Interpretation & Meaning

Recently, I've been having conversations with my roommate about symbols. This is a broad discussion: symbols are anything that stands in for something else, something with a greater significance, is a symbol. The triangle, circle, and line of the Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter are a symbol for the desire to live forever. The cross is a symbol for the infinite compassion and forgiveness as well as the nonviolently revolutionary nature of Jesus. Money is a symbol for the value of the good you are purchasing or the service you're providing. The word "dog" is a symbol for a certain species of animal. When you think about it, words are only symbols. Humanity's ability to create such an intricate and accurate system of symbols that are more or less universally understood is a miracle, and it has performed so well that in fact, you can go much of your life without realizing the simple fact that words in themselves are not valuable; their only value is in what they stand for. They depict something while not being much but lines on a page or contortions of your mouth.

The problem comes when you, very intelligent reader, discover that words are only symbols.

Words only mean what we agree on them to mean.

People made them up, and they are not an essential part of nature that just is.

Which means...people can decide that words mean whatever they want.

As a person who spends much of his waking hours slaving over what words to use in order to communicate something I want to say, this realization felt like the rug being pulled out from under my feet. And for people who follow Jesus, read the Bible, and believe it to be inspired, what does it mean that these words in the Bible are symbols?

The church recently had grappled with the idea of postmodernism, which cropped up somewhere in the 20th century. Though it is diverse and complex, and postmodernism in art and philosophy are not always the same, it in essence points out that words are symbols, and further states authorial intent does not matter. Whatever you mean to say is irrelevant; it is only what the other person hears.

We know this, on one level, to be true. You're in an argument, and the other person mentions something about the way you wash the dishes. Whether this person meant to or not, you were hurt because you interpreted their symbols differently than they were intended. It does not matter that the words were not intended that way. They hit your heart, and the pain they caused was real.

But if it is entirely true that everything is one hundred percent up for interpretation, is there any purpose in trying to communicate whatsoever? What is the advantage of trying to say something when in the end, what you want to represent with the symbols you use doesn't matter, and all that matters is someone else's interpretation of what you said? Everything is truly meaningless, then, and there's no point to creating any art, because it's all a wash, because symbols only mean what we think they mean.

I would propose there's somewhere in the middle. The you mean to say, what your art means to say, what the Bible means to say is not irrelevant. If I say the word "dog," most people don't think of a monkey. They think of a certain species of animal. But deeper within the realm of dogs, you have breeds of dogs and beyond that to individual dogs, and on you could go forever. There's a whole lot of room for interpretation, even with that word.

We have agreed together that the word "dog" refers to that species, and even though that's the only reason it has meaning, it still has meaning; the fact that something is a human construction doesn't make it less real.

At the same time, words do not define hard, unwavering limits of art or faith. The word "God" will not unequivocally bring about a crystal-clear image of his true nature (being infinite and all, this is something of a joke). The word "art" is equally ambiguous. Those symbols do not provide some definitive, objectively unquestionable, immovable answer for God or art, with no room for interpretation. These words, and every other word, the Bible, your art, every human communication - these things guide your thoughts and direct your interpretations, rather than defining them. These words bring to mind far more than the sounds they make; within a symbol you can contain so much meaning, can communicate so much that is under the surface, while still being "imperfect": each person will see different facets to the beauty or truth or pain you are conveying.

So however your art is interpreted, it's worth making to guide the minds and hearts of others and yourself toward a deeper meaning, hopefully held with lots of open space for beauty you did not intend.

Where on the fuzzy grey spectrum of interpretation and objective meaning do you find yourself?

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