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Maybe I Need Derrida More than I Think

February 2, 2009

faculty_derridaTypically I dodge essentialist claims thrown by my students by suggesting that even if there is an essence to something—an essence to Christianity, an essential meaning of a text, etc.—we don’t have unimpeded access to it. That is, even if there is only one true meaning to a passage in the Bible, from this side of eternity all we have access to is the fact that this group says it means this, that group says it means that, etc. In a sense, I pretend to be agnostic about essential meanings.

Then we go on to look at how people’s interpretations differ in different contexts. Of course, I insist we investigate not only what their interpretation is, but also what they’re trying to accomplish with their particular interpretation.

Even those students who think there is one essential meaning can get on board with the idea that people use the Bible differently in different contexts. Even if you’re a true believer, you can historicize other people’s interpretations.

But I have students who are really hanging on to the idea that there is still one true meaning. I don’t yet know if they think they have unimpeded access to that one true meaning, or if they just think it exists. If they do think they know what it is, I might be able to historicize and thereby provincialize it—yea, it turns out that your position looks an awful lot like a 21st century interpretation—in which case they might “catch on.”

But the ideological defenses against historicism are strong (especially when joined up with wishful thinking). I’ve no doubt that some of these students will persist in the idea that, sure, there are a variety of interpretations, but only one of them is the right one.

It is for this reason that maybe I need a very short introduction to Derrida, some way of showing them that the very idea that there could be one essential meaning is an idea that doesn’t stand up to interrogation.

But I can hardly assign Of Grammatology in my “Introduction to the New Testament” course. Must … be … creative …

One Comment leave one →
  1. JTV permalink
    February 3, 2009 7:01 am

    I heard about this book that will be coming out soon called something like ‘bad ideas about religion.’ It’s basically about common misperceptions people have about religion today, and is written by a bunch of young religion scholars. The beauty of it (or so those of the authors that I know claim) is that it breaks down difficult concepts and applies sophisticated theoretical insights in a very reader-friendly way. I think you could take this approach to the class–breaking down Derrida into a couple of pages to get at the kernel of his critique here. Better yet, you could make it a kind of class exercise: kind of like pitting them against each other as factory owners in order to help them understand Marxism, etc.

    Anyway, just an idea.

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