This semester I took a course in the language theory of Mikhail Bakhtin. It was a great class, and there were several points in the class when I thought the things I was reading would work beautifully with theology. Of course, Bakhtin was living in Soviet Russia, so he rarely references Christianity explicitly, except to talk about the authoritative voice or about “mythical Adam”. However, I find his theory of language really compelling, and useful for thinking about the ways we interact with the biblical text as an utterance or set of utterances.
I didn’t have time in the semester to reflect on this blog, but now that I have a little space, I want to start articulating and sharing some of those ideas. So this first post is about Bakhtin’s concept of the Word as a Living thing.
I find this concept especially easy to translate, since we are already accustomed to talking about the Bible as the Living Word of God. Reading the term in Bakhtin, though, forced me to think about what it gets us to think about a word as alive.
First, for Bakhtin, a living word has its own character and history. In his words, language cannot be understood as unitary unless it is isolated “from the uninterrupted process of historical becoming that is a characteristic of all living language” (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 288). This means not only that the meaning of language changes over time, but also that the history of a word matters for its meaning today – that the meanings it has had in the past colors its present meaning.
When this concept is applied to the words at work in the church, it seems especially relevant, as the biblical text is thousands of years old, and many liturgical elements have been used for hundreds of years or more. The historical and geographical reach of these texts means that there are a wide range of meanings that the stories and words have gathered over those various contexts. These words carry a weight of meanings that give them richness, but also threaten to hold us down.
Second, a living word is not just a conduit in communication, but an actor. Words impose their own meanings, histories and intents on a situation. Bakhtin writes “the strong point of any concrete listener becomes a self-sufficient focus of attention, and one that interferes with the word’s creative work on its referent” (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 282). In this passage not only does the word do work, but that work is interfered with on the part of a listener – the word is an interloper between speaker and listener, imposing it’s own will on meaning (or referent) that must be compensated for by a strong listener. This then requires extra vigilance on the part of a reader, both to read a text with good intentions, and to listen to others with a spirit of cooperation.
What does it mean if we take the idea of the biblical text as a Living Word seriously? If we assume that it has actions and intentions separate from and sometimes at odds with those of a writer or reader. Should we be concerned with the desires of the Word, or of its divine inspirer? What would it mean to see our reading of the bible as the Word’s creative work? How is our understanding constrained and enhanced by the history of the words in our translations?