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.

6 thoughts on “Heart Prints

  1. Thank you brother Gary for this insightful approach to Bible Study. It will certainly help me to look for and see the heart print, the encoded DNA, of those God chose to make known His mind – Biblical Revelation. What a treasure we have received by His grace. Moses, The Prophets, The Psalmist and the NT writers.

    I will study them with a more sensitive view because of you brother Gary. You are a gift from God too. Though the Scriptures are complete, we pick up the pen and write the continuing story of our relationship with Father God, Jesus Christ Savior Lord and the Holy Spirit within. Trying to live daily in their presence is an exciting adventure of faith, hope and love.

    Thank you Gary,


  2. Good afternoon Gary,
    A.C. and I are doing well. I started walking at a walking park not to far from our house. The Neurologist and the Therapist tell me that the only way to get these old neurons to start a conversation with new conversation buddies is “practice, practice, practice.” I am trying to be good; I have only smarted off one time—at my neurologist. Just kidding! I did ask her why it is taking so long to get my balance back to normal. She explained to me that, in the area of the brain that was damaged it is a slow process. Of course my age enters into the training process. OH WELL!
    I am interested in your major project. I know that you have been teaching us (CWP students) through the “probe method” to enter a conversation with the author of the text we were studying. I try very hard to study this way, but “lord-of-mercy I just can’t make the connection.
    It seems to me that after all of the oral letters were passed around, copied, then the copies were copied, etc. How can one see any DNA (as you described it) in the text that get down to us in the USA, July Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen, be anywhere near to the original?
    I am excited about you time in England.
    I am glad that Lanette is getting to go with you to England. When A.C. and I were dating and he was trying to convince me that I should marry him, he promised me a trip to England on out 50th wedding anniversary, we will have our 60th in January 1915. I haven’t seen England yet!
    Have a good trip, be safe, do well and let us hear all bout it when you get home.
    God Bless!
    Ruth O.

    • Ruth, thanks for this thoughtful reply. My question for you is, what evidence do you have that Paul’s letters were ever in oral form? Or that the copies made substantially changed the content of these letters. Despite popular depictions about how copies are so corrupt that the final product is unrecognizable by authors, that is fantasy on the part of skeptics. 1Thessalonians, which this article is about, is as solid a letter as you will find among any ancient documents. The oral nature of the Gospels is a different issue, however.
      Thanks again.

  3. My dear brother, Gary,
    I, too, am moved by this excerpt from your book. It so clearly helps me to link your example to the books written by various authors of the Bible and read scriptures from a totally new perspective. It is so refreshing to be able to look at texts that I’ve read many many times over, throughout the years, from a totally new perspective. This perspective is like an open door on a beautiful spring day–it adds life and engages the senses. It reinvigorate’s the text so that we are able to more precisely understand the author’s intent and message.

    Thank you for your heart and love of scriptures and truth. Bible study for me has never been more invigorating than since I’ve joined Coffee With Paul. Your heart-prints example helps me to truly consider what is going on in the authors mind and heart, and the message he is trying to portray. It is also clear to me now that not taking this approach is a disservice to Scripture, which can lead to manipulating the text to say what we want instead of what the author intended.

    Through Coffee With Paul, I have learned more about how to study the Bible than from any other source in my life. In fact, the Scriptures have come to life for me through Coffee With Paul.

    Thank you so much for your heart for truth and your love of the Scriptures. You have a gift from God Gary, and may He bless you and Coffee With Paul so that many more people can experience God’s truth from a whole new perspective.

    Portia R

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