“Plain Sense” and Allegory in the Days of the Sound Bite

The ways we read modern secular texts might benefit from a comparison with centuries-old scriptural interpretation practices.

“We treat our scriptures differently from our novels and textbooks,” I tell my students when I teach excerpts from the Bible. “Reading the Bible as literature is a completely different style of reading from what you’ve learned in church or synagogue.”

Having this discussion is vital for my students: it allows us to talk about genre, about expectations in reading, and about authorial intent. But, it always leaves me feeling uneasy about oversimplifying a division between “religious reading” and “secular reading.” The more I look at scriptural reading practices, the more similarities I see between the way we approach our sacred works and the way we approach all kinds of other texts. Balancing literal and symbolic meaning happens with artwork, political speeches, and cartoons, not just with biblical narratives.

Traditions with sacred texts have struggled with the relationship between a text’s literal and deeper meanings. In the third century, early Christian scholar and theologian Origen proposed a way of reading the Christian Bible that relied on three levels of meaning: body (literal), soul (symbolic), and spirit (mystic). To him, the idea that God literally walked in Eden (Genesis 3:8) was patently ridiculous; a good reader must, therefore, ignore the body interpretation so that he may find the soul and spirit of such passages.

The fifth-century Christian theologian Augustine, striving to understand and explain the same creation story, treated some phrases as allegorical or metaphorical (e.g., whether the “days” of creation were twenty-four-hour timespans) in his City of God (11:7). Augustine also allowed for a variety of interpretations in his Confessions (xxxi): a “diversity of truths” so long as they did not contain false doctrine.

Levels of interpretation that go beyond literal and symbolic meanings often involve looking beyond the immediate context to the text as a whole – to other moments throughout the Torah, to history itself, or to parallels between Old and New Testaments. The text needs its fullest possible context in order to be understood.

Trying to balance the “body” of scripture with its “soul” and “spirit” is a difficult tightrope walk. Focusing only on the deeper meaning can make a seemingly irrational verse more relatable to the philosophically-minded reader, but it can also ignore or erase the literal meaning. A problematic text like the Song of Songs, with its lush sexual imagery, can, thus, be “rehabilitated” into a sexless love story between Jesus and his Church or between God and Israel. The “plain sense” reading may disappear among the interpretations, for good or ill.

Conversely, focusing on the literal or bodily sense to the exclusion of deeper meaning can flatten the metaphorical and poetic richness of a sacred text into a set of contradictory caricatures. Regarding the phrase “the hand of God” as stating God has literal fingers seemed blasphemous to readers like the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who saw God as transcending the physical body. For passages like the parables of Jesus, reading them literally misses the entire point of their nature as parables. Emphasizing plain sense meaning also tends to assume that all readers will see the same meaning clearly and be unanimous about it.

If we listen to Origen and discard the obvious meaning of some plain sense passages, are we failing to actually read the word of God? If we rely on the literal meaning alone to guide us, what do we make of passages that contradict other passages or present impossible situations? As difficult as it can be to hold a “diversity of truths” about scripture, picking only one reading method may lead to misunderstandings or the failure to discern critical elements in a text.

Here is where I think we can connect scriptural reading practices to so many other reading situations. When we want to understand a text, we must have context – we must seek the deeper meaning of the sound bite, the Tweet, the celebrity pull-quote – but we are also confronted with their plain sense meanings. Quite often, reconciling the two is difficult.

Consider John Berger’s 1973 introduction to visual culture: Ways of Seeing. Berger’s first essay puts the elite, academic interpretations of Franz Hals’ portraits of the Regents and Regentesses (1664) of an almshouse against the “obvious” meaning of the paintings. The critics focus on the use of space and light, and explicitly dismiss any sense that Hals would have painted these in bitterness or resentment. Berger invites the reader to “study this evidence and judge for yourself.” The reader is invited to set the plain sense reading of the image against the critics’ dismissal of the same.

Or, consider the idea of political “dogwhistles,” messages that are designed to be understood by only some members of a politician’s audience while remaining acceptably bland to others. Ian Henry López cites the example of Ronald Reagan condemning “welfare queens,” thus condemning people of color while never overtly mentioning race. The plain sense and the deeper meaning are in conflict once again.

Finally, consider the range of written responses in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Some regarded the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo as patently, obviously, plain sense racism; others felt the same cartoons were not clearly racist. Some discussed the history of Charlie Hebdo as a satire magazine with multiple targets and a particular distaste for all forms of religion. Others suggested that understanding the big picture required knowing the broader contexts of Muslim representations of the Prophet, the oversimplified conflict between “Islam and the West,” or the history of French secular culture. Many struggled to hold more than one perspective. Multiple plain sense meanings struggled against contextual and symbolic meanings.

The contextual, deeper meaning of a quote (or law, or image, or verse) can give us rich insight into what creates a situation and invite a consideration of the deeper issues at play. Reaffirming its importance forces us to look beyond the moment and prevents flattened, knee-jerk reactions.

The plain sense meaning can push against the urge to explain away racist, sexist, or otherwise unwelcome content. Reaffirming the importance of plain sense meaning can, therefore, prevent us from dismissing real, difficult concerns.

We can also look at these texts not in terms of their literal or symbolic meanings, but as part of broad social patterns. We can read the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as contextless images, as part of a tradition of satire and mockery, and as one tiny fragment of larger patterns of European secular-religious conflict, visual representation and violent response, and changing demographics. If at any point we try to dismiss one level of these readings, I believe we fail to read at all.

Of course, this doesn’t get us any closer to a total, definitive answer or final method for reading a text. In fact, adding these multiple levels of interpretation invites friction between levels, increases the possibility of disagreement, and raises the question of who has authority to determine which level takes precedence – just like levels of interpretation and varying perspectives regarding biblical and other sacred textual traditions.

But, that ambivalence and friction far outweighs the cost of reducing our readings to flat literalism or untethered symbolism. Multiple levels of reading are necessary, but they don’t provide easy answers. Ultimately, that may be their best advantage.

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