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Postmodern hermeneutics

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“Do you really think the words of your Book are certainly true?” Pliable asks. “Yes verily,” Christian readily replies, as if pointing his neighbor to the Author of the Book, “for it was made by him that cannot lie.”

Christian, by the way, is the main character in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He is a pilgrim on his way to the celestial City of God, and he is to be guided by the Book.

Evangelist then appears on the scene pointing him to the Wicket Gate to “receive instruction about the way.” He is to “come at the house of the Interpreter at whose door he should knock, and he would show him excellent things.”

Interpretation in this so-called postmodern world

But there seems to be a problem now in our 21st century so-called postmodern days. Gone is the Interpreter who used to show Christian “excellent things” on his way to the Celestial City. Not only so, with the sudden disappearance of the Interpreter, it seems to follow that the Author of the Book has also disappeared somewhere along the way, lost in the dark world of linguistic indeterminacy. This, at least, is how it looks like in the postmodern world.

So what happens now to those who wish to follow Christian on this pilgrimage? But who cares anyway about the City of God now that we have made the world far better off than it used to be with our hi-tech gadgets and equipments, with our highly advanced and still advancing scientific knowledge?

Or has there really been any significant improvement at all in light of the fact that we are still being plagued by wars, economic meltdowns, political upheavals, human sufferings and barbaric acts of atrocities, among others, despite these scientific and technological advancements? Indeed, the world we live in still fits well with The Pilgrim’s Progress story’s description: the City of Destruction.

Perhaps we should now go through the same pilgrimage as Christian did since the Book that guided him is still here with us. But how do we interpret it now that the Interpreter is gone?

Postmodernism's interpretive grid

Several proposals have been offered, so far, the latest of which is to look at it through postmodernism’s interpretive grid. It really doesn’t matter here what your “textbook” is, and it doesn’t have to be the Book. It can be a pocketbook, a news story, a movie, a certain nation’s constitution, an account of world history, whatever that is. Neither does the author of the text have any role to play in the process of interpretation. In this arrangement, the reader, who is also the interpreter, has all the right to make of the interpretation, just as the customer in the capitalist’s business world is always right.

In postmodernism’s interpretive grid no interpretation is hailed as the correct interpretation. Everyone’s interpretation is equally right; none is considered wrong, regardless of irreconcilable differences and/or contradictions between various interpretations. The law of non-contradiction does not apply here, and the interpreter doesn’t even bother to look at any point of reference partly due to his deliberate disregard of the author. Neither does he oblige himself to operate through a methodological formula based on a set of foundational truth principles, for his interpretive grid allows no room for objective reality. But why is this so?

Every interpreter is helplessly situated, locally and historically, the postmodernist insists. For that reason he has no access to objective reality, to the world of absolutes, if there is ever such a thing. He doesn’t even have access to the author’s context either, which for him is too remote. What therefore remains for him to care about is his own context.

At least, the postmodernist prides himself for being humble enough to admit his limitations, unlike the modernist who arrogantly speaks as if he has access to all of truth by applying rigorous rational analysis and careful empirical investigations following the Enlightenment-inspired scientific method.The postmodern interpreter is free; he is not bound to so-called rules of interpretation, known in academia as hermeneutics. He is free to create his own meaning for the text in his own terms according to his own choice, preferences and “situatedness.”

This, so far, only amounts to a soft expression of postmodern hermeneutics, which by and large appears to have borrowed a lot from the interpretive apparatus of the existentialist, the subjectivist and the relativist.

Postmodern deconstructionism

The hard-line version of postmodern hermeneutics is called deconstructionism, which springs out of the post-Enlightenment literary criticism of the structuralist and poststructuralist linguistic schools. It doesn’t really interpret the text; it dismantles it. Its aim: to expose authorial intent, but not necessarily the author’s so-called “intended meaning.” Its mode of operation: the postmodern culture of suspicion (where the author’s intention is deemed suspect even before the interpretive process begins), with its language game that makes the text utterly meaningless.

If in the soft version of postmodern hermeneutics the author is nowhere to be found, in deconstructionism he reappears in the hermeneutical circle, albeit driven by a dark intention, which, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s terms, is the “will to power.” So the deconstructionist projects himself in this so-called postmodern world as a liberator – i.e., he liberates the reader from authorial oppression by exposing the author’s politically motivated passions, which, he proclaims, are also shared by advocates of classical and modern hermeneutics.

This same radical hermeneutical approach the deconstructionist seeks to apply to the Book. Now that the Interpreter is gone, the deconstructionist has come to take his place. His message to the people of the Book is loud and clear: he has deconstructed the Book and has found out that its words are not really true. They are actually meaningless, for its Author’s real intention is to take control. He is therefore not to be trusted at any rate, and so he claims.

But how about the deconstructionist himself? Can he be trusted? Is he not after all an author too who may turn out to be there to destroy another author’s reputation if what he has to say is deconstructed as well? By so doing, is he not also driven by the Nietzschean “will to power”?

Mind you, the Book itself bears witness to the fact that postmodern deconstructionism is never new. It first appeared very early in human history in the Garden of Eden, where we see the Serpent playing the role of the very first deconstructionist (Genesis 3).

References:

  • Carson, D. A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
  • Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
  • Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1998.
  • ________________. “Lost in Interpretation?: Truth, Scripture and Hermeneutics” in Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 48/1 (March 2005) 89-114.
  • Wood, David ed. Derrida: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992.

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