Monday, January 10, 2011

Hermeneutics and Exegesis: Or, What Everyone Needs to Know About Philosophy 101

I can't believe it's taken me this long to reconcile these ideas. I find it even more entertaining that the solution has come from the most basic Biblical-criticism terminology you learn in Intro to Biblical Studies 101. Those of you who are not religious, though let's be honest, I don't think there are any of you out there reading this right now... you'd also run into it in Philosophy 101.


Exegesis: Reading meaning out of a text. That is to say, the original meaning. When Constitutional scholars get going about "what the Founding Fathers intended," this is the mechanism they're going for. Likewise, a lot of Bible teachers will want to focus on this more, because they don't so much care about what they like in the Bible so much as they need to know what the Bible is trying to tell them. (At least, we hope so if they're a teacher worth listening to...)

Hermeneutics: What we read into a text. That is to say, the ways we look at it, apply it to our specific set of preconceptions, aesthetics, and circumstances to draw additional meaning.

Sounds easy right? And it is, if you can keep your cards straight. See, those of us who are periodically obsessed with the "right" meaning of something, are naturally far more interested in the exegesis of a piece, because if we admit that it teaches a lesson, and a lesson worth learning, we'd better learn what the author meant. With the Bible and Christian life, this is beyond essentially important. But what never occurred to me before, is that this is the same dynamic that I use when digging into meaning with Art, Music, Film, and Video Games.

When a person sees a movie and feel something deep stir inside them, they go looking for meaning, for the kernel of truth in it. Whether that be a thematic message, or moral of the story, or an essential experience like the final chord in music, or what the artist was really trying to depict on the canvas. It also has to do with whether or not the ends and means are worth it in the process...

I used to get so frustrated with scholars who would go on about these elaborate readings of texts that had nothing to do with the original authors intent. I found it arrogant and pretentious. But at the same time, I could never deny that when I looked at things, sometimes I saw interesting stuff too. What I was confusing was hermeneutics and exegesis. Maybe a lot of us do, I dunno.

It makes sense that when I was the movie Fight Club, I see the ultimate message that Tyler is not the good guy and that he has to be overcome from the inside if any actual life is to be lived. It also makes sense that a depressed nihilist would look at it and see Tyler as the hero. These are issues of what we bring to the table. The depressed nihilist isn't wrong to say this or that part resonated with him and he drew out his meaning, it's just what he brings to it in his hermeneutic. (Now, you could get into an interesting discussion which one of us is right regarding exegesis... but that's not my point right now.)

Here's another case in point. I went and saw Tron: Legacy over break, and loved it. I did enjoy the superficial action scenes. (Which I could argue weren't that superficial, just a little formulaic...but that's not the same thing.) But what really hit me was something much subtler. In the film, I saw that the character Flynn was very humble towards the digital world he helped create. That was it. Not the grand epic battle of good versus evil, not the poignant themes of sons and fathers striving to reconcile, not the techno music. This might be a case where the two approaches overlap a bit... I'm sure the film-makers meant for that attitude to come out, but I highly doubt they intended that to be the main theme of the film. However, when I saw it, I walked away very moved by that little thing. And for that, I will always love the film...

...ok, so maybe the techno music was also pretty big in my book... but back to my point.

My point is that (little known to my rather close-minded insistence in earlier days) you can in fact look at a piece of art, see a completely different conclusion or theme than what the artist intended, and it can be valid, without blowing open the doors of relativism. You really can. You just have to remember when you're saying "I see this, and it means something to me" as opposed to "this piece means this." You can talk about either, they're just completely different categories. Sometimes they intersect, but they don't have to.

And I feel like a moron for taking so long to realize that. Heh, oh well! Yay, learning.

-Hat tip to my friend C, who instigated this entire revelation in a three sentence conversation with me a week ago.

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