What if I told you that the Communist Manifesto is actually an argument for capitalism and private property? Or that the Odyssey is really about horticulture? Or the Harry Potter series is not about magic but about a mental institution and its patients? You’d probably say I was an idiot or a tenured professor. There’s so much evidence pointing against these interpretations of what the stories are really about. The authors couldn’t possibly have had those ideas in mind when writing, so there’s no way those interpretations can be correct.
But what if we just kill the authors’ intentions? We figuratively dismiss the authors from their own works and apply whatever interpretation we want to the story with no one to tell us we’re wrong. Many literary critics, amateur or otherwise, do just that with the death of the author. No longer is the author’s identity regarded nor are the circumstances concerning the creation of the story a concern. The text is completely separated from “limits” and “interpretive tyranny.” Now the true meaning of the text doesn’t matter because there is none. The meaning changes for every person and every time the work is read. So it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it. All that matters is what you think.
Perhaps you can see the problem with this, but let’s use a real life example to illustrate it. In Acts 16: 31, Paul and Silas say “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” Does this mean if we say we believe in Christ we are saved forever? Does it say we need to believe Christ and obey commandments to go to Heaven? Is it correct that all who don’t say they believe in Christ will be sent to Hell forever? Are works not important, only belief? According to death of the author, any of these are true if you want them to be. However, it is impossible for these to all be true at the same time, and with salvation on the line you can’t afford to guess wrong. So you choose one you think is best and group together with people who agree and maybe form a church especially because another group with a different interpretation formed a church and they are condemning people to Hell with their false teachings so you need to show people how your interpretation is right and…then we end up with today’s hundreds of Christian denominations. Instead of freedom, we have confusion. Instead of no limits, we have no guidance.
Maybe doctrine is special though. Let’s choose a simple story like a man helping a poor soul who has been robbed and left for dead on the side of the road even though they are from groups hostile to each other. Does this story mean we should have open borders for all countries? Or maybe that racism is bad? How about that the Jews were and are racist? The story of the Good Samaritan is world famous and has thousands of interpretations. Which one did Jesus mean? It must certainly matter when people are using it as a basis for government policy.
With all these “valid” interpretations comes endless confusion and contention. So what’s right? A powerful truth is found in the Bible Dictionary for parables which helps clear the fog. It states, “It is important to distinguish between the interpretation of a parable and the application of a parable. The only true interpretation is the meaning the parable conveyed, or was meant to convey, when first spoken. The application of a parable may vary in every age and circumstance.” Here we have the crux of the matter. People have confused application for interpretation.
We can apply not just parables but all stories and principles in endless ways. Maybe the bravery of Abinadi inspires you to never back down from sharing your testimony. Perhaps the damage done to innocent lives by the Count of Monte Cristo stays your hand when you consider getting revenge. These applications come from a correct interpretation of the story though. Abinadi was brave. Revenge is wrong. Flawed interpretations will lead to flawed applications.
So how do we know the correct interpretation? This leads to the hardest question and the seduction of death of the author. Sometimes the author’s meaning is clear, other times it isn’t, and still other times it has layers of meaning. Sussing out what is correct is no mean feat. Death of the author offers an easy way out. Just say it doesn’t matter and it can mean whatever you want. However, an incorrect interpretation by definition will either ignore some things, force meanings, or put ideas together in an unwieldy manner. It can never offer full satisfaction.
The true interpretation can be found though. Again, the Bible Dictionary about parables offers advice. Among other things, it says it’s critical to consider the context and setting. For a parable, this would be who the Lord is talking to and the circumstances of the time as well as the idea it sprang from. A story is a bit different but follows from this. The author’s history and social context must be considered, evidence must be found within the text, and any author commentary can help. Occasionally, the author will just flat out say what the correct interpretation is, but it’s not always that easy. An important thing to keep in mind as well is that with many more recent stories, the author never had an interpretation in mind, wanting instead to have the audience dream up whatever they want. This can easily be boiled down to the correct interpretation being that there is none and it’s meaningless.
Thus, for every story or text, there is a correct interpretation and incorrect ones. It is our responsibility as the audience to find what that interpretation is and then apply it how we want. If we find we are holding on to an incorrect view, we should change when presented with evidence. It is the height of folly to dismiss evidence in the text or especially what an author directly states, and cling to erroneous interpretations. If someone states his interpretation is correct, then it is reasonable to ask him to prove it. Discussion should be centered around finding evidence and putting it together to get at what the author truly meant. Remember that the correct interpretation doesn’t limit us. It guides us to countless applications. Whether it is trying to understand the nature of God or simply finding what motivates a character, we can be safe in the knowledge that a correct interpretation exists for us to find.