“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” – Prison Captain in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke
Ironically, based on varying views and interpretations from various movie reviewers and critics, the Cool Hand Luke movie itself must have, for some, failed to communicate. One reviewer saw the primary protagonist, as played by Paul Newman, representing Christ. Another reviewer saw Luke as “not thoughtful or sensitive. He doesn’t rebel because of any higher calling. He just hates authority, hates being told what to do, hates being told that he can’t do something.”
Two people watched the same film, and one saw the lead character as a persecuted messiah figure while the other saw Luke as “the ultimate rebel without a cause.” The two interpretations of this iconic movie could not be more different.
A Collective Failure to Communicate
Much of our nation’s chasmic cultural divide is, I’m convinced, caused by our dramatically divergent interpretations of life itself, of humanity’s purpose, of human history, and of the instructions given by previous generations. What we’ve got, historically, is a failure to impeccably communicate those topics most crucial to our communal lives.
I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood
– The Animals, 1965
I wouldn’t have a date with the blues if I could only find the words. – “Words,” by Dave Mason, 1978
At the most basic level, words—spoken or written—are tools. Ascribing sacrosanct status to any composition of words is akin to revering a welding torch used in the building of an architectural marvel.
The purpose of words is to convey a thought from one mind to another. Unlike Vulcans, we humans cannot perform mind melds in which we seamlessly and wordlessly transmit volumes of information from one mind to another. We use words. Sometimes gloriously composed, sometimes miserably mangled, words are both the sledgehammers and jewelry pliers of human communication. Some of us might use those words more eloquently and efficiently than others, but no level of elegance can ensure that the recipient will perfectly understand the thought as conceived by the communicator. Hence the need for interpretation.
Hermeneutics (Interpretive Methods)
In theological circles, hermeneutics refers to methods of interpreting the Bible. More broadly, hermeneutics deals with interpreting communication in general. Every time any human speaks with or writes to another person, that other person interprets the series of words. Upon reading Albert Einstein’s statement, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree,” one employing an absolutely unsophisticated hermeneutic might cast about looking for a literal tree with branches labeled as “religions,” “arts,” and “sciences.” Most people would, however, recognize the statement as a metaphor. Similarly, most people understand that Jesus’ reference to himself as “the door” was a metaphor.
In the same vein, most Americans know that if you tell them, “Don’t jump the gun,” you are not telling them to stand still behind a firearm placed on the ground. Many may have never heard the term idiom, but they know one when they hear it.
We recognize basic metaphors and idioms simply from daily human interactions. But as we encounter more subtle and less common communication devices, a more sophisticated, nuanced hermeneutic can become necessary.
Which statements or directives should be taken literally and which need to be interpreted, as with metaphors and idioms? Which are applicable only to the immediate audience and which apply more broadly?
Unprincipled Bible Study
Some churches teach their congregants “Inductive Bible Study.” Typically, such a course consists of a three-step method: Observation (“What does the passage say?”), Interpretation (“What does the passage mean?”), and Application (“How should I apply this passage to the way I live my life?”). My instructor for inductive Bible study included a fourth step, Principlalization (“What are the time- and culture-transcending principles in the passage?”)
I’m grateful for that inclusion by that instructor. It helped me to avoid many of the mistakes I see other Christians make in their Bible interpretation. It also caused me tons of grief—and cost me a job. (No time to detail that episode now.) For example, I always met resistance—and often anger—when I tried to convince my fellow evangelicals that the Ten Commandments are not for us. I pointed out to them the gross inconsistency of calling for obedience to those commandments while ignoring the surrounding commandments such as the dietary restrictions, and, of course, the command for capital punishment for incorrigibly rebellious children.
I tried to help them see that one need not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. The Levitical laws—including the Ten Commandments—were given to one culture at one specific time; they are not universal laws. They do, however, contain universal principles. For example, the Levitical prohibition on eating shellfish does not mean that twenty-first-century American Christians must boycott Red Lobster. But that does not mean that the passage is meaningless for modern Christians. Undergirding that specific, time-and-culture-focused prohibition is a principle of separation. In that era, the Hebrew people were surrounded by cultures that often behaved in brutal and malicious ways.
The Hebrew Scriptures of that era taught the Hebrew people to be different from those brutal cultures. Even seemingly mundane prohibitions like those against certain food items were meant to be reminders of the need to be different. So the principle that carries forward, regardless of the era, is to be willing to take a stand against corrupt behaviors. Sadly, modern-day Christians—much like the Hebrew people of Jesus’ day—have focused on the specifics while missing the universal principles. As a result, we’ve witnessed the conquest of a compassionately principle-based lifestyle by charlatans who misapply specific Bible commands rather than searching out and then applying those time-transcending principles.
A Constitutional Hermeneutic
Now, thank you to those readers who have slogged through the above ramblings. Here’s where all that came above hits the pavement in modern American secular culture. Why shouldn’t modern-day Americans interpret the U.S. Constitution in the same way that Christians should interpret the Bible? Though not as ancient as the Bible, the U.S. Constitution is from a long-past era. Many of the text’s statements and provisions have little connection to our modern culture.
But, just as Christians’ Bible can be interpreted through enduring principles rather than strict adherence to specific commands, why can’t the Constitution be deciphered and employed in that manner by modern Americans? For example, the Second Amendment—literally interpreted and untouchable for most conservatives—calls for a national militia. Modern America has no government-sanctioned militia—unless one loosely interprets the National Guard as being the militia referred to in the Second Amendment. But even the ultra-conservative Red State says that is not true. So why do most conservatives insist upon the amendment’s second clause but pay little attention to the first? If the Constitution must be interpreted and applied literally, one cannot do so selectively. Just as one cannot appropriately adhere to the Ten Commandments while disregarding shellfish prohibitions, one cannot honestly support gun ownership apart from insisting on “a well-armed militia.” The answer, then, is in discovering the timeless principle the authors had in mind when they wrote the amendment.
So what is the time-transcending principle beneath the Second Amendment? I have my thoughts on the matter, but before I share them, what are yours? Please comment below.
We can avoid failures to communicate by having a comprehensive set of shared compassionate principles. Those principles, rather than specifics, are, I believe, what the Founders sought to convey to those of us who now, ironically, fight over the specifics.