Friday, January 11, 2013


Impressionist interpretation of a stained glass window.
School started this week.  Once again, I am teaching Christian Spirituality, a first year university course.  The first day is always a bit nerve-wracking because I never know how many students will show up, what their level of interest will be, or how they will respond to my style of teaching and the course material I have selected.  The first week has gone really well, I think.  The students are keen and clever and for the most part, eager to engage with the material and learn.  They are even polite, asking for permission to use their laptops in class and talking to me afterwards to make sure they didn't come off as argumentative.  It really is a joy and a privilege to be able to teach theology in a university setting where we can have straightforward and informed dialogue about God.

One of the textbooks I use for the course is Philip  Sheldrake's A Brief History of Spirituality. He is very good at easing a person into the topic by explaining what spirituality is, setting it in its historical context, and drawing attention to the methodological nuances necessary to the understanding of the subject.  One of the topics he addresses early on is interpretation.  Any historian, scholar, or theologian knows that texts and events are always interpreted by the one recording them, relating them, translating them, or explaining them.  As human beings acquire knowledge and integrate it with their own context, the information is subject to interpretation and various applications.  This is not a bad thing.

Sheldrake uses the example of performing a Beethoven symphony to illustrate these two intertwined elements of interpretation.  1) One must be faithful to the original while 2) bringing one's own creative wisdom and experience and passion to the mix.  When it comes to performing Beethoven, being technically flawless does not make a good performance, nor can one simply play whatever notes or rhythms one feels like playing.  Detailed attention must be given to the score and the composer's intent must be honoured.  However, one's own contribution cannot be ignored.  The player's passion and wise, creative interpretation are what make the piece come alive for those who are listening.  The performer's interpretation is what lifts the music off the page and makes it accessible and comprehensible to others.

Interpretation is the job of us all, but especially of teachers, scholars, and students.  We study to understand the writer/author's context.  We pay careful attention to words and sentence structure.  We look at overall themes and subtle fluctuations.  We must be attentive not to mangle or twist meanings to suit our own biases.  We must not inject decisive conclusions where none can be found.  We must embrace a certain amount of mystery and ambiguity for many texts were written in another time and the authors are no longer with us.

The comforting thing about interpretation is that a great composition shines through no matter what the skill level of the performer.  A beginner may play a Mozart concerto with timidity and halting pauses, but the melodic genius still shines through.  Similarly, a brilliant text still shines through despite clumsy handling by an interpreter.  The best interpreters are those who have spent a lot of time with the composer/author and his/her works; so much time that they can not only render an authentic performance/reading but they can also improvise in the style of the composer/author.  The best interpreters also know immediately if something does not ring true in a representation of their beloved composer because it is out of sync with the whole work, with the heart behind the works.  The best interpreters are those who have become friends of the author, who live with the composer, who walk and talk and commune with them everyday, in person and through their works.

Let me be an interpreter like this:  a generous, caring, and faithful friend who not only listens and studies the works of another, but brings them to life.

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