled lately as I’ve paid more attention to correlated Sunday School lessons. I feel like there are a few central messages that the correlation comittee wanted to put forth (obedience to authority, God blesses good people, punishes bad, etc) and that rather than exploring the possible meanings of the text, the text is molded to fit a preconcieved idea. Certain key scriptures are picked to isolate a point. What further complicates things is that, like you mentioned, language is culturally informed and unstable. Culture itself is unstable. When reading the Bible, I am acutely aware that the culture from which those words came, with the mitigating factor of translation, done by people from yet another culture and another time (at least for the KJV) is dramatically different and almost inaccessible to me. I find reading a comparative study bible at least gives me several interpretations and I can see a bigger picture.

    I’ve been reading a book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her work “The Woman’s Bible”. The author mentions that when the first revisions of the KJV were done in 1881, there was significant upheaval. People had put their faith in the Word as being divinely inspired, and the revision of it challenged its ultimate authority. Now we are used to the idea of several translations, but then, they felt the Word of God had been violated. [the book is Mrs. Stanton’s Bible by Kathi Kern]

  2. AmyB, you’re right to observe that religion and post-modernism aren’t entirely compatible–you can’t fully embrace the tenets of both. And obviously, I’m ultimately going to come down on the side of God-as-authority. At the same time, I think there’s a lot to be said for looking how culture might influence our scripture, thinking about the limitations of language, etc.

    Reading things metaphorically actually works quite well with the structuralist project (metaphor was a big love of the structuralists–metaphors were one of the “structures” that they analyzed). And I’m with you–I like to read things on a metaphorical level.

    That’s really interesting about the reactions to Biblical translations. I hadn’t really thought much about this issue.

    As for your whole suspicion of the church correlation committee, I also tend to be suspicious of readings that seem to impose readings on scriptures/texts that the texts themselves don’t support. I think figuring out what is the “right” or “best” reading when texts seem highly ambiguous is a really interesting issue (and one I plan to address in follow-up posts).

  3. Interesting post. I have recently been reading some history on the Book of Revelation.

    This is a book which has be interpreted, and re-interpreted many times over. In the D&C there is an entire section devoted to Q&A on the book. What’s interesting, is that many of the answers found in the D&C do not correspond to scholarly or historically based interpretations at all. A recent thread over at BBC discussed this (sorry, I can’t find the link currently).

    The question in this case was: is it ok for Joseph Smith to read his own meaning into the book, if those meanings are based upon truth? Many think it is just fine to do this because the ultimate purpose of scripture is to teach the gospel, so it doesn’t matter what was originally meant if the current interpretation instructs correctly. According to this line of thought, the best reader is the one who reads with the spirit, not historical criticism.

    Unfortunately, I myself being somewhat of a heathen prefer the historical criticism. ‘Reading myself’ into scripture has never felt right to me.

  4. AmyB, you’re right to observe that religion and post-modernism aren’t entirely compatible–you can’t fully embrace the tenets of both. And obviously, I’m ultimately going to come down on the side of God-as-authority. At the same time, I think there’s a lot to be said for looking how culture might influence our scripture, thinking about the limitations of language, etc.

    While one cannot embrace the tenets of both religion and post-modernism, exploring the tensions and questioning what each hold to be ultimate truths is a delicious exercise. (Paradoxically, what post-modernism holds as ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth. )

    Even if one holds God-as-authority, I think we agree that one can explore what the implications are regarding textual interpretation. I personally think that one must consider the culture and contexts of the text, and I’m with Jared E. on preferring historical criticism to reading oneself into the text. It’s also interesting to consider that the canonized texts we have now (particularly New Testament) are the ones that won out over time, and that texts that gave the church institution more power were preferred over ones that placed power and access to God with the individual (like the Gospel of Thomas).

  5. Excellent Post! I have been studying this topic off and on all summer by reading different postmodern theologians and how they integrate the religion and postmodernism.

    Here is my question, if, we can’t fully embrace the tenets of both. and must ultimately going to come down on the side of God-as-authority. isn’t the negotiation between those two ultimately based on how we perceive God and God’s authority? I know we are all approaching this from a mormon perspective, but wouldn’t B.H Roberts and Bruce R. McConkie strongly disagree about what parts are negotiable. It seems that they would probably disagree based upon differing conceptions of God. But don’t they derive these conceptions from the text? And isn’t their approach to the text going to strongly influence how to develop their view of God? …I’m afraid I am not being clear…but I wonder if there is some sort of non-vicious circularity in trying to integrate an approach to religious texts based upon one’s beliefs about God, while at the same time using the text to inform one’s belief about God and God’s authority.

  6. I do not think that God makes a text mean just anything – particularly not anything that does not have a principled or structural relationship with the original. I think occasionally prophets are inspired to add a new layer of meaning that the original prophet did not anticipate. However, as a rule, I believe that God understood or intended all the primary, legitimate meanings (levels of symbolism) of a scripture when it was still in the hands of the original author.

    The scriptures are full of symbolism that would probably make Dan Brown’s head spin, if he paid proper attention, and the religious evidence is abundantly clear that authors like Paul and Isaiah understood full well what they were doing when they wrote it down. If they didn’t they were either living breathing mimeograph machines, or extraordinarily poor writers.

    I am a big fan of intertextuality, as long as one is dealing with the right set of texts. I see the anti-foundationalist aspects and anti-inspiration aspects of postmodernism as cardinal heresies, however.

  7. Jared E., thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Book of Revelation–I will confess to knowing very little about cultural or historical criticism of the scriptures. As for reading oneself into the text, I actually love to do that. But the way I do it is often on a very personal level (i.e. I think about how stories in the scriptures are very directly applicable to my current difficulties and dilemmas). But I admit to being drawn to cultural/historical criticism (despite my lack of knowledge in this area). Mostly because I do believe that scriptures are cultural/historical documents (as well as being inspired texts), so, in my mind, studying them in this way can illuminate things that might not otherwise make sense.

    AmyB, I definitely agree that the practice of reading these things against each other is a “delicious exercise” (and I have to say, I love that phrase). 🙂 Also, thanks for your thoughts on the New Testament–those were new to me.

    Johnny, my experience with postmodernism is primarily in the theoretical and literary realms–I haven’t done much reading in postmodern theology. I’d be curious to see how these theologians reconcile the wildly different belief-systems of postmodernism and religion. Also, I’m not sure that I’m entirely following the rest of your comment (if you want to further explain, please do!), which may be because I’m tired and sick. I do think the point you raise about God’s authority is a good one, though. I definitely think that figuring out the meaning of the scriptures (and how much to attribute to God) comes down to determining how involved you think God was in inspiring/bringing about a specific sacred text.

    Mark, I’m not sure that I see those aspects of postmodernism as heresies, but I am reluctant to completely embrace certain aspects of postmodernism. Despite my belief in the influence of culture and the somewhat limited involvement of God (I tend to see more cultural influence in the scriptures than your average Mormon), I still believe in God as the ultimate authority.

  8. You raise such interesting and thorny questions that I haven’t begun to make sense of. I often wonder what exactly scripture is. (What follows is just my random thoughts of the moment that are, I hope, somehow vaguely related!)

    We sometimes assess individual claims of so-called higher criticism, but I think we rarely address its fundamental premise: that scriptural text can be read the same way any other text is read; it does not have a special ontological status.

    For those who accept this premise, where does that leave biblical theology (or theology of sacred texts generally)? Like AmyB, I think SS is usually an exercise in flagrant eisegesis, about which I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I don’t disagree with the morals that are drawn. On the other hand, in many cases they’re not gleaned from an honest encounter with the text itself. So I wonder, couldn’t we just as easily read another classic work and draw from it whatever morals we’re planning on drawing? And when our values are forced onto a reading of the text, we can no longer honestly claim the text as an authority for those values–are we then not obligated to examine our values critically?

    But those who reject this premise are equally plagued by problems: whose interpretation of sacred texts is authoritative, and on what basis (especially in inevitable cases of disagreement)? How are the many blatant contradictions dealt with? How do we know which passages to privilege over other passages? Do we tacitly acknowledge God’s hand in the canonization process, and why?

    In any case, I’ve appreciated reading the works of biblical scholars who remain religiously committed and yet openly acknowledge, in the interest of intellectual honesty, instances in which the authors of scripture seem to depart quite dramatically from modern religious sensibilities.

    (There are ways in which I see how and why the Muslim conception of scripture as an almost magical icon able to impart God’s wisdom in a way that transcends ordinary language developed, and what its appeal is, although I find it ultimately very unsatisfying.)

    Last semester I taught discussion sections about the origins of Judaism and Christianity and their relationship to the Hebrew Bible (/Old Testament). The course drew disproportionately on Jewish and Christian students, and it was interesting (and sometimes painful) to watch them struggle with the biblical text. Many of them admitted the course essentially induced spiritual crises, for good and ill, because the text was shown to be so much more complex than their Sunday School and Hebrew School teachers had ever let on. Some of them confessed to feeling betrayed that they had always been taught the Bible supported all of their own religious claims clearly and unequivocally, without acknowledgment of the complexities or ambiguities of the text, or the role tradition and sometimes elaborate interpretation has played in shaping their communities’ beliefs.

  9. Kiskilili- I was interested to read about students of other religions feeling betrayed when they learned what they had always been taught wasn’t necessarily what they thought it was. I have had similar feeling of betrayal, and it’s kinda nice to realize this is not a uniquely mormon problem.

    Seraphine- I’m really enjoying this discussion and looking forward to part II. There have been some fascinating questions raised. I’m still thinking about the impact of translation and all of the different versions. Having grown up with the KJV and BofM, when I first encountered other versions of the Bible they just didn’t sound like scripture to me. It was very disconcerting. Does having various translations of the Bible undermine or change our views on its authority? Hmmm. . .

  10. I have found this discussion so interesting because it is a problem with which I have been wrestling. I have a practical example of trying to decide if the text stands alone or it I need to bring meaning to it. Having just recently re-read Genesis 3:22 (and the corresponding Moses 4:28), I am baffled by the wordage. “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…”. Why is woman left out? I have asked a few others, and they unanimously maintain that Eve is simply implied. But I’ve been confused as to why one would conclude that from this scripture. They all said it is because of their beliefs in the equality of men/women, even within the church. However, I do not think the text supports this. How can you tell when to let the scriptures actually teach you (read them honestly and without semantic gymnastics), and when to apply what you believe as truth to them to make them read what you think they should?

  11. Kiskilili, you’ve raised a bunch of interesting issues that I’m not quite sure what to make of myself. I want to give scripture a privileged status (i.e. I don’t want to treat it just like any other text), but at the same time, I want to acknowledge it as a cultural/historical document that should be understood on those terms. I tend to believe both of these things simultaneously, but I don’t have any definite answers on what makes scripture different, God’s involvement in the text, etc.

    Also, thanks for sharing those thoughts about your students–my next couple of posts are going to be on intertextuality and reading different criticism/viewpoints into texts (and how that intersects with the ambiguity of the text).

    AmyB, you’re right that the issue of translation is another interesting issue, though I think I’m going to sidestep that topic in this series (my knowledge about Biblical translations is very minimal). Kiskilili? Do you want to do a post at some point on Biblical translation?

  12. Rilkerunning, that’s a very good question that I wish I had a good answer to. For me, I tend to not do one or the other–the critical techniques I use to read scriptures vary from instance to instance (and I’m still trying to figure out what kinds of patterns I’ve observed in my own interpretive tendencies).

    My reading of the particular scripture you quote would be that “man” also refers to “women” but that this is an example where “man” is being used in the sense of “mankind.” Because the cultural pattern of using “man” to refer to men and women is a pretty common one, I think it’s a reading that holds up. But I can also see other readings that are equally arguable.

  13. Actually, I think I have moved away from the theme of this thread into my own neurotic place. Let me just say that I agree with your thoughts that we can infer different meanings from spiritual texts depending on the lens through which we look. I guess we don’t need to examine a particular scripture to death to understand the point!

  14. You could definitely interpret “the man” as being more specific. I just choose to interpret it the other way because that’s my preferred reading. 🙂

    As for being overly neurotic about things, I totally get that. And you’re not going off-topic. Gendered language is one of the thorny aspects of scripture that it’s difficult to interpret (at least for me).

    BTW, I don’t know if you read my previous post titled “Why Words Matter”, but it addressed (as did many of the comments) gendered language in the church, and one of the issues we discussed was the difficulty in determining when “man” meant “man” and when “man” meant “mankind.”


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