For a while I’ve suspected that many Christians, who have solid views on the sufficiency and right exegesis of God’s Word, tend to dismiss their own rules for understanding the Book when it comes to other people’s books.

But it wasn’t until re-reading The Christian Imagination — edited by theology and literature connoisseur Leland Ryken — that I heard this expressed directly and concisely.

This comes from an essay by Peter J. Leithart, called “Authors, Authority, and the Humble Reader.” Leithart begins with contrasting previous views of reading and applying books, views that respect the author as an authority and in response humbling ourselves to investigate his nonfiction ideas or fictitious story-world, to “postmodern” views.

With respect to literary theory postmodernism is just as essentially the triumph of the reader, which corresponds to the so-called “death of the author.” Though postmodern theory is wildly profuse, most species share certain basic commitments: creative reading has been elevated to the level of creative writing, criticism to the level of the original work, and the reader has begun to dominate the literary exchange. In the early part of the twentieth century, modernism shifted attention from the author and his biography to the text as a literary object, and postmodernism has finished the job by wrenching the text completely from its author’s grasp.

In other words: my opinion about what the author meant is just as valid as yours, or even the author’s own explanation. A writer does not ultimately decide what his words mean. I do.

But this reader-centric mode of reading doesn’t work with the Bible, any more than it works for the fictitious tales told by humans.

No matter what the distance between the real and the fictional worlds, reading intelligently requires a humble acceptance of the world of the novel. It is a poor reader, and a proud one, who throws aside A Tale of Two Cities with the sneering complaint that “It’s unrealistic. Sidney Carton never went to the guillotine.” A “suspension of disbelief” is elementary to reading fiction, but it is rarely recognized as an act of humility. […] To read well, we must become as little children.

Humility before the author is not only a matter of the minimal “let’s pretend” acceptance of his world. It also includes following the contours of plot, imagery, and character by which a work of fiction progresses. It means paying attention to what the author thinks is important, and noticing how he signals that it is important. It means paying attention to the metaphors, analogies, and symbols that the author is using to explain the significance of his story. […] We may not want the emphasis placed where the author has placed it, we may believe the characters unbelievable, we may think of better ways to construct or resolve the plot, we may think  his symbols are forced or intrusive. There will be time for such criticism, but unless we first receive what the author has given us, our criticisms will be confused at best.

[…] Readers may fail to listen carefully to catch the author’s tone of voice, rushing to judgment without asking whether the author means to be deathly serious, sentimental, satirical, or whatever.

A recent example is so absurd that it parodies itself. Near the beginning of the 2000 school year, black parents at a Catholic school in Louisiana complained about the “racist” language and stories of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor. It would be a mistake to charge these parents with a pathetic misreading of O’Connor. It would be a mistake because the parents had not read the stories at all. Their opposition was apparently based on a few titles and passages.

Too frequently, Christians are guilty of equal absurdities.

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has been quoted all over the Internet as saying that she is happy that her books have produced a surge in children’s involvement in Satanism. This quotation has been used as evidence that the Potter books are infernal propaganda. The original source of this quotation, however, was a story from a satirical electronic magazine. For anyone who took a moment to check the original source, and took another moment to ask about the tone of the article, it was clear that the author was mocking hysterical responses to Rowling’s books. It must be a delicious irony to the article’s author that the satire has become fuel for even more hysteria.

Though they may be harsh opponents of postmodernism, readers who took the Rowling quote at face value are as domineering and prideful in their reading practices as any deconstructionist. […] Quick and ignorant judgments such as these are not only an embarrassment that often makes Christians, quite rightly, the objects of ridicule. Far worse, these misreadings signal an appalling lack of Christian character. Patience before the text is not merely a readerly virtue. It is a fruit of the Spirit.

(Boldface emphases added, along with a few extra paragraph breaks for ease of onscreen reading.)

Final thought: if we read any fiction or nonfiction in a way that ignores or rejects its author’s intent, we accidentally give the same disrespect to man’s words as theological liberals, and we ourselves (apart from God’s grace!), do to God’s Word.