He said that ... really?

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For February 27 weekender, 2016

Here’s What He Said

David W. Hegg

As a pastor, preacher, and college instructor, I spend most of my time interpreting biblical material. That is, I attempt to bring meaning from some ancient literature, across a time divide of thousands of years, to impact the minds and lives of present-day people. In so doing, I stand as an interpreter of someone else’s thoughts as communicated through their words.

Along the way I have learned some essential principles of interpretation which, if denied or broken, create a situation where the interpreter of today ends up grossly misrepresenting the author of yesterday.

But my point here isn’t about the way modern society misuses ancient wisdom, although that would be fun. My point is the disingenuous way too many media outlets, and Facebook users carelessly cast uncontextualized statements around without regard to the original author’s intent.

The first and most important principle of interpretation when dealing with any literature or speech is this: what did the original author intend the original audience to understand from the words he or she used? All meaning begins with this question, and the beginning place of honest representation and interpretation is to answer that question honestly and in accordance with the facts.

Frankly, to do so is hard work. It takes a courageous commitment to set each quote, each sound bite, each written statement or treatise into is own historical situation. It means understanding the words themselves, the context into which they were set, the audience involved, the situation in which the words were written or spoken, and the intention behind the author’s declaration.

We see very little of this today. Churches are filled with preachers who cherry-pick verses from the Bible and then use them to teach their own opinions. Candidates pick and choose lines from their opponents and use them to discredit their views. News outlets jump on anything that could be viewed as salacious and use it to hook viewers, while Facebook junkies post sensational assertions and pass along gossip dressed up as news devoid of any honest contextualizations or validation.

A smart man once told me the three most important things in buying real estate were location, location, location. The same is true in interpreting written or verbal communication. We must consider context, context, context. We simply must stop accepting the sordid and often cruel interpretations passed along by others if the context is not given, and if we can’t be sure it represents the actual meaning intended by the author.

No one wants to be misrepresented. You don’t, and neither do I. So let’s not reinforce the tidal wave of unsubstantiated innuendo currently sweeping our nation. Let’s not settle for statements taken out of context and used to belittle someone, even if that someone is from the other tribe. Let’s not pass along damaging information we hope is true if we have no way of substantiating its validity.

As someone whose job entails lots of public communication I have been misunderstood and misquoted many times. Chances are you’ve experienced this as well. It’s no fun. Yet, as a nation we have become accustomed to quickly believe statements and quotes taken out of context and used to undermine another person. We simply must demand better, from those informing us, and from ourselves. If it seems outrageous, it probably has been exaggerated. If it seems preposterous, it probably has been inflated. And if it seems ridiculous, at least part of it is probably fabricated.

Perhaps a revision of the Golden Rule is appropriate here. Do with the statements of others as you would want them to do with yours, knowing how hurtful it can be when misunderstandings are intentionally used in character assassination. Remember, the beginning place of meaning is not what the interpreter wants to say, but what the original author intended the original audience to understand from what he or she really said. If we keep that in mind maybe we still have a chance to find the truth we deserve, and do right by the decisions we must make.