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Nothing Outside the Text? Taking Derrida to Church

By March 16, 2006 No Comments

Nothing Outside the Text? Taking Derrida to Church

by James K. A. Smith

Raising the Curtain: Memento

Lenny has a problem.1 Well, he has lots of problems–believe me!–but one stands out: he can’t remember what he did five minutes ago. Since a tragic incident involving the death of his wife, Lenny has not been able to make new memories. He can remember ever ything from before the accident and thus can remember where he’s from and how to navigate his way through day-to-day life: how to eat, how to drive, and very importantly, how to write. But while he’s driving, he can’t remember why he got in the car. Or when he enters a restaurant, he can’t remember why he came. When he goes to meet a recent acquaintance, he can’t remember what she looks like.

So how does someone without shortterm memory make his or her way in the world? Leonard in his resourcefulness comes up with a “system.” The system is simple: writing. Leonard’s navigation through existence is governed by writing, by a collection of texts and notes–coupled with Polaroid photographs–that substitute for memory. His pockets are filled with little texts, some written on napkins, others written on Polaroids, all providing the framework for him to understand his world.

This system of texts and writing, however, works on the basis of two principles or beliefs: first, only trust your own handwriting; be suspicious of any writing you can’t recognize.

Second, really important information shouldn’t be trusted to notes on napkins: vital information should be written on the body. Thus Leonard is himself a walking text, his body riddled with tattooed reminders of historical events (his wife’s murder), basic principles (“Consider the source”), and “facts” about the case he is investigating, the murder of his wife. Leonard’s entire relationship to the world is mediated by texts–some on his body, more scribbled on notes–all of which function as the framework through which he sees the world. Without texts, Leonard lacks a world. And without a pen, Leonard lacks a text.Living on texts in a world composed of notes entails both doubt and anxiety: how does Leonard know his texts really represent the world outside his mind? In fact, this is one of the nagging doubts that requires a constant faith and reassertion of belief on his part. One of Leonard’s fundamental beliefs–though he has to keep reminding himself–is that there is a world outside his mind. As he confesses at the end of the film (which is the beginning of the story): “I have to believe in a world Outside my own mind…I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe…?” Ultimately, the question he puts to himself is not whether the world exists outside his mind but whether he believes it.

Derrida’s Claim: There Is Nothing Outside the Text

According to many, Jacques Derrida is a kind of philosophical Leonard, or, conversely, Memento is a “deconstructive” film. “Deconstruction”–a term coined by Derrida in 1967–has entered even the most colloquial American vocabulary and is used to describe ever ything from architecture and music videos to key lime pie. Often it is used simply as a synonym for destruction or criticism; hence, to “deconstruct” something is to take it apart, to knock it down, to pull it apart piece by piece. But when Derrida introduced the term, he did not intend it as a primarily negative notion, even if he did intend it as a kind of criticism. For Derrida deconstruction is ultimately positive and constructive. What is the link between Leonard and Derrida, between Memento and deconstruction? It is the central role of texts or writing for mediating or putting together our experience of the world. For both Leonard and Derrida, language is the necessary filter through which the world comes to us. Just as Leonard depends on the writing of notes to give his world some coherence and order, so Derrida argues that all of us interpret our world on the basis of language (broadly understood). Memento ends with Leonard claiming that he’s really no different than anyone else. In a way, that is the heart of Derrida’s claim: like Lenny, we all need crib notes and cheat sheets to make our way in the world. In one of his first books, Of Grammatology published in 1967 (in French), Derrida famously puts it this way: ” There is nothing outside the text” [Il n’y a pas de hors-texte].2

It is important to resist the “bumper sticker” approach that many Christians have taken to this phrase, lifting it out of its context in order to make it sound like Derrida is making the ridiculous claim that there is nothing outside of books. BooksDerrida’s provocative claim that there is nothing outside the text arises in the context of a discussion about reading and interpretation. In Of Grammatology, Derrida is countering a view of language (seen in Rousseau) that tends to think that language is an obstacle to the world, that language gets in the way of just experiencing the world itself. Language is seen as a lens through which we see the world, albeit with some distortion, simply because this lens stands between us and the world. We can buff this lens for days or grind it as thin as possible, but this lens is mediation, and as soon as there is mediation, for Rousseau, there is distortion. Thus, Rousseau suggests that language is something that befalls us as a contingent evil, in a way corrupting what was a pure, unmediated experience of the world simply “as it is.” Like Leonard in Memento, we have a condition (a disease, an illness) that requires us to use language to make our way in the world.

But was there ever a time without interpretation? Will there ever be a time when we don’t interpret? Enter Derrida. A lthough Rousseau offered his theory in the sixteenth century–at the center of the birth of modernity–Derrida thinks that most of us twenty-first-century inhabitants are Rousseaueans at heart. This becomes most clear in our ideas of what it means to read.

Often when we read–and biblical commentaries tend to be a great case study for this–we imagine that the text or the language of the book is something we have to get through in order to recover the author’s original intention, like a hurdle that we have to jump over or a curtain we need to pass through in order to get to what is behind the text. Sometimes we concede that such a process requires that bothersome thing called interpretation–as when we’re reading a poem or C. S. Lewis’s more allegorical works. But most of the time, we don’t think we interpret; we simply read. We might need some background or context, but once those pieces are in place, we don’t need to interpret. Instead, the text takes on a kind of transparency so that we can simply see what it means. So unlike Leonard, who needs notes and texts to help explain his world, we can move around without such supplements. When I read the newspaper, I don’t need to “interpret”; I simply need to read. A nd most of us think that when we read the Bible, the same is true: yes, some passages are difficult, or the poetry of Song of Solomon might throw us for a loop, but if we’re reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, things are pretty clear. We simply need to provide a commentary that gives us the background and context. Such a commentary is like a cloth that cleans the text to grant it the transparency that makes interpretation unnecessary.

Derrida recognizes this kind of reading (he calls it “doubling commentary”) and even concedes that there is a time and place for this kind of project. However, he worries that it assumes a kind of Rousseauean naivet? precisely because it assumes there can be a reading (or even experience) that does not involve interpretation.

For Derrida, this is a naive assumption because it fails to recognize that we never really get “behind” or “past” texts; we never get beyond the realm of interpretation to some kind of kingdom of pure reading. We are never able to step out of our skins. Texts and language are not something that we get through to a world without language or a state of nature where interpretation is not necessary. Rather, interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world.

When Derrida says that we can’t get beyond or behind the text to a referent that is outside language, he means this in a radical way.

To claim that there is nothing outside the text is to say that ever ything is a text, which means not that ever ything is a book, or that we live within a giant, all-encompassing book, but rather that ever ything must be interpreted in order to be experienced. Thus he is what we might call–for lack of a better term–a comprehensive hermeneuticist who asserts the ubiquity of interpretation: all our experience is always already an interpretation.Texts that require interpretation are not things that are inserted between me and the world; rather, the world is a kind of text requiring interpretation. Even experiencing a cup, such as the blue cup on the table in front of me, “in person” or “in the f lesh” demands that I interpret the thing as a cup, and this interpretation is informed by a number of different things: the context in which I encounter the thing, my own history and background, the set of presuppositions that I bring to the experience, and more. Given all these conditions, the things I experience are subject to interpretation–and as such, they are subject to differentinterpretations.

So then, with an eye to appreciating the implications of Derrida’s claim, we could loosely translate “There is nothing outside the text” simply with the axiom “Everything is interpretation.” And, as might be expected, it is precisely at this point that many Christians become nervous, because if everything is interpretation, then even the gospel is only an interpretation and not objectively true.

Derrida at the Foot of the Cross

A serious engagement with Derrida’s (paraphrased) claim that ever ything is interpretation will lead to a serious question: Is this claim antithetical to orthodox Christian faith? I suggest that it is not. In fact, the Gospels provide an account of this. To say that ever ything is interpretation means that not just texts, but also events are interpreted. The crucifixion of Jesus is an event that is open to a range of interpretations: mockers and despisers interpret the event as yet one more execution (Matt. 27:38-44); but a centurion who “sees” the same phenomena interprets the event very differently (Matt. 27:54). Even thieves on his left and right have very different interpretations (Luke 23:39-43).

Each of these accounts is an interpretation of events in first-century Jerusalem. Each of them is a response to Jesus of Nazareth. Each is a “reading” of what took place and the phenomena in front of each narrator. GlassesAnd each is a kind of textual rendering of what happened. But, of course, the renderings and interpretations are very different. If we, as Christians, agree with the interpretation of the centurion–and with him confess that this is the true account of what took place on that afternoon–our agreement does not mitigate the fact that this is an interpretation. If we appeal to God’s special revelation about these events attested in the Scriptures, this does not change the fact that it remains an interpretation of what took place. In fact, the appeal to revelation only strengthens the claim that the centurion’s reading is an interpretation: without that revelation we might be in the situation of the mockers and blasphemers.

Christians who become skittish about the claim that everything is interpretation are usually hanging on to a very modern notion of knowledge, one that claims something is true only insofar as it is objective–insofar as it can be universally known by all people, at all times, in all places. On this account, the truth of the gospel–that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself–is taken to be objectively true and thus capable of rational demonstration.

The problem with this very modern construal of the gospel is that it doesn’t match up with the witness of the New Testament. It is clear from the Gospel narratives, for instance, that not ever yone sees what the centurion sees. Of course, they all see and encounter the same material realities–crosses, bodies, and eventually corpses–but these material phenomena are texts that need to be interpreted. Thus the very fact that both the centurion and the thieves are confronted by the same phenomena and yet see something very different seems to demonstrate Derrida’s point: the very experience of the things themselves is a matter of interpretation. Even if we are confronted with the physical and historical evidence of the resurrection–even if we witnessed the resurrection firsthand–what exactly this meant would require interpretation. Only by interpreting the resurrection of Jesus does one see that it confirms that he is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4).

In the epistles we get the same kind of claim, namely, that not everyone can see what the believer sees. While God’s invisible attributes are, on the one hand, “clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20), Paul goes on to emphasize the way in which this is not seen by those whose “foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21), who thus construe or interpret the world as something other than God’s creation. But as Paul repeatedly emphasizes, these conditions are themselves a gift; in other words, the presuppositions and horizons that make it possible to properly “read” creation are grace gifts that attend redemption and regeneration (Rom. 1:18-31; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:15; Eph. 4:17-18).

What is required to interpret the world well is the necessary conditions of interpretation–the right horizons of expectation and the right presuppositions.To embrace this (creational!) reality of ubiquitous interpretation requires that we embrace the corresponding reality of pluralism. Wherever there is interpretation, there will be conflict of interpretation or at least differences of interpretation. However, it is important to consider two levels, or modes, of this hermeneutic pluralism.

On the one hand, a kind of pluralism and interpretive difference is inscribed into the very fabric of created finitude, such that we all see the same things but from different angles and locations. In both Eden and the eschaton, we find interpretive pluralism that is rooted in this plurality of perspectives. As a factor of the conditions of a good creation, this kind of pluralism is something we must embrace as good (Gen. 1:31).3 And such interpretive pluralism remains a reality within the church.

On the other hand, a kind of deep “directional”4 pluralism is endemic to our postlapsarian (post-fall) condition; that is, there is a level of interpretive difference that concerns fundamental issues such as what it means to be authentically human and how we fit into the cosmos. In this respect, for instance, Christianity and Buddhism have very different interpretations about the nature of reality. CupHowever, we need to consider these as deep differences in interpretation rather than glibly supposing that the Christian account is objectively true and then castigating the Buddhist account for being merely an interpretation. In fact, both are interpretations; neither is objectively true. A nd so, to a certain extent, we must also embrace this postlapsarian or directional pluralism as the given situation in which we find ourselves. To assert that our interpretation is not an interpretation but objectively true often translates into the worst kinds of imperial and colonial agendas, even within a pluralist culture. Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however, translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty. But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective); the loss of objectivity, then, does not entail a loss of ker ygmatic boldness about the truth of the gospel.

Deconstruction’s recognition that everything is interpretation opens a space of questioning–a space to call into question the received and dominant interpretations that often claim not to be interpretations at all. As such, deconstruction is interested in interpretations that have been marginalized and sidelined, activating voices that have been silenced. This is the constructive, yea prophetic, aspect of Derrida’s deconstruction: a concern for justice by being concerned about dominant, status quo interpretations that silence those who see differently. Thus, from its inception, deconstruction has been, at root, ethical–concerned for the paradigmatic marginalized described by the Old Testament as “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” To put it differently: Wall Street and Washington both want us to think that their rendering of the world is “just the way things are.” Deconstruction, by showing the way in which ever ything is interpretation, empowers us to question the interpretations of trigger-happy presidents and greedy CEOs–in a way not unlike the prophets’ questioning of the dominant interpretations of the world. As such, we are free to interpret the world differently.

Texts in Community

Derrida’s claim that there is nothing outside the text was often misunderstood, and not just by Christian theologians. Later, when presented with the opportunity, Derrida tried to clarify his claim: ” The phrase that for some has become a sort of slogan of deconstruction, in general so badly understood (‘there is nothing outside the text’ ), means nothing other than: there is nothing outside context.”5 In a way, Derrida is repeating the a xiom of real estate as a central condition of interpretation: location, location, location! The context of both the phenomenon (whether a book, a cup, or an event) and the interpreter function as conditions or frameworks that determine just how a thing is seen or understood. Just as he claims that there is nothing outside the text, elsewhere Derrida claims that “there are only contexts.”6 Context, then, determines the meaning of a text, the construal of a thing, or the “reading” of an event.

When Derrida talks about how contexts are “determined” or “filled in,” we find a very important (though largely ignored) emphasis in his work: the role of community in interpretation. As he explains in his after word to Limited Inc, contexts are f lexible and dynamic: contexts change as time and place changes, generating different meanings and interpretations. Derrida describes this as the possibility ofrecontextualization: a phrase can mean one thing in one context and something different in another. If I shout “Duck!” in a field while we’re hunting, you will look upward for a target; if we’re golfing and I shout “Duck! ” you should assume a fetal position to avoid an incoming projectile. The same word, duck, is recontextualized.

Because Derrida has emphasized this play and f lexibility of contexts, many have concluded that he thinks we can just interpret things any way we want–that texts and events can be played with and we can simply make up the meaning as we go. For instance, they think Derrida’s claim means that you can make the Bible say anything you want.

Of course, on the one hand, this is completely true: people and groups do interpret the Bible in all kinds of ways, and they do make the Bible say whatever they want it to say.

We all know the truism that you can prove just about anything by quoting from the Bible, whether it be a justification of slaver y or why Christians shouldn’t have mortgages (Rom. 13:8, if you’re wondering). Obviously, the Bible is subject to all kinds of interpretations. But this play of interpretations does not mean that all these interpretations are good or true. “Other wise,” Derrida protests, “one could indeed say just anything at all and I have never accepted saying, or encouraging others to say, just anything at all.”7 Instead, Derrida emphasizes that there are important, legitimate determinations of context; in particular, the context for understanding a text, thing, or event is established by a community of interpreters who come to an agreement about what constitutes the true interpretation of a text, thing, or event. Given the goals and purpose of a given community, it establishes a consensus regarding the rules that will govern good interpretation. Without the rules established by a community, there would be no criteria to govern interpretation. A nd Derrida is not opposed to rules as such. In fact, he speaks positively about a community having a kind of “interpretive police” to govern interpretation for that community.8 Thus communities fix contexts, and contexts determine meanings.

Taking Derrida to Church

Derrida’s claim that there is nothing outside the text means roughly that everything is interpretation; interpretation is governed by context and the role of the interpretive community. But we have to ask: what are the implications of accepting this claim? In particular, what would that mean for our understanding of the gospel, Scripture, and church?

Seeing the World through the Word

First, if one of the crucial insights of postmodernism is that everyone comes to his or her experience of the world with an interpretive framework and a set of ultimate presuppositions, then Christians should not be afraid to lay their specifically Christian presuppositions on the table and allow their account to be tested in the marketplace of ideas. Second, and more constructively, this should push us to ask ourselves whether the biblical text is what truly governs our seeing of the world. If all the world is a text to be interpreted, then for the church the narrative of the Scriptures is what should govern our very perception of the world. We should see the world through the Word. In this sense, then, Derrida’s claim could be resonant with the Reformers claim of sola scriptura, which simply emphasizes the priority of God’s special revelation for our understanding of the world and making our way in it. There is nothing outside the Text, we might say. And to say that there is nothing outside the Text, then, is to emphasize that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by the revelation of God in the Scriptures. To say that there is nothing outside the Text is to say that there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak. But do we really let the Text govern our seeing of the world? Or have we become more captivated by the stories and texts of a consumerist culture?

Interpreting as if We Believe the Apostles’ Creed

A modern isolationist understanding of the human self has often crept into the church, which has too often valorized a notion of private interpretation (by wrongly appealing to the Reformation principle of the perspicuity of Scripture), suggesting that the meaning of the Scriptures is simply and objectively there–available for the taking. Such an individualistic notion, however, has nothing to do with the Reformers, let alone the ancient church. As we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, we believe in both “the holy, catholic church” and “the communion of the saints.”

Derrida’s critique of modernity, along with his emphasis on community, helps us appreciate the way in which postmodernity pushes us to recapture the central role of community not only for biblical interpretation but also for teaching us how to make our way in the world. One of the things that Leonard lacks in the filmMemento is a community of friends he can trust. (In fact, one of his rules–tattooed on his body–is to trust no one.) But as Derrida demonstrates, we can’t interpret a text, thing, or event without the conventions and rules of an interpretive community; indeed, language itself is inherently communal and intersubjective. (And eventually even Leonard has to trust someone else, as when he trusts the note written in a friend’s handwriting.) For instance, to interpret the Scriptures, and interpret them well, I cannot shut myself off from the community that is the church; rather, I need to be formed and informed by the breadth of this community, both geographically (the global church) and temporally (history of the church’s witness). While the church is governed by the Scriptures, the Scriptures are only properly opened and active within the believing community. To say that there is nothing outside the Text also entails that there is no proper understanding of the Text–and hence the world–apart from the Spirit-governed community of the church.

So despite a common picture of deconstruction as a dangerous beast slouching toward the citadels of Jerusalem, Derrida’s work can be an occasion for the church to reconsider its relation to modernity. Deconstruction, then, would not be a threat, but a gift, inviting us, perhaps, to recover ancient disciplines and to interpret the world–communally–through the lens of God’s revelation in the Scriptures.


1Memento, DVD, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001).
2 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 158.
3 I have explained this in more detail in The Fall of Interpretation, chapter 5.
4 I am drawing here on a suggestive and underappreciated analysis of pluralism in Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen, Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay in Christian Public Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
5 Derrida, Afterword to Limited Inc, 136, emphasis added, translation modified.
6 Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 320. For a more detailed discussion of this point, see my “Limited Inc/arnation.”
7 Derrida, Afterword to Limited Inc, 144Ð45.
8 Ibid., 131, 146.

This essay is an excerpt from chapter two of James K. A. Smith’s forthcoming book (March 2006), Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan. We extend our thanks to the author for his gracious assistance in the excerpting process.

James K. A. Smith is associate professor of philosophy and director of Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.