Say you’ve begun a new religion. Congratulations! Now you need followers. You could stand on a street corner and shout at people. You could serve the poor and provide for those in need, attracting people with your kindness and generosity. If you’re powerful, you could compel them by law to convert. But those aren’t very effective ways of getting your religion to spread far and wide and really stick. I know what you need: a religious text! Yes, a holy book is exactly what you need to reach people out of shouting range and to make sure people don’t garble your message in our great divine game of telephone.
Most actual, real-world religions have some kind of holy text, but it’d be a mistake to think that they all treat their text the same way, or that members of the same faith treat their same book the same way. Scholars call the way people interpret a text a “hermeneutic” (her-man-OO-tic). If you’re going to understand a religion that has a text, you’ve got to understand the different kinds of hermeneutics you might run into. To do that, I’m going to show you how similar hermeneutics pop up in our geeky fiction.
Hermeneutics as a theory of knowledge got its start in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with people like Friedrich Schleiermacher attempting to study the way people interpret the Bible. The goal of a good hermeneutic is to get the best possible interpretation of the text, so that we can apply that interpretation to the way we live our lives. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on three of the major hermeneutics religious people use to read their holy texts: literal, moral, and anagogical. These three are easily found within Christianity, but also apply to other religions as well.
A literal hermeneutic takes the words of the book at face value, trying to find the “plain meaning” of the text. Does it mean what the author meant when they wrote it down? Does it mean what the words themselves say, and only that? Does it means the words of the text are the actual words of God, or of a person who had an encounter with God? Your answers to these questions are going to depend on how you interpret “literal” in your religious tradition.
When we get examples of literalism in our geeky fiction, it’s usually to show how backwards and ignorant believers can be. If the book says there is no land beyond the sea, there is no land beyond the sea. If your book says to stone the witch, you stone the witch. We see this in an episode of Firefly, where Simon and his unusually gifted sister River are stranded on a remote planet, populated by a people of a simple faith. Fearing that River’s telepathic abilities prove that she’s a witch, they attempt to burn her at the stake, while quoting from their scriptures. In Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor and Clara convince a little girl to not sacrifice herself to her people’s sun god by teaching her an alternative creation story. Their story is based on scientific facts and principles, while hers was from her people’s tradition and text. Science fiction has a nasty habit of pitting science against religion, and when they do they often make believers out to be silly literalists who can’t imagine a world that includes anything not found in their holy text.
While it’s true that some people are simple, country-bumpkin literalists, it’s much more common for them to be thoughtful people of dynamic faith. Sometimes literalism takes the form of the text itself being sacred. Islam teaches that the Arabic translation of the Qur’an is the perfect, actual word of God, preserved for posterity. The text itself is so sacred that anything with the words written on it must be disposed-of in a religiously-sanctioned way. Many Protestant Christians pursue literalism not by interpreting the Bible as the word of God like the Muslims, but by studying the historical and cultural contexts of the writings in the Bible. They learn the ancient, original languages and look for the earliest editions of the texts they can find. In some ways, their pursuit of literalism has actually advanced fields of anthropology and biblical scholarship.
Another popular interpretation style is the hermeneutic of morality. This takes the content of a holy book and asks, “How can I apply what this is saying to what I should do?” It’s probably the most familiar and common method of interpretation. Sacred texts are divinely inspired and have true messages, usually about love and peace and how to be a good person. In contrast with some literalist hermeneutics, morality hermeneutics are usually much more comfortable believing that their scripture contains divine messages interpreted through limited, sometimes flawed human perspectives. In our fiction, we often see this hermeneutic at work behind the scenes, through a character’s actions. Supernatural elements of a religion are mostly downplayed. Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck is a good traveling friar who serves the poor and fights injustice (sometimes with literal fighting). Adventure Time gives us the Enchiridion, a hero’s handbook on how to be a great hero. It’s not called “holy”, per se, but it’s certainly special. Your average modern-day Christian probably uses a hermeneutic of morality, especially if they tell you that being a Christian is about being a good person.
Anagogical hermeneutics are the most difficult to understand, but I think they’re by far the most interesting. These hermeneutics have a lot to do with mysticism, the future, and explicitly spiritual realities. The Zohar, a text from the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, is often interpreted in an anagogical light. In Catholicism, the anagogical sense of scripture takes what is said in the text and interprets it in light of eternity. While the moral hermeneutic may teach people what to do, the anagogical sense teaches people about their relationship with God. It’s hard to find examples of this hermeneutic in our fiction, but when we do it’s usually in the form of prophesy. In Dune, the Bene Gesserit religious order of women don’t really use an anagogical approach to their scriptures, because they’re working hard to produce the powerful Messiah themselves through arranged marriages and selective breeding. The Fremen of Arrakis, on the other hand, actually believe the Bene Gesserit’s sacred text, The Orange Catholic Bible. They believe it contains a prophesy about the coming of the Messiah.
We’re only scratching the surface when it comes to hermeneutics of sacred texts; there are many, many more. For example, more recently, Christians who apply feminist hermeneutics look at scriptures from a feminist perspective. They examine the history and cultural context surrounding the text itself. If a text is written by a person living in a patriarchal society with rigid gender roles, its divine messages are going to be interpreted through that lens. This means that it’s entirely possible (or even certain, according to many feminist theologians) that misogynistic and/or patriarchal themes are added to the divine message. It’s a hermeneutic that sometimes argues from what isn’t in the text as much as what is.
To see what we mean, we have to look no further than Harry Potter. If we pretend for a moment that the Harry Potter series is a sacred text, we see that there are lots of ways the fandom has interpreted it. One hermeneutic might be the films, which we might think of as the major school of thought and the most mainstream interpretation of the text. Two hermeneutics at war with each other were the Hermione/Ron shippers and the Hermione/Harry shippers, each pulling evidence from the text to support their position and refuting the other. A Potter hermeneutic that might be the closest cousin to feminist hermeneutics could be the fans who embrace racebending headcanons. Who’s to say that Harry wasn’t a person of color, or that Hermione wasn’t Black? It’s become more popular for fanartists to draw Harry as biracial or Indian, even though in the movies he’s played by (the very white) Daniel Radcliffe. There’s nothing in the books that say Harry is certainly white. Hermione’s race is never commented on, either. When we meet her she has “bushy” brown hair and buck teeth. After she travels abroad in France, Harry notes that she’s “very brown”. Fans can easily interpret these traits to mean that Hermione is a person of color, and adding a racial element to the “blood status” themes in the series enrichens the messages from the text. Part of the reason why these ideas are so important for fans is because it makes the series more inclusive, and fights the idea that white skin is the standard for humanity. Feminist hermeneutics encourage us to question our assumptions, and often sheds new light on a familiar sacred text.
Overall, geekdom does a fair-to-middling job of portraying some of the different ways people with religious conviction interpret their holy books. Unfortunately, scriptural interpretation itself is usually only shown when a weird code-breaker is trying to unlock the secrets of the apocalypse, or some other cryptographic scenario. There are many ways to interpret scripture, and each faith tradition has its own that they hold dear. Some hermeneutics view their scripture as a flawless work of God; others are comfortable interpreting their scripture as coming from very flawed, human perspectives. Doing a better job of including different hermeneutics would give our sci-fi and fantasy worlds and peoples more depth and makes them more dynamic.
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I hate to nit-pick here, but just a little note (and given the importance of “literal” vs. other hermeneutics you’re discussing here, this can be significant!): the “Arabic translation” of the Qur’an is not a “translation,” it’s the original version of the text. All other translations are translations, but that one isn’t a translation at all. The Arabic “transmission” might be another way to say it, but in any case, it’s an important distinction…and one that might land you in serious trouble if discussed with a person who is more literally-minded! 😉
Ah! You are so right! It’s a seriously important distinction, and poor word choice on my part. Thanks for the comment. 🙂