If you’ve ever gotten into a debate with someone and you quote a source to support your claim, you will often hear, “Well, that’s just your interpretation,” even though the point you’re making is there in black on white. It’s frustrating. I know, because I do it for a living.
It all comes down to hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is often defined as the science and art of interpreting what people write (mostly) and say. The late R. C. Sproul writes: “The purpose of hermeneutics is to establish guidelines and rules for interpretation. It is a well-developed science that can become technical and complex. Any written document is subject to misinterpretation and thus we have developed rules to safeguard us from such misunderstanding.”1
Hermeneutics covers everything from the Bible and Shakespeare to the Constitution and Pres. Trump’s tweets. It’s all about trying to interpret the meaning of what a person writes and says. There are basic hermeneutical principles that can be applied to every literary field.
Consider the song “Sweet Home Alabama.” You would have to ask some of the following questions: Who wrote it? When was it written? Why was it written? What is the song’s historical context? What message did the people who wrote the lyrics intend to communicate at the time the song was written? Are there any lyrical clues that tell the interpreter what it might be about (any mention of people, places, and events)?
“Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her”: What does “her” refer to? A woman? A place since we know that ships, cars, and cities are often described as “her.” We don’t know until we consider more of the lyrics to narrow the meaning. “Her” is a reference to the South or “Southland,” a figure of speech called personification, “where a thing, quality, or idea is represented as a person.”
Who is “Mr. Young”? We learn later in the same stanza that “Mr. Young” has a first name: “Neil.” Neil Young is a musician who played with some famous bands. It might be helpful to know that Mr. Young is Canadian, and his knowledge of the South might be second-hand and based on ancient historiography.2
Through some additional study, we learn that Neil Young had written two stereotypical songs about the South: “Southern Man” and “Alabama.”
Further collateral research based on first-hand testimony informs us that “Sweet Home Alabama” was a response to these two songs and their anti-Southern perspectives.
In addition, you will notice that “Sweet Home Alabama” includes some geography (Birmingham, Montgomery, and Muscle Shoals (cities in Alabama), politics (“Watergate”), and sarcasm (“In Birmingham they love the governor … boo, boo, boo”), and a reference to “the Swampers” who “have been known to pick a song or two.” Does “pick” mean “pick up” or “pick out”? Most likely it’s a reference to music, as in “pick the strings on a guitar,” which means play the guitar. This is another figure of speech that is easily understood by anyone familiar with music.
What does it mean to “feel blue”? How does one feel blue? Of course, “feel blue” is an idiom that has something to do with emotions. There is a music style called “the blues.”
Don McLean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” is filled with historical references that have a specific meaning to the author of the song. For example, the line “the day the music died” is said to refer to rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper who died in a plane crash in February of 1959. Knowing this helps with understanding the chronology of the other references. If we don’t understand this reference, then the entire song is an enigma.
Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” has an origin history. Knowing that history helps with understanding all the historical references in the song … and there are a lot of them! The song would make a great history course. Every song has a history.
Joel got the idea for the song when he had just turned 40. He was in a recording studio and met a friend of Sean Lennon who had just turned 21 who said, “It’s a terrible time to be 21!” Joel replied to him, “Yeah, I remember when I was 21 – I thought it was an awful time and we had Vietnam, and y’know, drug problems, and civil rights problems and everything seemed to be awful.” The friend replied, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it’s different for you. You were a kid in the fifties and everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties.” Joel retorted, “Wait a minute, didn’t you hear of the Korean War or the Suez Canal Crisis?” Joel later said those headlines formed the basic framework for the song.
Every song has a history:
Interpreting the Constitution follows along similar hermeneutical lines.
- The Historical Situation: “On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”3
- The Intent of the Authors: “The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.”4
- What Do the Words Mean?: “The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments [documents] is to construe them according to the sense of the terms and the intention of the parties.”5
- What does the Constitution say?: First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law,” not “There’s a separation between church and state.”
- Parallel Sources: Are there any parallel accounts that might help to shine a light on the meaning of the text of the Constitution? (Declaration of Independence referenced in the closing statement, The Federalist Papers, James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787).
- We must be careful not to impute modern-day concepts into the Constitution. For example, the Constitution uses the phrase “general welfare” in two places (Preamble and Art. 1, sec. 8:1a). Does this phrase comport with what is today described as the “welfare state”? We learn from James Madison, one of the architects of the Constitution, that “general welfare” is defined by the Constitution itself in that a semicolon follows the sentence in which the phrase appears. The list that follows defines “general welfare.”
Following these principles does not mean that every person you speak to on a topic will be convinced with your exegesis of a document or an article, but that’s not our problem. Our goal is to be as accurate as we can be with the sources at hand. There are many people who have an agenda, and damn the source and your interpretation of them. You know when you’ve won the argument when they call you a racist and a hater.
- R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 45. [↩]
- Young’s song “Southern Man” mentions “crosses … burning fast” and “bullwhips cracking.” Cross burnings have taken place in the North and South. [↩]
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Supreme Court Justice William Johnson (June 12, 1823). [↩]
- James Wilson (1742-1798). One of only six who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. One of the original justices to serve on the Supreme Court. [↩]
- Joseph Story (1779-1845). Considered to be the founder of Harvard Law School; was called the “foremost of American legal writers” who wrote Commentaries on the Constitution. Was nominated to the Supreme Court by President James Madison.