How Do We Understand What a Text Means?

How do we understand what a text means? How do we know what Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, or Tolkien meant? Is it enough to read their books? How do we elicit meaning?

Isn’t it curious that God didn’t come to humanity with a book? He came with a body. The ultimate knowledge of God is enfleshed in the Son of God. He walked among us, and we saw his glory. The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen, touched, smelled, and heard, and tasted Meaning. It affected us bodily. We dwelt in its Presence.

Apart from the body, Meaning is impervious. It is ungraspable at the level of the mind.

As Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht says:

“What we need is a form of thinking that is based on the possibility of presence and on the possibility of presence being related to meaning.”

Is meaning related to presence? It is. And our ability to perceive meaning arises from our contact with the Form. Meaning is read off of that Form in which it is embodied.

“That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

The Logos must be incarnate to be perceivable. Knowledge without a body is misleading at best. We don’t arrive at Meaning through interpretation; we arrive at meaning through coming in contact with its embodied Presence.

Interpretation is misleading without Presence. It is a form of narcissism — we tend to reduce the Meaning to the lens through which we choose to see the world. When we see, touch, and taste the Presence, we don’t need to interpret. We grasp the Whole.

Interpretation is necessary when there’s no Presence. Interpretation is the child of absence. In the absence of the body, texts require interpretation. In the presence of the body, they come alive. They walk, talk, and dwell among us.

We see the text, talk with it, laugh with it, eat with it — we have a relationship with it. Meaning is what happens to us as we engage in that relationship. We know without interpreting. If we have to interpret, we don’t know.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

To know God means to touch his flesh. When we touch the Body, we know, and all texts come alive. When we interpret the text without touching the Body, it is a dead letter.

The Spirit loves forms. It loves being in the body. It creates “felt presences.” Whatever we encounter in a text, whether it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, or the Bible, already exists in this world as a Presence. Something that we can touch, see, and experience.

The moment we discover that Presence and engage with it, we discover that the text is not outside us to be interpreted. It is inside us to resonate with. We start looking for those resonances everywhere because we fall in love with the celestial Music they reveal.