On Repetition and Meaning

My wife and I were walking through the local cathedral the other day and I was struck by a war memorial that I had seen several times before. It is a simple wooden arch leading into an open chapel commemorating the British soldiers who died in WWI. Looking back out from inside the chapel you can see the words (painted in three panels) “FEAR GOD / LOVE THE BROTHERHOOD/ HONR THE KING.” Being a New Testament student, I recognized this to be from 1 Peter which runs “love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the King” (1 Pet 2:17).

The reason I was struck by this is not my interest in European history (which is considerable) nor my appreciation of fine wood work (of which the memorial is a great example). No. What struck me was the fundamental difference in context between the statement in 1 Peter and its use on the cathedral monument.

Peter and his audience, in the second half of the first century CE, were far from being in the majority. Christianity was a small Jewish sect founded by a backwater provincial named Jesus and their compatriots seem to have been less than favorable to the new group. Peter was concerned that the Christians to whom he was writing not stir up unnecessary problems by appearing revolutionary or subversive. They were to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Pet 2:12). For Peter, that involved loving fellow Christians, fearing God and giving honors to the King, regardless of his treatment in return.

Fast-forward about 1,870 years. Britain was an imperial superpower (though admittedly in a bit of an economic slump). Instead of honoring a king who knew virtually nothing about their religion, the Brits had George V, the latest in a long line of (at least ostensibly) Christian monarchs. Those who considered themselves Christians were no longer in the minority. Indeed, in the name of Christianity, the western powers had long colonized India and Africa (and points East).  Also, the term “the brotherhood” in an early 20th century military context (like that on the monument) refers not to fellow Christians but to “brothers-in-arms,” a meaning surely foreign to Peter’s letter.

This brings us to an incredibly dense quote from Jacques Derrida.

Once inserted into another network, the “same” philosopheme is no longer the same, and besides it never had an identity external to its functioning. Simultaneously, “unique and original” philosophemes, if there are any, as soon as they enter into articulated composition with inherited philosophemes, are affected by that composition over the whole of their surface and under every angle.[1]

For Derrida, there can be no true repetition. To cite in one context something said by another person in another context is, in fact, to say something new. (And, yes. I am well aware of the irony involved in quoting someone to make this point.)  The meaning of a statement is a function of its total context––literary, historical, cultural, social, etc. This means (and the example above shows) that quoting someone is not reproducing their meaning. For some, this is merely a way to sound clever at a party. For Christians (and for other religions with sacred texts), this is a big deal.  To say, “The Bible says [insert quote here] and that’s why we should (or shouldn’t) do (or believe or say) this thing” is not actually providing a defense of a given position. It is merely an observation about a set of words in a book. Saying and meaning, though intimately related, are not the same. Rather, it is much more important that we understand the total context or, to use a metaphor, the whole story in which we can find ourselves and act according to the total narrative, rather than a few isolated bits.

Ben Edsall

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[1]  Jacques Derrida. 1981. Economimesis. Diacritics 11 (2): 2. Translated by R. Klein.

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2 responses to “On Repetition and Meaning

  1. Derrida makes an interesting point, but typically his work is used [quoted even, haha] by those wishing to eliminate the use of text, tradition, and authority altogether. It is just as bad to say that Peter can never be quoted [other than to a 1st century Roman audience] as it is to, as you are pointing out, quote him badly and without context. But while Derrida’s followers might mock theology, it is precisely theology that bears the burden of presenting the text with proper context.

    Still, your point is taken – well meaning Christians often clumsily misquote Scripture. If I hear the idea that Jesus is present where two or more are gathered, I think I’ll scream. Is He not present when I am alone? Does the presence of another give me more Jesus power than if I pray alone? Of course not. The context is actually on the issue of rebuking an errant brother…an issue rarely linked to that verse. A classic case of your very point about Peter.

    Thoughtful blog…Godspeed

  2. Hi Andy,

    First, thank you for your comment. Second, let me say that Derrida is a complex and broad thinker and I don’t pretend to understand him in a remotely comprehensive way.

    Anecdotally, I think you are probably right about Derrida’s use in many current discussions, however I also think that he is more a friend to theologians than many think. The point he makes about repetition is not to negate the possibility or productivity of quotes, it simply is a recognition that repeating a statement (even if the original context is well understood) in a new situation necessarily has a different meaning.

    In some ways the example I used lacks the force that this point can carry. I think the rubber really hits the road in the implementation of first century ethics or social structure to the church today, for instance, in the issue of women in leadership. Here, a repetition of the “biblical” statements about women have a *very* different meaning (drawing on a very different total context) than they did for their first century audience. It’s not that those who argue against women in leadership roles don’t understand the general context of the passage (though I would argue that the heavily apologetic force is sometimes ignored). Rather, it is a failure to understand the difference in social meaning between the two situations. This failure leads to a lack of ability to re-think the possibilities because of a supposed appeal to a “biblical” position.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

    Many blessings.

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