“Text” has taken on new meanings during the past 10 years or so, informally and formally. For one thing, in its techno-language sense, it has become a verb: “Text me later today.” It is a word that has likely undergone a huge uptick in frequency of usage in recent years.
Even in the realms of academe, “text” has for some time now been used to refer to things which are not, strictly speaking, texts: movies, advertisements, and art, for example. We can view archeological sites as texts, as palimpsests that layer one era upon another. Derrida offered us a method to using some of these concepts through deconstruction, “an effort to understand a text through its relationships to various contexts” (in a 1988 translation).
This post is not about deconstruction.
Context: it contains the word text (from the Latin texere, to weave; context, therefore: to join together, structure). When I tutor students in writing papers, I stress context. What are you writing about, what are your sources, what era, what place, which people or theories or machinations are involved? Give us a structure on which to layer your observations, research, or argument.
This post is not about composition or research papers, either. Well, not exactly.
What I want to write about—briefly, and perhaps more another time—is some old-fashioned texts recently unearthed from my parents’ house. My mother handed me a paper bag full of texts that includes letters I sent when I was a young adult living on my own for the first time, letters friends wrote to me and to my sister, high school transcripts, essays written my freshman year at college, poems composed in my junior year at college, as well as—amazingly enough—report cards not only from my childhood but from my parents’ elementary-school years and an essay my father wrote while he was a junior at Wabash College in, as near as I can calculate, 1953.
This last item fills me with a tenderness I find difficult to describe or explain. Typed on a manual typewriter I later used in my college years, on now-yellowed linen-content paper, stapled at the corner with four still-unrusted staples, “Luther’s Concept of Grace” is a 14-page essay for a class entitled Church History 340. The text on which his essay is based was Martin Luther’s A Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians from an anonymous translation into English dated 1575. The copy he read was published in London in 1830.
When my father composed this assignment, he was younger than my son is now. And my son seems so young to me as he wrestles with his own concerns about ethics and law and philosophical matters and moving on into adulthood. I imagine my young dad reading this 19th-century book, Bible beside him for reference (Gal. 2:19, etc.), wrestling with the theology Luther set forth in order to explain the complex relationship(s) Luther sees between faith and grace, or grace and law, or liberty and sin. My father wrote and revised by hand, taking notes, and—though he is an excellent typist—probably had to re-type several pages to be sure the final draft was error-free and that the end-of-page notes all fit. (Today’s students have no idea what a hassle formatting on a typewriter could be). He made one typing error, a stray “the” on page 7; Dr. Pauck caught it, and also commented that though the paper is “well written and clearly organized…certain points are left ambiguous.”
I value my dad’s ambiguity on those points. Looking at the places in this text where his professor offered minor quibbles, I interpret that the writer was a young person who was eager to please but unwilling to accept doctrinal thinking without examination or, as may be, allowing some reasonable ambiguity. At one point, for example, my dad writes, “Luther has again come close to ascribing to grace a substantial status. But even though it must be felt, it is the feeling of an emotion…it is clear that relationships or states of being are meant, and not something substantial.” The professor faults him: “Is this the correct way of stating the matter?”
My father went on to pursue theology, pastoral care, psychology, and teaching; emotion mattered to him. At 21 years old, and in the context of an examination of Martin Luther, he didn’t know how to phrase the valuable emotional aspect of grace (substantial or not) he intuited as necessary. Perhaps Luther did not possess this characteristic—in fact, from my admittedly limited reading of his work, he seems not to have. My father does possess this trait.
I think what this text evokes in me is the awareness that he was who he is even when he was youthful and inexperienced and hadn’t read or learned a fraction of what he knows now. The context for this 60-year-old text matters to me personally in terms of its relationship to me and to the man who raised me, among other possible relationships tactile, historical, socio-cultural or otherwise, and—richly and often—ambiguous.