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How Do You Read a Love Letter?

By Jess Hall Jr.

religion, articles, christianity

There are those who tell us that God's Word is not a blueprint, a constitution, a book of law, or a pattern. It is, they say, a "love letter." From this they conclude that they are entitled to read God's Word "differently" from other writings, although they have difficulty in telling us just what that means. These assertions prompt me to ask, "How do you read a love letter?"

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.

So wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her words are among the most famous love songs in literature. But what do they mean? Is there a code that only the initiated can unravel? Are there mysteries beyond the ken of those of us whose pens are dry and whose lips stammer in the romantic moments of life? Is there some special secret to reading a love letter that is forever hidden from the eyes of all but the lovers? Is there meaning that speaks only to the heart of the reader? Is there meaning that is different for every reader? Let's think about it.

Did Elizabeth Barrett Browning know what she intended to write? Surely she did. Was she intending to convey her thoughts and feelings? Surely she was. If so, then, decipherable or not, her words have a meaning - her meaning. The object of her affection may or may not understand them, but that does not change the meaning one iota. She said what she said and she meant what she said, and no amount of twisting, turning, or translation by the reader can change her meaning.

But is it not possible for two readers to recite her words and understand them differently? Obviously. But what does that prove? Does it change her meaning? Can the reading change the intent of the writing? But it is asked, "How can a reader understand her 'old griefs' and her 'childhood's faith'? Can not a reader, especially a reader today, understand only when he reads in light of his own experience which he substitutes for that of the writer and by which he gives meaning to her words?"

First, assuming for the moment that is true, how does the reader know what to substitute? Shall he substitute laughter and doubt if that is more consistent with his experience? If substituting laughter and doubt is not permitted because the author spoke of "grief " and "faith." then it is admitted that words have meaning that set limitations on interpretations? If that is true of griefs and faith, is it not also true of their modifier, my? The meaning is limited by the language.

There is no more license with language when reading a love letter than in reading a business letter. True, each is a different style of writing. But is each not intended to convey information from one who knows to one who doesn't know? Can any information be conveyed if words have no meaning, or if words mean anything that the reader's experience makes them mean? Clearly, the answer is no. How can any information be conveyed from the writer when meaning is determined by the reader? The only "new information" generated is the reader's experiential (existential) interaction with the language.

If the writer's words have no meaning until they are "received" and "perceived" by the reader, does it not follow that the writer provides nothing but the occasion or the vehicle for the reader's experience? Is it not clear that, if the meaning (information) is or may be different for each reader, no meaning (information) is derived from the writer? In fact, does it not follow that there is really no such thing as a love letter? Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work may be a better vehicle than profanities on a restroom wall, but each is a vehicle that derives meaning only from the writer.

Thus, to say that God's Word is a love letter does not permit us to substitute our language for his language and our meaning for his meaning. Not even love letters can be read in such a manner. If the meaning of a love letter is derived from the experience of the reader rather than from the language of the writer, the reader can never know that he is loved; he can only know that he feels loved. Many a disappointed suitor will testify that only feeling loved is not fully satisfying. Partial satisfaction may be better than no satisfaction in affairs of the heart, but risking disappointment with God has far more fatal consequences. God's Word does not need expanding from our experience. While the heart must be involved, it is to be the source of obedience, not the measure of truth.

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Published September 1993