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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Saturday, March 17, 2007

“Words and Images” Wrap-Up

I greatly appreciate the help from Pascale and Tom on translating and thinking through the frames of Magritte’s essay. And just because I finally ot around to posting them all, and wil move on to Scott McCloud or Tufte doesn’t mean that I’m not open to further discussion and improvement; I opted to use Blogger for this exactly because I wanted to leave comments open.

Let me pause for an anecdote before I go on with discussing Magritte. A little less than twenty years ago, during the first round of Gallaudet University controversies, I heard a report on NPR that emphasized the cultural difference of life in the deaf community. That rang true to me — it brought into focus a variety of unformed intuitions I’d been wrestling with. Then I participated in a discussion of the Letter to the Romans, where someone referred to Rom 10:17, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In the context of my then-recent epiphany about deafness as culture, Paul’s vigorous assertion of what would become the Reformation watchword fides ex auditu* struck me as gravely problematic. Sure, we can rush to assure everyone that Paul and his heirs were relying on a figure of speech; but if deafness itself constitutes a cultural difference, Paul (the advocate of a blissfully integrated differentiated community) seems to have characterized the defining feature of participation in the community he imagines in culturally-exclusive terms.

So add that to my Wittgensteinian proclivities, my engagement with Derrida and postmodern hermeneutics, and you can trace the beginnings of my sense that more must be going on with textual interpretation than just the substitution of the correct interpretive words for the words of the source text. Intensify that by the power of my resistance to merely academic interpretive discourses, discourses in which theoretically correct conclusions are divorced from practice, and you have most of the roots of the interest that came together in the Poaching on Zion lecture that’s caught up into the Reading Scripture volume, and my argument in “This Is Not A Bible” in the New Paradigms In Bible Study book. Well, almost all of my recent writing.

OK, end of digression. Magritte’s essay, which I first encountered shortly after graduate school, figures in all this as a fulcrum for advancing my thinking toward the hermeneutics I’m now working out. Although I had already bumped my head into Saussure and was immersed in Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, et al., I was groping to pull together the elements of my intuition that all of this pointed to an integrated perspective on communication. As I read through the essay over and over, it finally began to sink in that glyphic communication and graphic communication (or whatever we might call it) could not be as radically distinct as my training in philosophical hermeneutics would have led me to believe. (I had not yet read in W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology, nor more than a superficial encounter with Marshall McLuhan).)

In a summary, I’d say that although we have plenty to work out about the individual units of the essay, the whole thing reminds its readers that images and words overlap and infuse one another, that a hermeneutics that tries deliberately or tacitly to treat of verbal meaning in a way that occludes the mutuality of verbal and graphical expression, must fall short of adequacy. Words are a peculiar kind of picture — not simply a picture, but a sort of picture nonetheless. And pictures do not simply reproduce three-dimensional reality in a two-dimensional medium; their selection and editing, their mode-of-representation and style, all of these effect a kind of communication that warrants art-critical queries about “meaning” (even though images don’t “mean” the same way that glyphic communication means).

And after having read Magritte and begun making the connections between expression in images and expression in words (and expression that deliberately involves both), I started thinking differently about biblical (and other textual) interpretation.

* “For this reason, Luther quipped that the ears are the most important organ of a Christian! Thus, fides ex auditu (faith by means of hearing) maintains an important place in traditional Reformation theology.” Peter Anders, 2006.


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