“What It Means”

I’m sitting at the registration desk in the emergency room. The cheerful young lady on the other side of the Plexiglas barrier hands me a sheet of paper with a lot of words on it, and x’s by all the blank lines. “Initial four places and sign once,” she instructs. I skim the paragraphs. “I have to pay you.” “I have rights.” “You won’t sell my data.” “I can’t smoke in here.” “OK, I get it.” I summarize as I add the signifiers of my informed consent to all the relevant hospital policies.

“I can’t smoke in here” especially makes me laugh, because it reminds me that I don’t smoke any more, so it doesn’t apply to me personally any more, but would if I were twenty years younger. But if I were twenty years younger, I wouldn’t be sitting across from this cheerful young woman in the first place. I’d be cooking breakfast for the little girl I quit smoking for, who’s now about the same age as this efficient bureaucrat. I wonder whether the young woman likes her job.

Later, before the test, I sign another piece of paper, on which the friendly young technician has recorded all my answers to the medical history questions he just asked me. This time, it means that I affirm that all those answers are true and correct. I don’t check to make sure he’s made the right marks on the page, though. We were just having a conversation about the silliness of these get-away-for-the-weekend bachelorette parties girls in their twenties are having now. I trust him.

Same signature, different context.

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The experience reminds me that “what it means” itself “means” more than one thing. The way we use the word “meaning” touches on several more precise verbs. We use “what it means” to refer, depending on context, to “what it signifies,” “what its author intended,” “what it implies,” and “what consequences it entails.” Sometimes we even include “how it affects [the reader]” – e.g., “this means so much to me.”

All of those different things concern us as readers of text, or may. Only a fraction of them ever occupy the conscious mind of a human author, however. Unless we think we are wrong to include significations and implications and consequences and impacts and influences in our catalog of the meanings of meaning, it would be a mistake to insist that the only meaning a text can have, or the only one that matters, is the one that was in the mind of the original author as the text was being shaped on the lathe of composition.

Yes, we need to grasp that meaning. We need to do our best to understand what would have been in the mind of the author of a text. We need to do our best to understand what would have been in the minds of the first readers or hearers of a text, too. And we need to do our best to reconstruct the implicit assumptions and conditions that made the text intelligible at its birth. Even though the author and audience might not have noticed all that they took for granted, we usually treat the background of intent as all of a piece with the intent it makes possible.

But taking all of that seriously does not release us from considering, just as seriously, our own relationship to those intentions and receptions and assumptions. We are not released from asking ourselves whether what a text implied then, in its original context, is the same thing that text implies now, in a different context. We are not released from asking ourselves whether the text has acquired new or different significations and implications along the way, or other entailments, as the world has changed around it, or whether it has shed any of its original ones. We are not released from asking ourselves, or from answering, how the text can and cannot, may and may not, should and should not, now be used.

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I’m sitting in class on Sunday morning, and we’re reading Hebrews 10. It’s pretty clear the author of the book of Hebrews considered the way of Jesus Christ a more excellent way than the way of the first century sacrificial cult with its roots in the scripture of Israel. And, has composed a text meant to persuade contemporaries to hold fast to that way of Christ, and not to return to a more familiar religious way, one that the author compares unfavorably to the way of Christ. It’s hard to doubt that the author “meant” that the way of Jesus Christ had arrived as a new and improved incarnation of an ancient divine revelation. I’m thinking the author intended to communicate that.

I don’t imagine, however, that in so doing the author also intended all the world historical consequences of taking that idea flatly and seriously down through the past couple of millennia. But I also don’t imagine that we ourselves get to ignore those consequences. We might think that since this author didn’t mean any harm by this set of ideas, we can’t mean any harm by embracing them and repeating them, either. But in real life, it doesn’t work that way. “[Christ] abolishes the first in order to establish the second” (Hebrews 10:9) means [signifies, implies, entails, raises different thoughts and feelings] something different for us than it meant in the year 65 or 75 CE.

Same words, different context.

We have to deal with that difference. As someone says in class: we might have to let some of the tradition go. Like the part of the tradition that has read that text as a warrant to teach little Christian children that their Jewish friends are going to hell. “By their fruits you shall know them” applies to readings, too.

To deal with that difference, we have to notice it. We can’t just ask “what did it mean then?” We also have to ask what it has come to mean now, because of what it has meant to readers along the way, and what those readers have done with that.

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There’s a lot in the chart, so to speak. To what has the author actually appended a signature? And to what will we? And what does that signature mean?

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Read slowly, for understanding

Image: Open Bible with note for the lector, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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