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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The Recipe: Cooking Up an Integrated Syllabus

The aim of this post is to offer step-by-step help in creating a biblically integrated syllabus. The syllabus can be described as the plan, the contract, or the map for the whole course. But here I am making the case that you can think of your syllabus as a recipe.

A recipe is the guide for making a dish. It outlines the tools, the heats, the ingredients, and more. Those who follow a clear recipe for a great dish often save themselves from frustration and disappointment. Having a recipe does not guarantee success; executing the meal is still necessary. But it is important to construct  your dish before it goes into the oven. Likewise, it will take the whole year to bake your course, but it should be fully constructed before you add the heat of the school year.

[Note of encouragement: In order to succeed, you do not need to throw away your existing material. This process outlined below is designed to help you improve what you already have.]

Step 1: Picture

It wasn’t always this way, but now most people find their recipes on the internet. Since webpages aren’t limited by space or color, we most often see a beautiful picture of the dish being described. This is usually at the top of the page. Why? Because it is a visual summary of what you can expect if you follow the instructions. Your course description can be thought of in the same way. The course description paints the picture for your class. It shows the students a snapshot of what they are getting into.

So, what does an integrated course description look like? And how do we get there? I engaged the topic of course descriptions in a previous post that is certainly worth reading. Here, like with a recipe, I am simply going to give some clear directions.

First, look at the course description that you have already constructed. If you have not included a course description in your syllabus, it is imperative that you write one. It does not need to be long, and there are many examples that you can access on the internet. Here is the course description/rationale from WRIT201: Intro to Creative Writing from Liberty University.

“The student will learn the literary components, complexity, and craft of creative writing, including how to successfully explicate selected poems, creative nonfiction essays, and short fiction. The student will also learn how to create original works of publishable quality.”

In order to integrate this description, we need to start asking the essential worldview questions that we want the students to be able to answer throughout this course. (For some help, check out this post.)

“The student will learn the literary components, complexity, and craft of creative writing (Why is it important to understand this variety of elements, styles, and means?), including how to successfully explicate selected poems , creative nonfiction essays, and short fiction (Why is it important to understand what an author means? ). The student will also learn how to create original works of publishable quality (Why is it important that we create quality, creative works?).”

These are just a few of the questions that we could ask (others might show the connection and importance of story-telling/fiction to Jesus’ parables, etc.), but these three questions are enough to fuel our integrated course from start to finish. Once we have the essential worldview questions in place, we want to design a biblical framework for answering them.

Our course descriptions must have scriptural basis. We cannot be biblical integrators without using the Bible. A Spirit-led class = A Scripture-led class. God has elected to speak to us through his Word, and we need not look for any other word from Him because the Bible is God-breathed—useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the servant of God will be fully equipped for every good work. His Word is sufficient. And his Word is the only authority for the church. Therefore, if you want God to work and lead and speak in your classroom, make space for his voice—the Bible. Let us not try to make God mute by emptying our syllabi of his words. So, next we investigate some ways in which the Bible speaks to our course questions.

“The student will learn the literary components, complexity, and craft of creative writing (Why is it important to understand this variety of elements, styles, and means? → Because the Bible is made up of many complex units, genres, and styles, and we want to rightly handle the Word of truth. 2 Tim 2:15.), including how to successfully explicate selected poems , creative nonfiction essays, and short fiction (Why is it important to understand what an author means? → Because God is the ultimate Author who speaks to us through the written Word, and we want to understand what He means. 2 Pet 1:20-21.). The student will also learn how to create original works of publishable quality (Why is it important that we create quality, creative works? → Because disciples are to teach all the things that Jesus taught, and He taught thoughtfully and creatively. Matt 28:18-20.).”

We are nearly done with our course description. Now we take out the essential questions, but leave the responses and Scripture references.

“The student will learn the literary components, complexity, and craft of creative writing because the Bible is made up of many complex units, genres, and styles, and we want to rightly handle the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). This will include how to successfully explicate selected poems, creative nonfiction essays, and short fiction because God is the ultimate Author who speaks to us through the written Word, and we want to understand what He means (2 Pet 1:20-21). The student will also learn how to create original works of publishable quality because disciples are to teach all the things that Jesus taught, and He taught thoughtfully and creatively (Matt 28:18-20).”

Now that is a nicely integrated course description! And every other portion of the syllabus flows easily from there.

Step 2: Pieces

The next part of a recipe (after the picture) is a list of ingredients—getting all the pieces together. The syllabus should have a list of assessments, projects, etc. as well. These are your course ingredients.

For our Creative Writing class, we might have a list of assignments that looks like this:

Quizzes – 30%. Students will be tested on vocabulary, knowledge, and ability to recognize different genres/literary devices.

Analysis Paper – 30%. Students will choose an piece of approved literature to research and explicate. They will note the literary tools used to express worldview ideas in order to understand the rationale and aim of the author’s art.

Creative Essays – 40%. Students will demonstrate their understanding of by writing short, personal essays that employ techniques discussed in class.

Your syllabus likely already has something like this laid out within it. In order to integrate this section, simply take the questions that you asked in the course description and add them to the appropriate assignment as an essential integration question like so:

Quizzes – 30%. Students will be tested on vocabulary, knowledge, and ability to recognize different genres/literary devices. (Essential Integration Question: Why is it important to understand this variety of elements, styles, and means?)

Analysis Paper – 30%. Students will choose an piece of approved literature to research and explicate. They will note and evaluate the literary tools used to express worldview ideas in order to understand the rationale and aim of the author’s art. (Essential Integration Question: Why is it important to understand what an author means?)

Creative Essays – 40%. Students will demonstrate their understanding of by writing short, personal essays that employ techniques discussed in class. (Essential Integration Question: Why is it important that we create quality, creative works?)

Now, whenever you use your class time for a quiz/paper/essay, you have an integration question to work with: your assignments match and are married to your course description. The work is done, and you do not need to create new integration questions for any day that you engage one of these assignments. And, because you already have a biblical rationale to answer these questions in your course description, you are in great shape to reinforce what the Bible teaches throughout the year. You can keep going back to the central ideas that you have already laid out. This little bit of work now saves you much time and struggle later. And won’t it be great to finish the year and know that your students have grasped the ways in which their creative writing course is built from and toward God’s glory?

Step 3: Process

The final part of a recipe is the process—when and how to do what. In our syllabus, it is the same. We have all the components, but we need to have a plan for how to fit them together. This is where unit planning and your course objectives come in. Here are the measurable learning outcomes from Liberty’s WRIT201 course:

  1. Identify and discuss the major elements and characteristics of contemporary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.
  2. Develop and implement strategies for reading and evaluation of published contemporary literary works.
  3. Author original writing in three genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.
  4. Evaluate, edit, and revise original creative pieces of writing produced within the course.
  5. Identify trends and opportunities in publishing original writing.
  6. Demonstrate the ability to organize and work collaboratively with others.
  7. Discuss the deployment of creative writing in relationship to a Christian worldview.

All we need to do in order to integrate these objectives/outcomes is bring in our questions and answers from the course description and assignments. Notice what I mean below:

  1. Identify and discuss the major elements and characteristics of contemporary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry in order to better understand important works including the Bible.
  2. Develop and implement strategies for reading and evaluation of published contemporary literary works in order grasp and rightly respond to the underlying worldview.
  3. Author original writing in three genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.
  4. Evaluate, edit, and revise original creative pieces of writing produced within the course in order to grow in creative and technical proficiency for the advancement of the gospel
  5. Identify trends and opportunities in publishing original writing in order to use my gifts to honor God.
  6. Demonstrate the ability to organize and work collaboratively with others in order to better serve the church and reach the world.
  7. Discuss the deployment of creative writing in relationship to a Christian worldview to grow in understand of God, his Word, and his world.

Conclusion

I want to encourage and challenge you to make time to integrate your syllabi. It is a process, and it does take work. But it is an investment that I know you and your students will find worthwhile. More than that—it grounds your course in the Word, worldview thinking, and discipleship.