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The death of the author — and the preacher.
Insights on preaching from a French literary critic.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
There is a phenomenon in literature known as “the death of the author” that, I think, has considerable implications for happens in preaching: whether you’re the one speaking or listening. “The Death of the Author” is a hypothesis first put forward by French literary critic Roland Barthes in a 1967 essay of the same name, which was published in a 1977 collection of Barthes’s essays, entitled, Image-Music-Text. It was Barthes’s assertion that the author of a given work retains zero authority over the reader in the matter of that work’s interpretation. According to the theory, the reader is born only when one has successfully “buried the Author” (146). “The text,” he goes on to say, “is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (146). The assemblage of these diverse quotations is what constitutes true writing, where he decidedly concludes:
Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author. (148)
Barthes’s essential argument is for the autonomy of the reader, and, more specifically (for Barthes’s purposes), the critic. If the author has been buried, metaphorically speaking, then the meaning that is assigned to her work is no longer governed by authorial sovereignty. In this sense, interpretive significance isn’t so much retrieved by way of what was imagined by the author as it is brought about by spontaneous occasion. It’s discovered through the combustible, albeit unconscious, process of re-writing as one interprets. The meaning assigned to a given piece of art overtakes — puts to death — whatever the author originally intended behind her artistic endeavor. There’s a sense in which the author risks putting to death her art if she attempts to reassert dominance over the reader’s interpretation by approbating any additional interpretive framework by which to understand their work (see J. K. Rowling). Indeed, the lifeblood of an author’s work flows as the author dies.
One of the best examples of this is Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological-horror film, The Shining. The movie itself is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel of the same name — which, ironically enough, King loathed. The liberties which Kubrick took with King’s text is a visual parable which confirms Barthes’s theory that artistic meaning doesn’t reside in the author’s intentions. Rather, it is created by the reader. Kubrick’s reading of the source material gave birth to a meticulously crafted slow-burn horror masterpiece that’s brimming with double-meaning and hidden messages. It’s almost laughable how much this film has been analyzed and over-analyzed by critics and junkies alike. For decades it has been mined of meaning out of every celluloid nook and cranny. Some have famously posited The Shining was Kubrick’s labyrinthine confession for faking the Apollo 11 moon landing. Others have said it’s about Native American genocide, or the holocaust, or the CIA’s experimental mind-control program MKUltra, and on and on it goes.
I’ve always wondered, though, if Kubrick ever intended for such painstaking meaning to be assigned to his film. Is all that Native American iconography really intricately staged to opine the travesties inflicted on the indigenous peoples of North America, or are they just tapestries filling a rural mountain-top hotel? You can be the judge of that, I suppose. (I guess that’s sort of the point.)
(Another example of this, one I actually like, concerns Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece Inception. This suave-dreamscape-heist-thriller has similarly been put under the movie-critic-microscope, serving as ample fodder for video-essayists and film-students alike. One prevailing theory is that the movie is itself an “inception” of the movie-going audience, with the characters that make up the film acting as stand-ins for those who make movies possible, i.e., the directors, screenwriters, producers, actors, etc. Maybe. Or maybe Nolan just made a movie about corporate espionage that happens to take place in the world of dreams.)
But what does all this have to do with going to church on Sundays? Well, a similar phenomenon occurs whenever your preacher stands to deliver the sermon. You might call this the “death of the preacher,” in which his primary function isn’t to be seen or noticed or even remembered. The preacher’s entire occupation is there to shine a beaming spotlight on Someone Else. He is called to “enter into his own death” by the One who called him to preach. The 19th century Scottish minister Alexander Maclaren attests to this when he writes:
Christian ministers . . . are nothing but heralds, their personality disappears, they are merely a voice. All that they have to do is to bring men into contact with God’s own word of command and promise, and then to vanish . . . We are heralds, and nothing more. Our business is to preach, not to do rites, or minister sacraments. Our business is to preach, not to argue. We are neither priests nor professors, but preachers. We have to deliver the message given to us faithfully. We have to ring out the proclamation loudly . . . We are heralds and nothing more, and the more we keep in the background and the less our hearers depend on us, the better. (2:2.365–66)
This isn’t to say that the preacher’s personality is inconsequential. Rather, it’s to say that their personality isn’t the point. So long as a particular preacher’s scriptural verve out-volumes Scripture itself, the crux of Scripture has been lost. As the beloved Robert Capon says in his book The Foolishness of Preaching, “If you’re trying to avoid death, you’ve lost the game already” (99). Such is what the parishioners are in need of most: death. And not just mine but, preeminently, the death of the One who draws all people to himself (John 12:32).
As Barthes intimates, meaning doesn’t reside in the intentions of the author but is mysteriously created by the reader. Likewise, in the church context, the preacher is often powerless to control the meaning that’s derived from their sermon. In the auspices of Scripture, you and I are not the arbiters of meaning but the recipients of it, receiving by grace through faith the meaning given to us by the crucified Christ (Gal. 2:20). He alone is the both “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). That these two-millenia-old sacred texts still speak with relevance and resonance is entirely a testament to the “living and active” Spirit of God, who occupies the gap between what is said and what is heard (Heb. 4:12). Preachers are often given to devoting themselves to what they say, but its effect of their words that matters far more — which just so happens to be the precise ministry of the Spirit.
There have been none too few occasions in my years of delivering sermons in which I’ve found myself sheepishly smiling as some congregant elatedly shares their profound new insight, which wasn’t at all part of my sermon’s objective. But that’s sort of how preaching works. Delivering a sermon, then, necessitates just as much faith as does receiving and listening to a sermon. It involves the faith to believe that, upon the preacher’s proverbial death in the pulpit, the aisle is cleared for the veritable moving of Christ’s Spirit.
The job of the preacher, as I’ve come to experience it, is to bring the congregation to the feet of Jesus, and then get out of the way, to “keep in the background.” This, to be sure, isn’t a carefree task, neither is it natural. There’s a voice in my head that entices me bank on my phonetic aptitude. However meticulously studied and scrutinized a sermon might be, its efficacy isn’t a result of my cunningly chosen words (1 Cor. 2:13–14). My expertise is nothing compared to the Spirit’s power, who safeguards his Word from all my presumptions and pretensions and limitations in order that it never “returns void” (Isa. 55:11). Even if that “return” isn’t what I had in mind.
The gospel’s dynamism emanates from its apocalyptic good news, which reveals “the righteousness of God” in the enfleshed Word himself (Rom. 1:16–17; John 1:14). The words of a dead preacher come alive through the divine superintendence of Christ’s dynamic Spirit. There are good preachers, bad preachers, and everything in between. But thankfully, there is one Spirit who takes the dead words of the preacher and makes them alive.
Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977).
Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).