Whenever an author writes anything, it’s the author who chooses the words, the language. Well, more or less, depending on what that author has to choose from. An author who only speaks English can’t choose words that aren’t available in English. And then, if the author wants the writing to mean anything to anyone, she can’t just choose whatever words appeal to her, because of how they sound or because they all start with “p” or because of whatever reason. She has to choose the words based on their generally-recognized (she hopes) meaning to other people. But, setting all that aside, the author chooses the words.
Depending on what the author is writing, however, those words might articulate her direct thoughts, or they might be the speech of another character. “Someone might think that …” “My neighbor says …” My students sometimes get befuddled by this. They tell me the author of the course text “thinks” or “says” something that they could know and should know, and would know if they were better readers, the author has attributed to some other source. And then has disagreed with, or qualified. It’s one of their more common errors, as a matter of fact.
I’m reading a book about how to read the Bible. (Because I always have room for improvement.) And that author takes a hard line on the nature of Biblical meaning. There’s one meaning in the text. It’s the original one. It’s our job to discern that. The human author is like a pen, in the hand of the Author of Scripture who is God. If a pen had creative agency, that is, which this author doesn’t deny. I assume I am reading this author as he intends to be read here. The discussion is far more complex, and discerning the author’s intent involves a lot of literary analysis, but that “authorial intent” approach is the bottom line.
So, yesterday in church our wonderful pastor began her sermon with a discussion of the military metaphor in Ephesians 6:10-20, which was the lectionary epistle for yesterday. She began this discussion with an acknowledgement of the problems with military metaphors in this day and age, and with the way this one affected her personally, and with what we know about the negative consequences of misplaced militancy in our histories and our own lives. Definitely some “reader response approach” going on there.
Since I’m reading that book, I could not help thinking of how that author would have responded. I’m guessing, not enthusiastically.
Except for this: we still always have to ask ourselves whether the words in the text represent the thoughts of the Author of Scripture, or one of the other characters. And if so, how. Even when the text is “discourse.”
Irony is a matter of authorial intent, too.
Image: a butterfly on lantana in Corydon, Indiana, which I took in my back yard with my phone; public domain