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Filtering by Tag: context

What Communicates

Brad Fruhauff


When my two-year-old wants a drink he says, “Up. Up.” When he needs my help with something, he also says, “Up. Up.” “Gra-gra” can mean motorcycle, cracker, airplane, or Grandma. When he says “Oosh” he may mean he wants juice or that he wants to put on his shoes to go outside. If he goes, “Zha-zha,” he may be talking about his sitter, Andrew, his favorite person, Suzie, or the Frozen soundtrack. He refers to himself as “Unh-unh,” but he may do so to indicate that he wants the same treat his brother just received or that he wants to walk in front of the stroller. About the only things he says that don’t have multiple possible meanings are “Mama,” “Dada,” and the sign for hungry.

The wonder of raising a child is that all these things actually communicate. They don’t always work smoothly or without confusion and false starts, but they usually, ultimately, work—I eventually figure out the proper interpretation of his sounds and my son gets his needs met.

Working at a Christian college, I think a lot about interpretation. Protestant thinkers, in particular, are very concerned with interpretation because it seems to represent a problem of getting at the truth. James Smith, in The Fall of Interpretation, engages some major figures for whom interpretation was not part of the original creation and will not be a part of the restored creation. For these thinkers, we don’t want to interpret; we want to just know. Interpretation doesn’t produce the certainty that we want to base our lives upon.

But Smith argues that interpretation would seem to be part of being a finite creature, and though Heaven may entail the conferral of eternal life, it doesn’t obviously entail the conferral of infinitude. To become infinite would be to become equal, intellectually, to God. It doesn’t sound right when put that way, does it?

Part of the trouble is training our minds to get away from a propositional truth and into something different that still preserves the authority of truth. The medievals thought our propositions about God were at best analogically true, that is, were true enough but unable to express the whole truth, but since the scientific revolution, we have wanted to have a propositional truth that was adequate and complete.

Actual language use teaches us otherwise. In the relatively trivial truth that my son wants popcorn or to ride the swings, what communicates does so not because we have found a precise and complete language but because we have worked out a language game within the context of our relationship. The truth of his needs extends well beyond his ability to express it, but we make up for that through knowing one another.

That word "context" was a big problem in the late-70s/early-80s when Jacques Derrida appeared to suggest that, because context can never be finally pinned down, meaning itself is impossible. Smith patiently explains that Derrida never actually made any such self-contradictory claim, but that he in fact was emphasizing the risk of communication, namely, that it won't communicate. Consider how many of our jokes are about failed communication or miscommunication. Every attempt to speak to another exposes our speech to interpretation, but amazingly it works more often than not.

Comedians make us laugh at miscommunication because it is, at times, a source of anxiety and insecurity. But I'm not sure it has to be a scary idea for Christians, however. Extended to the Bible, it suggests interpretation depends on our relationship with God and with the Christian community rather than the direct communication of the translated words. Don't we already believe that? Maybe the problem is that we feel like God is the two-year old saying, "Oosh," and we're stuck trying to figure Him out. Maybe we should assume we are the ones going, "Gra-gra," and have faith that God is able to interpret our ill-expressed needs.

Horror and Resurrection

J Mark Bertrand


Johann August Nahl, The Tomb of Madame Langhans

First impressions are too revealing, especially mistaken ones. When I first laid eyes on this porcelain copy of Johann August Nahl’s The Tomb of Madame Langhans at the Getty, my eyes over-saturated with snapshot impressions, I registered the gowned Gothic lady breaking through the crust of her marble tomb, saw the swaddling infant at her breast, and thought: horror. She’s dressed like a Mary Shelley character, but it was Bram Stoker’s Lucy who sprung to mind, the nocturnal lady in white creeping from her crypt in search of children to devour. Puzzled, I stood by the plexiglass case to take in all the details. What was I looking at? Night of the Living Dead: Sturm und Drang Edition?

Reading art through the lens of genre is not so unusual. The established patterns and precedents give us a leg up in making sense of new experiences. When we get the genre cues wrong, though, the miscategorization can result in surreal unintelligibility, as in my case. I wasn’t misreading The Tomb of Madame Langhans. That’s not a strong enough term. It was as if I were reading an alternate, wholly different work––and even now, studying the photograph, it doesn’t line up with my memory at all. The Tomb in my head is more macabre, reimagined to better fit the assigned pigeonhole.

My mistake is too revealing because it shows that, in my mind, the best fit for a work like Nahl’s is in the horror genre. This is strange because I am a Christian, and The Tomb of Madame Langhans is in fact a depiction of the Christian hope of bodily resurrection.

Maria Magdelena Langhans, a pastor’s wife, died in childbirth on Easter Sunday. The death of mother and child on the day Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over death inspired the hopeful vision commemorated on the tomb. Together they are raised on the last day in triumph. The pathos of the scene struck a chord with eighteenth century audiences, too: porcelain copies like the one in the Getty circulated far and wide, exercising an influence on the budding Romantic Movement reminiscent of the craze inspired by Goethe’s Werther. The original audience, Enlightened though they were, did not see the tomb and think of Mary Shelley but rather St. Paul. They possessed a cultural category by which they could properly assess the cues, one that over time has come to be overshadowed even in the minds of those of us who still believe in the doctrine of resurrection.

Can the doctrine alone constitute a hope? Can I call it hope in the fullest sense if it is incapable of recognizing its own reflection in art? Perhaps more is required.

I take a perverse delight in introducing the topics of bodily resurrection and St. John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth by first assuring Christian audiences that “you will not spend eternity in heaven.” Their eyes flare in astonishment. Yet the disembodied future we’ve been taught to anticipate would have been thin gruel to early believers, who expected a future in the flesh. Am I much farther down the path of understanding, if my mistaken my first impression of Madame Langhans’ tomb is anything to go by? Perhaps not. I have eyes that see horror when they look on hope, when I’d be better served with eyes that can see hope when they look on horror.