What Do Words Mean?: Literature, Government, and the Bible

Merriam-Webster defines a word as “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use.” One key element of this definition is that words communicate a meaning. Every word means something. But who gets to assign that meaning? Now, the answer may seem obvious, but it has been anything but settled in education for decades.

Steve Cornell of Summit Ministries states, “In a postmodern world, truth and reality are understood to be individually shaped by personal history, social class, gender, culture, and religion.” For postmoderns, the meaning in words is shaped by individuals. This means that a phrase could have as many unique meanings as there are people in the world–upwards of 7 billion.

Christians often seem to think that postmodernism does not affect them, but they are wrong. We see it in our Bible studies every time someone says, “To me, this verse means…” Those who use this phrase are implicitly stating that the text of the Bible legitimately has different meanings to different people. However, this is not the case. None of the Bible or its meaning is determined by the reader. The reader only gets to recognize, understand, and apply what God says. 2 Peter 1:21 is helpful in that it states that the prophets were carried along by the Holy Spirit as they wrote words from God. God has decided what his Book will say and what it will mean. I’ll leave this paragraph at that (though much more could be said) so that we can move toward integration in literature and government.

Literature, by nature, relates to words. Its business is words. Government is possibly just as word-driven. Why? Because laws, treaties, constitutions, and orders are all made up of… you guessed it: words.

In literature, reader-response criticism is a theory that basically says that the meaning of a text is the responsibility of the reader; not the writer. It doesn’t really matter what the poet was writing about. The real meaning is in what the reader understands, feels, or thinks. In government, we can see people try to interpret constitutions as if they are “living,” evolving documents. Instead of trying to hold to what the document originally meant to those who developed it, people try to find out what it should have meant or what it should mean today.

Both reader-response theory and the idea of a living Constitution are related to postmodernism. They are both related to individualism. They are both related to human pride. They say, “I get to decide. My will should be done. My preference is key. My understanding is best. I am in control.” However, as Christians, we understand that words have been endowed with meaning. Yes, we are embedded in culture and time. Yes, authors and framers were embedded in their limited culture too. However, God is above and beyond those things. And, as people made in his image, He has invited us to participate in the use of language with Him.

So what do words mean? They mean what the author intended them to mean. God authored the Bible so He determined its meaning. Harper Lee penned To Kill a Mockingbird so she determined what its words mean. Our founders crafted the US Constitution and, therefore, they determined its meaning.

So what are we after when we read? We want to get to the author’s original intent. Why that word? Why that phrase? It might take work to get to the meaning, but it is fruitless to assign our own meaning. We might enjoy the control, but we are sacrificing the truth. Our task as believers and Christian educators is to understand the Author’s original meaning and then respond rightly to it. Literature and government have been battered by postmodern theories of understanding for a long time. What a wonderful battlefield to help our students see why it is necessary to fight to hear God’s voice. It will require us to humble ourselves and submit to his words, but, while difficult, his words are sweeter than honey to the taste (Ps 119:103).

Here are some concepts for future integration.

In literature: What is the role of an author? What are the consequences when we misunderstand a word or message? If the reader/listener defines the meaning of words/messages, can a promise have any value? What is reader-response criticism? How does our understanding of authorship and meaning affect our understanding of the Bible?

In government: What role do words play in laws, treaties, or orders? Can society function if we cannot agree on meanings of the words in governing documents? What is originalism? What is textualism? What is a living document? How does our understanding of governing documents affect our understanding of the Bible?

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