Reading religious texts and writing interpretive essays

Jeff Wills points to the parallels between the opening of Catullus 66 and the sudden appearance to the stargazing Daphnis of the Caesaris astrum at Eclogue 9. At the beginning of the Georgics the poet [sc. Virgil] foresees the possibility of a catasterism of Octavian himself, a nouum sidus that likewise alludes to the Coma Berenices.

Virgil uses the striking attribute unanimus to characterize the close relationship of the two sisters, before narrating their conversation, which revolves, centrally, around the question as to whether Dido ought to stay faithful to her deceased first husband or pursue a marriage with Aeneas. Compare Catullus But as for the woman who has given herself to filthy adultery, let the powdery dusk drink up her evil gifts — ah!

How then when you were troubled with all your heart you lost your senses and fell unconscious! And mollis It recalls Catullus Tum Iuno omnipotens longum miserata dolorem difficilisque obitus Irim demisit Olympo quae luctantem animam nexosque resolueret artus. For since she perished neither according to fate for by a death she deserved, but wretchedly before her day and in the heat of a sudden frenzy, Proserpina had not yet taken from her head the golden lock and consigned her life to the Stygian Underworld. Therefore Iris [ Book 1 is reduced to death agonies. Venus is causally involved in her death, as imagery, if nothing else, tells us.

Now consider the fate of her intertextual counterpart, Berenice. A lock of her fair hair is also cut, but it is honoured by Venus, it is placed in the bosom of Venus The only differences are the switch in gender the Lock is feminine, hence inuita ; Aeneas is male, hence inuitus and the shift in location from uertice to litore. Yet both uertice and litore are ablatives of separation with cessi , are identical from the point of view of prosody, and occur in the same position in the verse. Now, attempting to reassure Dido as he swears by the stars 6.

The allusive dialogue thus also sustains a typological relationship between the mythic Dido and the historical Cleopatra, who figures prominently on the shield of Aeneas in Book 8 and is another femme fatale out of Africa, who committed suicide. Unfortunately, Virgil made little allowance for the restrictions of a modern school syllabus.

To go in search of allusions is not unlike a treasure hunt — one can end up empty-handed grasping at straws or discover richly rewarding intertexts. Our point of departure is the comment by Pease on saucia in Aeneid 4. With this use of saucia cf. If we unpack his information, here is what we get: i Enn.

Vahlen : Ennianae poesis reliquiae: iteratis curis recensuit Ioannes Vahlen , Leipzig Ribbeck: Scaenicae Romanorum poesis fragmenta: tertiis curis recognouit Otto Ribbeck : vol. Scholars have found it impossible to reach an agreement on the precise dating of individual poems; the first collection may have appeared around 15 BC.

The references are to Letter 5 Oenone to Paris , though modern editors consider the couplet —52 spurious, and Letter 12 Medea to Jason. His passages come from more than two centuries worth of Latin poetry. With reference to the second category, it is unclear whether the texts by Tibullus and Ovid were already in circulation by the time Virgil wrote the opening line of Aeneid 4 — which complicates any argument about influence either way.

These are already interesting results: the survey of authors and texts shows that Virgil shared his idiom of erotic passion with other poets across a wide chronological and generic range. But there is more to be discovered. Determined intertextualists will sleuth a bit further. It ended up in disaster for her mistress Ennius, fr. For then never would my mistress, misguided, have set foot away from home — Medea sick at heart, wounded by savage love.

Our line comes from a passage where Lucretius describes the physiology of sexual desire at the onset of puberty. After some comments on wet dreams —36 , he moves on to what amounts to the first surviving description of an erection and ejaculation in Latin 4.

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And as soon as it issues, roused from its abode, it makes its way from out the whole body through the limbs and frame, coming together into fixed places, and straightway rouses at last the reproductive parts of the body; these places are stirred and swell with seed and there arises the desire to expel the seed towards the object to which fierce passion is moved and the body seeks that body, by which the mind is smitten with love. The poem includes quotations from a prophecy by the Sibyl, in which she foretells the story of Rome.

The subject matter, then, could not be more Virgilian, and the Aeneid beckons in the background of this poem, even though chronological difficulties arise. Similarities between the two treatments nevertheless suggest that Tib. Conversely, for his Letter 12 from Medea to Jason, Ovid has picked a critical moment: when penning the epistle Medea has already been ditched by Jason, so he could marry Creusa, the daughter of king Creon of Corinth, but has not yet committed infanticide.

As such, it bears a striking resemblance to the situation of Dido at the opening of Aeneid 4: she, too, is rendered sleepless by love like the youthful Medea of Apollonius , but will soon turn her mind to exacting revenge along the lines of the mature Euripidean Medea. Silius Italicus, Punica 2. Condebat primae Dido Carthaginis arces, instabatque operi subducta classe iuventus. Some were enclosing a harbour with piers; to others dwellings were assigned by Bitias, a righteous and venerable old man.

Men pointed to the head of a warhorse which they had found in the soil when digging, and hailed the omen with a shout. Amid these scenes Aeneas was shown, robbed of his ships and men and cast up by the sea; with his right hand he made supplication. The hapless queen looked eagerly upon him with unclouded brow and with looks already friendly. Next, the art of Gallicia had fashioned the cave and the secret tryst of the lovers; high rose the shouting and the baying of hounds; and the mounted huntsmen, alarmed by a sudden rainfall, took shelter in the forest.

Not far away, the fleet of the Aeneadae had left the shore and was making for the open sea, while Elissa was calling them back in vain. Then Dido by herself was standing wounded on a huge pyre , and charging a later generation of Tyrians to avenge her by war; and the Dardan, out at sea, was watching the blazing pile and spreading his sails for his high destiny.

Several of the texts employ the image of being stricken by love with reference to an abandoned heroine Medea in the case of Ennius and Ovid, Ariadne in the case of Catullus , whose mythic CV boast striking parallels to that of Dido. We can formulate this question in terms of authorial intent, assuming that Virgil alludes to all three passages.

This is tantamount to saying that he would like to encourage his audience us to read his text with these earlier passages in mind. Virgil himself could not have alluded to them, of course, but their poetry may nevertheless help to illuminate his, not least because they may allude to him and thereby offer a comment on the Aeneid. She is as it were present, via Apollonius, in her epic incarnation as a youthful maiden madly in love and, via Ennius, in her tragic incarnation as a bitter and abandoned wife, full of hatred and set on revenge.

The double allusion thus elegantly and with supreme economy prefigures what will happen to Dido in the course of Aeneid 4. The implications are ominous. Suddenly, the prospect of murder is in the air. Medea, after all, first slaughtered her brother to aid the escape of the Argonauts from Colchis and then, once her relationship with Jason soured, the children they had in common.

It is significant and strengthens the case of an allusion to Ennius at the outset of the book that Dido moots precisely such atrocities as a missed opportunity later on Aeneid 4. Notoriously Medea threw the skewered limbs of Apsyrtus into the sea bit by gory bit on the Argonauts homeward journey to slow down the pursuers. The most prominent model here is Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. The allusion to Catullus 64 works in similar fashion. Again, we are pointed to a heroine, Ariadne, whose story evinces intriguing points of contact with that of Dido.

But if we recall Catullus Catullus here describes Ariadne gazing after the departing ships of her former lover Theseus, whom she once rescued from mortal danger. This of course is exactly the situation Dido will find herself in towards the end of Aeneid 4. And we may recall that Ariadne in Catullus 64 sends a vicious curse after Theseus as punishment for his treachery — , which, like the curse Dido calls down on Aeneas, turns out to be efficacious, resulting in the death of his father Aegeus.


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And we may well put Dido in front of further intertextual mirrors. As Alessandro Schiesaro puts it: The heuristic value of this retroactive form of intertextuality will be no less noteworthy, for it may well show that such exceptional readers of Virgil were disposed to acknowledge the similarities between the two characters. Pointedly, he inscribes a re-run of the entire Dido episode on the shield of Hannibal, the nameless avenger whom Dido conjures in a horrifying curse before committing suicide. And just as Hannibal challenges the descendants of Aeneas on the historical battlefield, Silius throws down the gauntlet to Virgil in the arena of epic poetry.

We all know, of course, which city ultimately ended up in ashes and which poet has retained a stranglehold on school syllabuses — but Hannibal gave the Romans a good innings If we want to activate the wider context in which he uses saucius in the De Rerum Natura , one could argue that the opening line of Aeneid 4, read intertextually with Lucretius, points to the fatal dynamic of love which culminates in the sexual encounter in the cave. But it is an alternative voice, evoked, it seems, only to be silenced as irrelevant.

His poetry invites rides on the intertextual roller-coaster, which, it is true, can have a dizzying effect. At times it becomes difficult to know when to stop, and after a few rounds of heady exhilaration that sick feeling in the stomach kicks in when one has gone a loop too far. Yet arguably in no other book, with the possible exception of Aeneid 6, does religion play such a prominent and complex role as in Aeneid 4. Religious subject matter is ubiquitous here, both in the passage assigned in Latin 4. Virgil brings into play ideas from different spheres of thought and experience, both Greek and Roman, some with a primarily literary pedigree, some firmly grounded in cult practice and the civic religion of the Roman commonwealth.

Each of these spheres operates according to its specific cultural logic. And frequently the logic of one sphere is incommensurate with, or even contradicts, that of another. It is hence not instantly obvious how the different elements cohere if they do so at all. Roughly, and with due awareness of inevitable overlap, we could distinguish the following:. The divine machinery of the literary imagination especially Greek epic and tragedy : A1: Gods appearing as agents in the narrative A2: Reference to their mortal offspring heroes A3.

Allusions to Olympian divinities on the part of the poet e. Religious beliefs, modes of worship, and other forms of religious communication entertained or practiced by humans B1: References to household gods or shades of the deceased B2: References to religious functionaries, temples, ritual occasions or speech-acts that involve the supernatural sphere sacrifices, wedding ceremonies, funerary rites; prayers, curses, oaths B3: Belief in the divine guardianship of justice B4: Commitment to pietas and be it via the epithet pius. Anticipation of the future: practices of divination, figures endowed with knowledge of things to come, unsolicited signs that forebode future events.

Theological figures of thought that organize historical time fatum, fortuna. Jupiter and prayer to Jupiter, which ends in a quasi-Epicurean questioning of divine efficaciousness. Cithaeron under the influence of Bacchus. She asks them to turn their divine power and attention numen to the evils she has suffered and to visit as much ill-luck upon the accursed head of Aeneas infandum caput as the ordinances of Jupiter fata Iouis allow.

Dido then invokes eternal hatred between the people of Carthage and of Aeneas i. Barce, too, is asked to veil her temples with a pure chaplet pia uitta since Dido is now minded to carry out the rites of Stygian Jupiter. She then calls her life over — having finished the course granted by Fortune, the goddess of happenstance quem dederat cursum Fortuna, peregi — and anticipates her majestic shade to travel beneath the earth et nunc magna mei sub terras ibit imago. Each, he claimed, had its own protocols of how to conceive of and represent the supernatural sphere and its divine inhabitants.

This approach may be useful at times. But it does not really help us here. For Virgil clearly combines elements from all of these systems of thought or belief, as well as several others besides. What Varro, for one, tried to keep tidily distinct, Virgil cheerfully commingles. What we need is a perspective that enables us to come to critical terms with a literary world in which logically frequently incompatible ideas about the divine co-exist side by side. The next accident, the next human-made disaster, the next defeat in war, the next natural catastrophe is sure to happen — we just do not know when.

To deal with this condition of uncertainty, which is a human universal, many cultures in history have posited the existence of supernatural agents or forces to whom they ascribe some control over the future. If such agents are willing to engage with mortals meaningfully listening to their prayers, paying attention to their sacrifices , the future becomes open to a certain amount of purposeful planning and management.

Even if the supernatural agents are taken to be disinterested in interaction with mortals or as actively causing havoc in the human sphere , their existence imposes some kind of form upon an otherwise amorphous domain of risk and uncertainty, rendering it more intelligible if not more manageable. Very schematically, we can posit the following spectrum of possibilities, which ranges from chaos at one extreme to the complete elimination of contingency on the other — with various stages in between:.

Degree of efficaciousness of religious efforts on the part of humans. A domain that offers the possibility to enter into quasi-contractual relationships with supernatural beings. A domain of predetermination in which everything is always already fixed. It is a world, in other words, one cannot really live in.


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It is almost impossible for mortals to get whimsical fortune or egocentric divinities to enter into reliable relationships according to laws of reciprocity worship, sacrifice, or obedience to divine law in return for supernatural support. If the condition applies that if one is brave, then fortune will lend her support, we are able to shape our destiny at least to some extent. In return for certain forms of religious observance, they lent their support to the civic community as it marched forward in time.

The Romans invested a significant amount of effort in maintaining good relations with their divinities, keeping them benevolently prediposed towards their res publica — a condition they called pax deorum , i. This peace needed careful attention and cultivation and could of course break down at any time through an involuntary slip in a ritual procedure, for instance , at which point the Roman gods tended to send warning signs that a potential disaster was afoot since the peace was broken.

A notable example is the deuotio , in which a Roman magistrate turned himself or a fellow-citizen into a sacrificial victim of sorts before going out to meet his death in battle: if the ritual was flawlessly executed and if the dedicatee actually got himself killed, then the assumption was that the gods would grant victory to the Roman army. It is useful to think of this ritual in economic terms. In return for what is a truly remarkable degree of divine support in as unpredictable a situation as a battle, someone in the civic community had to pay the ultimate price.

And nothing is more costly than a human life. Divine support, and in particular predictable divine support, does not come cheap.


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  • It is also a world impossible to live in since any meaningful concept of agency — or moral choice — would disappear on both the divine and the human level. Since nothing can be altered in such a world, endeavours to enter into communication with the gods in an effort to shape the future are pointless. The degree of efficaciousness of religious efforts on the part of humans plummets back to zero.

    For in such a system, the gods too have become disenfranchised: they no longer are meaningful agents with the power to impact on how history unfolds. The epic features its fair share of whimsical divinities, in particular Juno, who pursues Aeneas with her wrath out of selfish motives, to the point of collapsing the cosmos back into chaos.

    Large portions of the story that the Aeneid tells are already prescripted before they unfold. Not everything in the history he tells has already been fixed in stone or on the scrolls of fate. The moment in Aeneid 4 when this becomes most apparent is at the very end of the book, when Virgil explains why Dido suffered such a drawn-out death: Proserpina refused to welcome her in the Underworld since her suicide was not in accord with her destiny, apart from being unearned nam quia nec fato, merita nec morte peribat But the death-scene suggests that the affair did not have to end in suicide.

    Virgil thereby validates the principles of independent agency and moral accountability at both the human and the divine level — within the severe restrictions imposed by historical necessity. Ironically, it informs the religious efforts of Anna and Dido at the beginning of Aeneid 4.

    And Virgil seems to imply that the divinities with whom Dido interacts respond honestly to her enquiry, though they are of course? Take Aeneas, for example. Despite his pronounced pietas , he is the victim of divine persecution: Juno pursues him with her wrath. Paradoxically, he is also the carrier of fate. This has its advantages.

    When he loses the plot, Jupiter tends to sort matters out, to get him and destiny back on track. Aeneas is far from perfect as a religious agent, not least since at times as in Carthage he becomes oblivious to his preordained historical mission. Yet he is a privileged character nevertheless: whereas Dido has to browse through bloody entrails to figure out the will of the gods, Aeneas receives instructions of what to do straight from the boss, by special delivery.

    Mercury provides the ancient equivalent of an airmail service. Also elsewhere in the poem, Aeneas is the privileged beneficiary of divine insight and information, notably in Book 6. But it is still far superior to that of other characters. Her speech of advice to Dido at 4. Thus, in line 34, she dismisses the notion of a conscious afterlife in proto-Epicurean fashion, in an attempt to convince Dido to stop caring about her deceased husband Sychaeus and embrace life and love with Aeneas.

    The phrases drip with unintended irony. Juno had no intention whatsoever to blast Aeneas to Africa. She set out to sink his fleet. In his prayer to Jupiter at 4. He posits that either Jupiter sees what is going on with Dido and Aeneas — or there is no point in worshipping him. But if Jupiter is aware of what is going on, so the implication, his inaction is disgracefully negligent given the dutiful veneration he receives from his son.

    Jupiter is thus placed in an impossible position: the way Iarbas frames his argument, the supreme divinity cannot plead ignorance and hence is undoubtedly guilty of negligence. That Jupiter has so far tolerated the love affair at Carthage without any sign of disapproval or intervention means for Iarbas that the economy of religious communication, which requires some divine support in return for dutiful human worship, has broken down. True, Iarbas gets what he prays for — a break up of the union between Dido and Aeneas — but perhaps also more than he bargained for, insofar as Dido proceeds to commit suicide.

    And Jupiter interferes not out of any consideration for his son and his hundred altars, but because he is committed to the fated plot. Put differently, Iarbas may well think that his prayer has been efficacious. But the reader realizes that the perceived efficaciousness of the religious speech-act is accidental. Iarbas gets his way not because Jupiter felt the urge to answer his prayer, but because he fortuitously happened to wish for something to which Jupiter was anyway already committed.

    She is by far the most interesting and complex religious agent in Aeneid 4, in part since her religious outlook undergoes a development over the course of the book. This development involves three basic stages, which correspond roughly to the three sections of Aeneid 4 that Virgil marks with the opening phrase at regina 1—, —, — Lines 54—64 show her visiting altars to beseech the gods, investing in repeated and expensive sacrifice to render them benevolent, and vetting the entrails of her victims for signs of divine approval.

    This approval appears not to be forthcoming; but that also means that the gods in charge of the signs prove reliable and honest partners in communication. What Dido asks for is in violation of fate, and she fatefully disregards the lack of divine sanction in how she proceeds. By calling Anna and Dido ignorant of the seers heu, uatum ignarae mentes! If the two sisters had had knowledge of what the uates were saying, they would have realized that all their efforts to solicit divine support for their plan would be to no avail.

    It is marked by denial, confusion, and bouts of angst that gradually develop into genuine insight. Dido oscillates between a quasi-Epicurean attitude towards supernatural interferences in human affairs i. Thus at Aeneid 4.

    I am whirled on the fires of frenzy. Now prophetic Apollo, now the Lycian oracles, now the messenger of the gods sent from Jove himself, brings through the air this dread command. For sure, this is work for gods, this is care to vex their peace! The implication is that Aeneas is a liar when he ascribes his desire to depart to the need to follow a divine command.

    Conversely, slightly later on Dido sees and hears portents of her looming death that are of supernatural or infernal provenance after Aeneas has refused to slacken his resolve Aeneid 4. Tum uero infelix fatis exterrita Dido mortem orat; taedet caeli conuexa tueri. And to make her more surely fulfil her purpose and leave the light, she saw, as she laid her gifts on the altars ablaze with incense — fearful to tell — the holy water darken and the outpoured wine change into loathsome gore.

    This stretch of religious terror results in the decision to commit suicide, which sets up the final stage in her development. At regina, pyra penetrali in sede sub auras erecta ingenti taedis atque ilice secta, intenditque locum sertis et fronde coronat funerea; super exuuias ensemque relictum effigiemque toro locat, haud ignara futuri. On top, upon the couch, she lays the dress he wore, the sword he left, and an image of him, knowing what was to come.

    Round about stand altars, and with streaming hair the priestess calls in thunder tones on thrice a hundred gods Now she is back in charge. Now she knows what the future holds. Now Virgil calls her priestess. Now she has gained insight into the constraints that the existence of historical destiny imposes upon conventional religious efforts. This insight empowers. In stage 2, she wished Aeneas to die in a shipwreck — a futile desire since it is contrary to fate. She has acquired a good sense of what the fata entail.

    She realizes that she cannot prevent Aeneas from reaching Italy and fulfilling his destiny. But outside these basic plot patterns she can contribute her share towards making his life and the lives of some of his descendants truly wretched. Her curse comes true. At Aeneid 4. My life is done and I have finished the course that Fortune gave; and now in majesty my shade shall pass beneath the earth.

    There the poet noted that, rather than seeking succour in conventional religious institutions and practices delubra, uota or tearing open the breasts of victims and inspecting animal entrails in order to figure out the future, Dido ought to consider what is eating away under her own breast, in her own innards. She herself, so Virgil intimates, is a sacrificial victim of sorts that contains within divine signs of events to come.

    In a perverse re-enactment of an animal sacrifice for the purpose of divination that also resembles the Roman deuotio-ritual , Dido finally opens herself up. Her suicide, which is preceded by a powerful invocation of the gods not least those of the Underworld , countersigns her curse, and in and through her death she writes herself into the destiny of Aeneas and of Rome. Dido in and through her suicidal wrath thereby manages to shape the future in more powerful ways than she was ever able to accomplish with conventional prayers or sacrifices.

    See also Quint The three participles are linked by assonance: -tan-, -tis, -nan-, -tes, te-, -nens. For a more comprehensive account and more detailed discussion of this alternative tradition, see Lord , as well as Horsfall , Hexter , and Davidson A Kaster, ed. See also Tertullian c. The poems were mostly written much earlier. They then got attached, or appended hence Appendix , to another collection of such poems, which is today known under the name of Greek Anthology or Anthologia Graeca.

    I cite the BNJ text and translation slightly adjusted. Hexter , p. Neither Dionysius 1. Hinds, Allusion and Intertext. Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry Cambridge, , p. It is an excellent if demanding exploration of the topic of this essay. Godwin, Catullus, Poems 61—68, edited with introduction, translation and commentary , Warminster, See already Skulsky , p. Note in this context that at Catullus I make extensive use of his work in the commentary, especially in the sections on Fama and Atlas.

    The high number of the fragment may hence surprise. It results from the fact that fragments are counted across plays, which Jocelyn arranges in alphabetical order from Achilles 1—10 to Thyestes — followed by the incerta fragments that cannot be assigned to a specific play. The Medea fragments are —45 and may come from two different plays. Brown, Lucretius on Love and Sex. See 1. A New Translation by A. Showerman, 2nd edn, rev.

    How to Write an Interpretive Essay Example

    Goold Cambridge, MA, Apollo at 4. The Apollo-simile at 4. The allusion may be to a Roman adaptation, as opposed to the Greek original — or indeed to several plays, Greek and Latin, at once. Book 4 is tragic terrain, after all, and it is therefore fitting that the patron deity of the genre should hover in the background of the action. Other aspects of Dionysus, in particular his association with Eastern luxury and Marc Antony, add further nuances of meaning, explored in more detail in the commentary. Proserpine evidently being unwilling to perform this service for the suicide Dido, Juno takes pity on her and sends Iris to do it.

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    How to Write an Interpretive Essay

    Desktop version Mobile version. Results per book Results per chapter. On this account, the truth of the gospel—that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself—is taken to be objectively true and thus capable of rational demonstration. It is clear from the Gospel narratives, for instance, that not ever yone sees what the centurion sees. Of course, they all see and encounter the same material realities—crosses, bodies, and eventually corpses—but these material phenomena are texts that need to be interpreted.

    Even if we are confronted with the physical and historical evidence of the resurrection—even if we witnessed the resurrection firsthand—what exactly this meant would require interpretation. Only by interpreting the resurrection of Jesus does one see that it confirms that he is the Son of God Rom. In the epistles we get the same kind of claim, namely, that not everyone can see what the believer sees. What is required to interpret the world well is the necessary conditions of interpretation—the right horizons of expectation and the right presuppositions.

    To embrace this creational! Wherever there is interpretation, there will be conflict of interpretation or at least differences of interpretation. However, it is important to consider two levels, or modes, of this hermeneutic pluralism. On the one hand, a kind of pluralism and interpretive difference is inscribed into the very fabric of created finitude, such that we all see the same things but from different angles and locations.

    In both Eden and the eschaton, we find interpretive pluralism that is rooted in this plurality of perspectives. As a factor of the conditions of a good creation, this kind of pluralism is something we must embrace as good Gen. In this respect, for instance, Christianity and Buddhism have very different interpretations about the nature of reality.

    However, we need to consider these as deep differences in interpretation rather than glibly supposing that the Christian account is objectively true and then castigating the Buddhist account for being merely an interpretation. In fact, both are interpretations; neither is objectively true. A nd so, to a certain extent, we must also embrace this postlapsarian or directional pluralism as the given situation in which we find ourselves. To assert that our interpretation is not an interpretation but objectively true often translates into the worst kinds of imperial and colonial agendas, even within a pluralist culture.

    Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however, translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty. As such, deconstruction is interested in interpretations that have been marginalized and sidelined, activating voices that have been silenced. As such, we are free to interpret the world differently.

    The context of both the phenomenon whether a book, a cup, or an event and the interpreter function as conditions or frameworks that determine just how a thing is seen or understood. As he explains in his after word to Limited Inc , contexts are f lexible and dynamic: contexts change as time and place changes, generating different meanings and interpretations.

    Derrida describes this as the possibility of recontextualization : a phrase can mean one thing in one context and something different in another. The same word, duck , is recontextualized. Because Derrida has emphasized this play and f lexibility of contexts, many have concluded that he thinks we can just interpret things any way we want—that texts and events can be played with and we can simply make up the meaning as we go.

    Of course, on the one hand, this is completely true: people and groups do interpret the Bible in all kinds of ways, and they do make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Obviously, the Bible is subject to all kinds of interpretations. But this play of interpretations does not mean that all these interpretations are good or true. Given the goals and purpose of a given community, it establishes a consensus regarding the rules that will govern good interpretation. Without the rules established by a community, there would be no criteria to govern interpretation. A nd Derrida is not opposed to rules as such.

    But we have to ask: what are the implications of accepting this claim? In particular, what would that mean for our understanding of the gospel, Scripture, and church? First, if one of the crucial insights of postmodernism is that everyone comes to his or her experience of the world with an interpretive framework and a set of ultimate presuppositions, then Christians should not be afraid to lay their specifically Christian presuppositions on the table and allow their account to be tested in the marketplace of ideas. Second, and more constructively, this should push us to ask ourselves whether the biblical text is what truly governs our seeing of the world.

    If all the world is a text to be interpreted, then for the church the narrative of the Scriptures is what should govern our very perception of the world. We should see the world through the Word. There is nothing outside the Text, we might say. And to say that there is nothing outside the Text, then, is to emphasize that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by the revelation of God in the Scriptures.

    But do we really let the Text govern our seeing of the world? Or have we become more captivated by the stories and texts of a consumerist culture? A modern isolationist understanding of the human self has often crept into the church, which has too often valorized a notion of private interpretation by wrongly appealing to the Reformation principle of the perspicuity of Scripture , suggesting that the meaning of the Scriptures is simply and objectively there—available for the taking. Such an individualistic notion, however, has nothing to do with the Reformers, let alone the ancient church.

    One of the things that Leonard lacks in the film Memento is a community of friends he can trust. In fact, one of his rules—tattooed on his body—is to trust no one. While the church is governed by the Scriptures, the Scriptures are only properly opened and active within the believing community.

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    To say that there is nothing outside the Text also entails that there is no proper understanding of the Text—and hence the world—apart from the Spirit-governed community of the church. This essay is an excerpt from chapter two of James K. Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.

    We extend our thanks to the author for his gracious assistance in the excerpting process.