Heart Prints

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming 400 page book:  Engaging Paul:  Shades of Conversation in 1Thessalonians.  Publication of this book is currently scheduled for sometime this fall (2014).  The book is a focused effort on whether it is possible to engage the apostle Paul (an author no longer living) in lively, personal conversation.  Much of academic literary criticism today denies that it is.  This book will challenge that notion.  The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 4:  “Text and Conversation.”

Heart-Prints and Texts

More than any other kinds of texts, ancient letters like 1Thessalonians are written by real authors to real people, and they are trying to re-present the heart of the author. In this sense, authors are alive in these kinds of texts—texts that are technically separate from them in a physically separate space, but nevertheless encoded with their own particular DNA. This is actually more than can be explained by a sign or a gap in a text or by any formula. It is not only the manner in which such basic things are strung together, it is also about tone of voice and tone of thought, where what academics call the “syntagmatic relations” of the elements are of such a manner, in connection with other things, that they form a fingerprint—or more rather a heart-print—of the author.

This is a crucial concept for decoding any type of personal message or conversation.

So for example, several hours ago, my wife called our home phone and left a voice message for me, which she spoke into a phone. The voice message was immediately transcribed into a written text and emailed to me. Here is the written message I received:

Hi Gary it is nine o’clock. I just left Walmart and I am on my way to Kroger’s to put some fuel in the car. Once I’m done doing that. I am headed home and I will need you to unload the car for me. So I love you and I just wanted to let you know where I’m at and what I’m doing. I love you sweetheart. Looking forward to seeing you. Bye.

A lengthy commentary on this personal note is quite possible, but the point here is about what happens in such a text as this.

Because readers have the freedom to do whatever they like, they could see the note through the eyes of oppression, as another woman who is required by her ogre husband to “report in” her every move. Or through oppressiveness, she could be seen as a bossy or manipulative person (“need you to unload the car—oh, and by the way, I love you!”). It could be read with an angry tone or a detached tone or through the eyes of suspicion over any particular thing. In any of these ways of reading, her expressions of love would be washed out, seen as either obligatory, or self-serving, or perhaps merely habitual (i.e., it is common to say such things, and so it doesn’t really carry any emotional force.)

Or here is another possibility. This is a note of pure love that contains numerous codes which reveal that the real issue on her mind is that she is intentionally trying to say “I love you, and I am safe, and I will be home soon to see you.”

It is just possible that this is not an isolated note, but actually is “nested” within a much larger continuing conversation. As such, this text uses the codes of the larger conversation as a way of encoding this particular text.

So then, the comment about “need you to unload the car” arises from a desire (on my part, actually) that I always unload the car for her (not that she can’t or that I must, but that we help each other). The comment about “knowing where I’m at” has to do with safety and nothing more, and actually grows out of the result of past accidents and current unsafe snow-laden driving conditions. And as to whether her expressions of love are “common” or not, there is nothing common about these words which come from her. Actually, to read them apart from emotional fervor is to misread them. I know this by experience, and because I am a participant of the larger conversation. This note is a snapshot in time of that conversation, and there are numerous encoded items that point in that direction. I could go on with this for nearly every phrase in the text.

heartprints2Here is something else I know. The intention of my wife in sending this note is far more important and far more powerful than the bald signs in the note. In fact, no code or sign of any kind can fully capture this—the note a pale sign of the real heart that is the essence of the real message. So the intentions of my wife’s heart encode the note (and are encoded in the note). These become the urgent necessity in reading it. Not vice versa. This is the spirit or soul of a person; it cannot be fully captured or measured or encoded, only pointed to, hinted at, or reflected. Numerous codes in the text point to that soul, to what she was trying to communicate. My job in reading the note is to decode those intentions, not just the signs. In that sense, she—the real author—is alive in this text.

In these types of writings, instead of killing off the author, or separating her from the text, the real job of the reader is exactly the opposite: to (as much as possible) get out of the way and to allow the author to speak with her intentions intact.

Now the fact that she is empirically living and breathing means that I could confirm with her that she was indeed intentionally trying to put those feelings in her text—i.e., to have me feel those emotions from her. But there is no need for me to “confirm” that, it is so abundantly clear throughout the larger conversation, and even in this one note. Besides, in a very real sense, to seek confirmation might actually subvert the conversation, sending a possible message that her intentions are questioned or doubted. The fact is, while it is always possible to question someone’s motives or intentions, the very act of doing so can break or derail the conversation.

So whether this text is read today or a thousand years from now, this text will still have encoded within it all kinds of things about her and her intentions. The signs are snapshots of her ideas and wishes. The fact that it can be misread in all kinds of ways does not imply that her intentions are not encoded into the text, or that they do not matter, or even that they are unreachable. It is the pursuit of this intention that is all important: to hear what she was trying to say.

Here is a second example. When I read personal letters from my mother, who is no longer alive, but still in my memory, I can hear her voice. Unquestionably, this is greatly due to my reading the letter through my knowledge of her (my encyclopedia of information that I use when I read). But this is actually triggered by the way in which she has encoded the text: her manner of expressions, the selection of vocabulary, the way she approaches topics, the way in which she quotes, alludes to, or otherwise taps into things we have experienced together, and how she refers to any number of things. They might even include things that only she and I experienced together. These are all unique to her, a part of her that survives in her texts. These unique encodings allow me to decode the message properly—not just the message, but the author who actually wrote the message. And that is part of the intent that gets put into this kind of text—that I will be able to experience her heart.

When writing these kinds of texts, authors encode them with signs where the syntagmatic relations of those signs are representations of the ones doing the encoding. They are the fingerprints or heart-prints of intent, whether consciously or not. Whether these end up getting called a “model author or implied author” or something different altogether is frankly immaterial and immediately moves the attention away from where it belongs—it is still an encoding from a real author who has desire, will, ego, intentionality, and motive. And that is what gets burnt into the text.

Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

The CWP Inner Circle is a very exciting group of Bible students from around the US and Canada, as well as the rest of the world, that loves serious Bible study. It is an “open” group, meaning that it is possible in this group to have open conversation about a broad range of ideas without fear of getting ostracized for floating the idea.  However, rather than being an “anything goes” group, it is given to the up-close evaluation of ideas against the context of a serious study of the scriptures.

I taught biblical languages and literature in University and Seminary settings for years (from Fuller Seminary in California, to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and to Martin University in Indianapolis), and to be quite honest, this online group (The Inner Circle) of housewives, factory workers, professionals, retired people, lawyers, doctors, and preachers is as capable and engaging as any seminary class I’ve ever had, and at least as energetic, if not more.  It is a marvelous experience, surpassing any Bible class experience I’ve ever found in any church, since most people in a church don’t care about the Bible much anyway. 

For the past several months we have been looking at 1Thessalonians in detail:  English text and Greek text (for those who want that).  And during the last couple of weeks we have been talking about the different ways that many people understand the topics of the Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

Now, if you’ve been around any time at all, you know that Christians are all over the map on these topics.  Not only do they vary widely, they come across as hating each other over these topics.  It is shameful, really how much bickering and controversy exists over such things.  Our group–made up of people from a variety of backgrounds and “persuasions” have taken a very different tack.  We decided to see if we could actually be Christians in the process of the pursuit of such ideas.

The diversity of thought of this group has been superseded only by the the charity of mind. And what I share now in the rest of this article is not only my opinion, it is my evangelistic urging on this topic. 

A Blur of “Right Ways”

There are some things we learn from our ancient and precious scriptures (which have been handed down to us) that are fairly straightforward.  E.g., God is love.  We exist in, with, and by love.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, to treat others as we want to be treated.  And more.

There are other things not quite so straightforward.  Historically, many Christians of many backgrounds want to find all the right answers.  Once found, since they are “right”, we then want to insist on them for all. 

On the study of “The Apocalypse of John” (the book of Revelation), 2000 years of Christian history has given us 4 or 5 major competing ways of approaching the book which end in vastly different results.  Such as . . .

  1. Literal
  2. Spiritual
  3. Past
  4. Futuristic
  5. Bla bla bla

And each of these has been split into multiple and competing groups (and they all argue with each other interminably).

Christians then see this and feel like they need to figure out “which one is right?”  As you know, I’m all for deep and detailed study.  The reason is, you get blessed along the way with many things you did not otherwise expect.  Growth is a marvelous thing!  I urge detailed study!

But on this topic, you don’t have to study this for years to figure out that just maybe there is no “one right” solution to “what exactly did/does/will Revelation mean.”   Once you see that all of these very bright people who love the Lord cannot even agree whether the stuff has already happened or not, or when, or how  . . . I just start laughing about it.  I think we’ve had enough history, now, to show us that we are not going to figure all of this out.  What makes us think that we are going to come up with the “one right answer” when nobody has been able to do that for thousands of years (or, more accurately, when so many competing and contradictory groups already have the one right answer, and they all so markedly disagree with each other)?

A Sharper Focus

I think all of the debate is useful and interesting and worth our time.   I also think that, kept in perspective, it can be useful to us.  But in the end, on the topic of the coming of Jesus, the Day of the Lord, the “end of time”, the real meaning of Revelation, and other such things, we should be asking an additional question that we sometimes just entirely overlook. 

  1. We are trained to ask:  “What is the correct answer here?  What did it really mean? Am I believing correctly?”  That can be Ok.  Absolutely, let’s ask these questions.
  2. But maybe we should ask these more often:  “How did this teaching function in the life of early Christians and churches?  Why was it taught, and what outcome was wanted?” 

I think this is especially helpful on the topic we are talking about for this reason:  Consider any approach to Revelation (etc) above—–Past, Present, Future:  all of them!—–and here is the end result: 

We win! So, live up to it!    

In every case in our ancient scriptures, when these things are discussed, they are always discussed as related to the context needed—to help people live and grow.  They are never discussed as individual pieces of a big puzzle, nor are they intended to be “partial revelations” of a larger whole.  They are discussions of the topic within contexts to encourage people to live lives for God.  And when you strip away the context and cram the various naked things into a single puzzle, they don’t exactly fit and they look a lot different.  Why can’t we be satisfied with leaving them where we found them:  in context!  Why do we need a so-called “big picture”? 

A Christmas tree might look beautiful in my home, but it looks a whole lot different (and much more inviting) on the mountainside next to the blue lake from which I cut it down.

I urge all to adopt an attitude of openness and diligence to the ideas of others–especially on this extremely broad-ranged topic.  But we do not need to get tripped up into thinking that these ideas, in the end, are the point of the texts we have.  Let me state it this way:  if you have believed all your life that the “end of time” means the stars literally must fall from the sky, and you die before that happens, what difference will it make?  And if you believe that the Parousia already happened in 70 AD, and he ends up coming tomorrow—are you going to argue about it?  The main question for every position that anyone is taking should be “what difference is this making for how I live now?” 

These are exciting topics—(I sincerely mean that).  I have my opinions about how to best approach all of the texts on this topic.  But the really exciting part is that we win.  And question I have to answer next is:  Since that is true, how do I live now?

Gary D. Collier
Coffee with Paul Classroom
http://www.coffeewithpaul.com