Exegesis

Interpretation and creation of text is all we do, and the text we have to interpret is usually presented in short cyberspace "sound bites" where the writer is concerned with making a point in less than two screens. Despite the obvious difficulties of acheiving any successful communication in this textual world, many people, myself included, are simply too preoccupied to review and implement the very basic tenents of textual interpretation. Instead of deliberate interpretaion, I often simply say the words to myself in my head and figure I understand the meaning of the message because I know the definition of all the terms. When I am accused of misunderstanding what someone wrote I bodly announce that it was the fault of thewriter and that the text speaks for itself. Tensions, bad feelings and flames often follow.

I want to suggest that we are engaged in a new and reasonably unfamilar type of exegesis. We are reading letters (normally in first person) from an individual to a group, with the writer being aware that the letter may be read by people beyond the confines of the active members of the group itself. (Does Corinthians come to mind?). In reading such a letter, I take a fairly standard exegetic approach. I follow the literal--where is that URL again, who did what yesterday. I remain sensitive to the moral aspects of the message--did the posting contribute to the longevity of the group, was it the start of a flame war, was it hurtful to someone. And finally, I seek the allegorical, the implications and connotations, that spiritual message that allows me to feel that the writer is a "you" (ala Martin Buber) instead of a he, she or it. This third part is the part is how I make friends (and enemies).

In order to perform this exercise on any piece of text, I need to first have a grip on my own capabilities for understanding what is being written. To help myself in this respect, I devised a test to evaluate my odds of extracting the meaning from a piece of email. The test comes from the most basic and generally agreed upon standards in hermeneutics. I get one point for each question that I can answer with a "yes."

1. Have I mastered the language and grammer in which the text is written.

I always answer yes to this one.

2. Do I have knowledge of the historic/social context from which the text came.

This can go either way. When I meet someone face to face I know more in a moment from the persons appearance and surrounding circumstances than I could learn in many pages of written text. The person's appearance may evoke certain pejudices I carry with me, but the advantages of avoiding prejudice are far outweighed by the dissadvantages of not having the wealth of information that come from seeing a person speak and move within a specific social context. On the net it is not uncommon for me to know little more than the text is written by someone living in this century. Normally I can only award a point in this category if I have read many postings by the same person.

3. Do I have a prior understanding of the fundamental issues with which the text is concerned?

This varies. I am fairly well rounded and can often claim knowledge of issues, but my education has large gaps. These gaps cannot be filled by plugging the holes with what I actually do know. Thus, I cannot use my legal training to fill in for a lack of knowledge in the area of ethics without distorting the meaning of what has been written. Misunderstandings based on this aspect of interpetation are rampant in email.

4. Do I have some basic sympathy with the author or his thought?

This is based upon the idea that one is less able to understand text which presents a point of view that the reader opposes. (Debatable, but commonly asserted).

My score on this test gives me a sense of how accurately I will be able to determine the meaning of what is being said. If I have a 2, I still look for the three basic elements in exegesis, but assume that I will be wrong about the meaning about half the time. (Please note here, that I presume meaning to lie within the text and not come to being as a result of some psychological operation within the "mind.")

The reading of first person writings by someone we do not know face to face is reasonably new for most of us. We are used to books, newspapers, and novels where more often than not the author is a professional and has been trained to hide himself. Those few people who engaged in extensive letter writing prior to the net, usually corresponded with people within their families or professions. Even in areas such as philosophy, where the author speaks somewhat directly to the reader, we are trained by too many survey classes to treat the writer as an long dead and absent, someone to learn about rather than from, and good only for placing on a time line. Now, we have living text made by living (and average) people. Hermeneutics appears in a wholly different realm, and may need to be redone for the new environment. However, failure to give it any attention, or failure to acknowledge the enormous differences differences between conversation and textual interpretation will almost inevitably lead to an overblown view of one's own ability to understand what is being written. The positive possibilities of the medium then slip away and people begin writing at each other rather than to each other. When this occurs we as Kabbalists end up being exactly what we appear to be-completely alone.

The lighter side to all this is that I often don't have to take what people write all that seriously, because according to even my own loose standard, I don't know and probably cannot know what in hell they are actually trying to say.


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