More Than Words

When we are speaking to people face to face, others have the advantage of recognizing our tone and body language, which can help them determine a great deal about us in the course of our interaction. In writing, especially in the absence of emoticons or other attempts to visually convey a point, there is no such advantage, and we are forced to understand a text from the writing itself, and what we know to be the mind of the author. It is a hazardous task to try to understand the mind of an author apart from a relationship with the author himself (or herself). Given the large number of possible meanings of a given text, it is very tempting to see only one or two layers and forget that an author may be attempting to convey a lot of meanings to different people, and may even be conveying messages without any kind of intention at all. Today I happened to hear a sermonette that sought to discuss analogical reasoning (whether through short similes and metaphors or more extended analogies) as a way of making texts more plain, and the Bible is certainly a place where this technique can be used very profitably, within certain boundaries.

I often find in my own life that my ability to successfully convey my dry and ironic sense of humor is somewhat limited by the understated nature of my writing style. An example, among many, should suffice. At work on Friday, I received a message requesting that a certain report be run, a report I normally run on a monthly basis, only the e-mail was addressed to another person. So, even though it was still fairly early in the morning (about 7AM or so), I rather drily suggested that the report be requested of the person to whom the e-mail was sent. It took another four hours of somewhat intermittent messages before the point was made clear that I would be happy to run the report, I just wanted to be called by my name, which I don’t think is being all that demanding. Yet the message was a bit too understated, and probably ambiguous, for that particular shade of meaning to be understood, especially by people who probably didn’t realize my sensitivity to being called by name. More than words would have been necessary to convey that in a suitable way in a work audience, even if may generally be recognized that I have a somewhat witty approach when it comes to communication.

Writers have to deal with another issue of the written word, and it is an issue that appears to be very difficult to resolve. Any time an author or text acquires a reputation of being full of multiple meanings [1], something that is definitely true of the Bible, there is a tendency for the text to bear any number of meanings, some of which are intended, some of which are true but unintended, and some of which are not only unintended but entirely untrue, and still others which are possible but by no means proven. In fact, it is precisely this rich set of layered meanings that makes texts worth reading over and over again, because their meanings are not exhausted by the investigation, but rather they retain relevance as they are put in new contexts that give them meanings that we had not uncovered before, or that remain applicable to our own life and situations. Yet, because we can only see so many layers and so many situations at the same time, it is often difficult for us to understand exactly what is being talked about in a given situation, or what could possibly be meant by a given author in a given place at a given time.

The obvious solution in such a case would be to ask the author what he or she means. Yet there are a variety of reasons why this may not be possible or wise. For one, the author may be unavailable for such personal communication. Whether we are trying to analyze the Bible, or literature of serious (but less serious) importance like Jane Austen or Shakespeare, we may be examining texts where the authors are dead and where no communication is possible, or is ever going to be possible in this world. At other times, the author may not be a reliable source of information about what meanings are intended by a text. Some authors may have layers of meaning embedded in a text that are legitimate and genuine meanings but also totally unintended meanings that the author may not be conscious of at all. At other times, one might simply not trust the author to tell the truth about what layers are present or meant in a given text. Where mutual trust is not present, nor likely to be built, no communication is likely to be profitable. At still other times it may simply be unwise to dig too deep into a text and discover all of its meanings, even if one could, simply because it may not be the right time or the right place.

Yet still the issue of communication remains important. Even though we are in a world that more and more seems to prefer the image to the text, we still live in a world where texts are vitally important. To be sure, texts play a large role in my life in a variety of ways. Some of the texts are ones I wish to understand and find relevance in, sometimes for deep spiritual reasons and sometimes because I just happen to live a life that resonates with certain books that I have read, and that sometimes have been referred by friends who have seen the parallels between life and art. As I have mentioned before, I tend to view people as texts of a particularly fascinating sort, and being the sort of person for whom analysis comes as easily as breathing, if slightly more troublesome, there is no shortage of life experiences to subject to textual analysis. Besides this, as the generator of a fairly substantial body of texts, I have found the conditions of my life impacted seriously by my own texts. I want my words to encourage, to provide insight, to comfort, and to give glory to God. Only time, and diligent effort, will make sure that is the case to the best of my abilities.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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