Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's All About How You Read It

I have two rather distinct "hats" I wear almost everyday. One is my theological, religious, pastoral hat. When I wear this hat, I think about theology. I ponder questions of philosophy, I ask myself and other questions about the basic nature of religion and the roots of religious authority, I serve as bi-vocational pastor of a small congregation and carry out the responsibilities that entails-- visiting the sick, performing more "priestly" functions such as marriages, baptisms, and Eucharistic services, and, of course, I preach. That is one hat I wear. It is supposed to be, in some respects, my more ""part time" hat, but I find myself wearing it quite a bit each day.

My other hat is my college professor hat. When I am wearing this hat, I mostly deal with two areas of knowledge as they relate to preparing pre-service teachers. One of these areas is educational psychology. This subsumes the areas one might typically associate as being included in that rubric. In my case, however, it extends a bit, as I also teach in areas more closely resembling parenting education or family life studies.

My second area of expertise is literacy studies. My primary responsibilities is to train future elementary teachers to be teachers of reading and writing. In this arena, I teach courses in the psychology of reading, reading education methods, and children's literature. It is to this last knowledge domain that I wish to turn.

In some ways, the teaching children's literature is carried out quite differently than teaching in any other literature course offered at the college (actually in most ways). But in some respects, it does share common ground. The main point of commonality is that, to a greater or lesser degree, both my English Department colleagues and I are interested in literary theory. In that arena, there is a figure who emerges as a seminal thinker in both cases: Louise Rosenblatt.

In 1938, Louise Rosenblatt put forth her Readers Response Theory, which those of us in children's literature usually refer to as the Transactive Theory. It works like this:
  1. The author has an intention, a message s/he desires to convey.
  2. The first hurdle to be conquered is the limitation of language. Often, a writer may feel as if words are simply not adequate for what s/he wishes to convey. Still, taking all of the limitations of language into account, the author writes.
  3. The product, from the author's perspective, encapsulates the meaning which s/he intended to convey (at least as closely as possible).
  4. The reader approaches the author's work. There is an unspoken reader/writer contract that states that if the reader reads what the writer has written, it will contain meaning.
  5. The reader approaches the the authors work with a lifetime of experiences. Some of these are experiences with people, places, things, and events. Some are quite emotive and carry much emotional content. All of this shapes the way that a reader frames new events, people, and thoughts and symbolic representations of these things (i.e. language). It may even frame the emotional and cognitive content of language proper-- right down to the very phrase and word level.
  6. The writer writes with intention "A" clearly in mind. The reader brings experiences "B" to the text. Therefore, it is not logical to automatically assume that "A"="A" in the mind of the reader. "A" may reach some close approximation of "A". Still, to the reader, although the writer may have intended "A", in reality (the readers reality) "A"="C"-- some totally new meaning (because "A" is "filtered" through the lenses of "B").
  7. Therefore, when it comes to text and meaning, it is more "created" or "constructed" than understood.
The implications of all of this are, of course, huge. This is especially true about a text already so debated as the Bible. One might almost say that it may well be impossible to ever completely understand what the writer intended. Our homiletical expositions are really only approximations-- what the text says to the preacher. And, even then, the folks in the pew may take away something different still.

So, what are we to do? I see only one logical conclusion: We should avoid fundamentalist dogmatism. Approaching the Bible takes much greater humility than the modern day prophets of the absolute have to offer us. We need to leave room for multiple interpretations and for difference without condemnation.

Literary interpretation is an uncertain science. Religion even more so.

No comments:

Post a Comment