Meanings is a song about a modern, inspirational way to interpret ancient religious texts (like the Christian Bible).
The beauty and power of ancient religious texts may lie in their ability to inspire multiple meanings. Each person that encounters them may find something new.
A song about the meanings of religious stories and texts
If I read a passage from the Christian Bible (or a sacred book for any religion), I may come to a conclusion about what it means. The question is, “how did I decide what it means?”
Many religious traditions have sacred texts. For example, I identify with a Christian tradition, and within this tradition, the Christian Bible is generally viewed as an especially important book. Yet, while the Bible is viewed as important, there is tremendous diversity in how people interpret it and how they understand what it means.
Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been many disputes over biblical interpretation, and sometimes these disputes resulted in deadly violence. For example, the Bible describes a dinner when Jesus took a loaf of bread and broke it while saying, “This is my body.” Throughout history, some people have interpreted this to mean that bread can literally become Jesus’ body, whereas others have thought that this passage should be interpreted metaphorically. In the 16th century, some people were tried and executed as heretics for (depending on who was in power) claiming one or the other of these viewpoints. This seems like an absurdly obscure and trivial matter to make into a life-or-death issue, and the fact that Biblical arguments can lead to this type of intolerance and violence has led some people to conclude that the Bible has nothing of value to offer.
However, there are many times where the Bible has led to inspiration for things that are quite good. For example, when Martin Luther King declared, “I Have a Dream,” in his famous speech against racism delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, his speech was filled with allusions to the Christian Bible. This is a speech that I admire.
So, how do we use the Bible (or any other sacred text) as a source of inspiration for goodness, and at the same time, prevent it from becoming a force for intolerance?
One possibility is that we need to think carefully and critically about the process we use to interpret the Bible. There are two basic approaches people can use for understanding religious texts such as the Bible. I will call these approaches the “authoritative” approach and the “ inspirational” approach.
When using the authoritative approach, a sacred text is believed to have a single, unchanging, and true meaning.
With the authoritative approach, the goal is to interpret a text in a way that is consistent with its true meaning. This raises a question, “where is the true meaning located?” One option is that the true meaning is located in the author’s mind. It is the meaning that the author was thinking about when the author first wrote the text. Of course, one difficulty with this approach is that there is no objective way to determine what an author was thinking, especially if a text was written thousands of years ago. Moreover, most passages in the Bible are best described as having several authors. A passage may have started out as an oral tradition that was passed from person to person until someone wrote it down, and then later, someone edited it and incorporated it into a larger document that eventually became a book in the Bible. Thus, it is not clear which author at which point in time holds the true meaning of a text, or how to determine what that author was truly thinking when the text was written.
Another option for using an authoritative approach is to assume that the true meaning is revealed in a plain reading of the text. This, in turn, raises a question about which version of the text should be used for such a plain reading. For ancient texts, such as those that comprise the Christian Bible, the original written documents have been long lost. We do not have them. Instead, what we have are copies of copies of those documents written in ancient languages, as well as modern translations of those copied documents. Importantly, the various copies and translations do not always agree with each other, and this raises a question about which copy or which translation should be presumed to hold the true meaning of the text. More importantly, even when people use the same copy or translation, they often disagree when they attempt to discern what a text really means. Many texts do not have a single obvious meaning that can be consistently derived from a plain reading.
One possible solution is to propose guidelines on how a text should be read to derive its true meaning. For example, one option is to suggest that we need to take historical context into account as we read the text. Along this line, the true meaning of a text could be defined as how the text would have been understood in the culture, time, and place where it was first written. Or, another option is to claim that the true meaning is the one endorsed by a particular tradition or authority. But, these approaches still to not produce a consensus regarding the true meaning of sacred texts. Historians often cannot discern with certainty exactly what texts meant within ancient cultures and contexts, and theologians often disagree on which traditions or authorities are correct.
What all this shows is that we do not have access to something that could be called a single, clear and evident true meaning for texts in the Bible.
Thus, if a text or story from the Bible is presumed to be important specifically because of its true meaning, then its importance depends on something that does not really exist. This becomes a problem for the authoritative approach to interpretation. This approach assumes a text has a single true meaning, but the true meaning is illusory. It is hard to make a convincing argument for why a text is important if the thing that makes it important is something to which we have no access.
In contrast, the inspirational approach assumes that a text is important because of how people become inspired when they read the text or when they discuss the text with others.
With an inspirational approach, the goal is to interact with a religious text and to be inspired by it. This could include having an idea about what a text could mean and how we should respond to it – possibly agreeing with it, or maybe disagreeing with it, and sometimes expanding on it in a new way to address current issues in the world. The inspiration could be an idea, a goal, a hope, or a vision for something that would make the world a better place. It could also be a work of art such as a painting, poem, novel, dance, or musical composition. Most importantly, this inspiration is something that helps us understand and move toward goodness and beauty. It is an inspiration that produces something good.
There are many ways that a person could interpret a text and be inspired by it to produce something good. Thus, with the inspirational approach, a text does not have a single, unchanging true meaning, but rather, it has many possible good meanings. With the inspirational approach, it is possible, and even desirable, for a text to mean different things to different people. From this perspective, then, the Christin Bible is viewed as a living document with many layers of meaning that grow and develop, becoming richer and more complex over time, as people from different times, different cultures, and different generations interpret it, repurpose it, and make different meanings from it. An inspirational approach celebrates this diversity that occurs when different people derive different meanings from the same text.
The inspirational approach views it as an exciting privilege to join a chorus of diverse viewpoints within a long and rich tradition, as if joining music that has been playing for thousands of years and adding yet one more layer of harmony to it.
To clarify the difference between the authoritative approach and the inspirational approach, it is helpful to discuss the differences between these approaches in how they address three questions.
What makes a text valuable?
With the authoritative approach, the thing that makes the text valuable is located in the text itself. The text is viewed as holding truth. In contrast, with the inspirational approach, the thing that makes the text valuable comes from its ability to generate good inspiration, and this inspiration is something that occurs in people. Thus, the value is located in the human response and not in the actual text. With an authoritative approach, a text would cease to be valuable if it could be shown that it fails to contain truth, whereas with an inspirational approach, a text would cease to be valuable if people stopped being inspired by it.
Does a text need to be historically accurate?
With an authoritative approach, a text is presumed to have a true meaning, and the value of a text depends on the extent to which a text contains truth. Thus, with this approach, it is important for a text to be historically accurate whenever its true meaning pertains to a historical event. In contrast, with the inspirational approach, a text does not need to be historically accurate to generate good inspiration. An author living several thousand years ago may have a limited understanding of science, and may have a mistaken notion of historical events, but this author could still write something that, today, can be read and responded to in a manner that produces good inspiration.
How are interpretations evaluated?
With both the authoritative and inspirational approaches, distinctions can be made between good interpretations and bad interpretations, and people can disagree how a text should be interpreted. However, there are two key differences in how interpretations are evaluated. The first has to do with the range of possible interpretations that can be regarded as good. With the authoritative approach, a text is presumed to have only a single true meaning, and so there is only one acceptable interpretation, and anything that deviates from the true meaning is a bad interpretation. In contrast, with the inspirational approach, there are a broad range of possible interpretations that can produce something good, and while not every interpretation is good, the range of possible good interpretations is quite wide. The second difference has to do with the standard used to evaluate an interpretation. With the authoritative approach, an interpretation is evaluated for the extent to which it matches truth, whereas with the inspirational approach, an interpretation is evaluated for the extent to which it produces something good. In other words, the authoritative approach is concerned with a correct belief, whereas the inspirational approach is more concerned with what the belief produces.
The song “Meanings” is about the inspirational approach to interpretation.
This song celebrates the fact that, “over time, so many minds find many meanings to bestow” on religious texts. In the song, the diversity of different meanings that people can find within a religious text is viewed as something good, as “different types of poetry” that “move the earth.” The song also points to the fact that ancient religious texts are often not scientifically or historically accurate, and it allows this to be part of the beauty and mystery of the texts, and not something problematic that needs to be denied or explained away. The song highlights the difficulty of identifying true meanings within sacred texts, which are comprised of “fragile marks” placed on ancient parchment scrolls. Yet, it portrays these texts as being valuable because of the many ways that people have been inspired by them and because people have bestowed upon these texts a wonderfully diverse range of good meanings.