On Reading, Part IV: Structuralism

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:51 AM

This is a continuation of my series on literary criticism and Biblical hermeneutics. You can find the previous pieces of the series here: I. Old Historicism, II. New Criticism, III.1. Reader Response, III.2. Reader Response Cont'd., IV. Mimeticism.

I realized I never finished this series, and that means I never got to some of my favorite schools of criticism, including the school I myself now claim to belong to. That school is still down the road a bit, but for today, we can stop and consider Structuralism.

This school, it seems to me, shares a lot of affinities with Wittgenstein's Language Game theory. Essentially, the argument of Structuralists is that the text derives its meaning from its membership in its textual world (generally, in criticism, we would be talking about membership in the literary canon). For example, to understand Shakespeare, we must understand the broader literary frontier that his works access — Greek mythology, the Bible, contemporary stories, political intrigues, and so on. Without any of theses, Shakespeare's brilliance would be muted. But, according to Structuralist theory, much like Reader Response, this “sharing” is bidirectional. Shakespeare informs the Greek poets. Virginia Woolf informs Shakespeare (and I do not mean just Judith). In some odd sense, might we even say blogs, like this one, take part in a conversation with Shakespeare? Yes, we might.

This may sound odd, problematic or even — if we apply it to the Bible — heretical. However, the key recognition of Structuralist theory is language's existence as a constructed framework which is meaningless without the meaning instilled intra-framework. Our understanding of the language of the Bible is influenced by our understanding of the Bible, which is influenced by our understanding of the language of the Bible. For example, when interpreting 1 Corinthians 14, I proposed that we look to the English word “idiot” to understand the Greek word ἰδιοτης, for the English word itself derives its meaning from the thirteenth century interpretation of the Greek. That's not to say it is right, but it is an important undercurrent, to say the least. We cannot approach the Bible with a blank slate, if we could, it would be impervious to interpretation.

Even if we wish, rightly, to stay true to the Biblical text, we must recognize that our present theological contributions change in some real sense the Biblical text, perhaps as much as our theology is influenced by the Bible. Outside of any contextual framework, the Bible would be meaningless, just as Shakespeare is only sensible to someone who knows English and has grasped at least a few conventions of Elizabethan or Jacobean culture. Without divine intervention, certainly, this should be a serious alarm for the Biblically oriented theologian. In this, Structuralism offers not only a proper critique of our understanding of language, but also serves to call us back to humility as part of a critical language game, and, further, to remember that we should never see ourselves as members of the church, properly reformed, but always part of the church ever reforming.

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