And the Word Became Text: Divine Speech and ‘The Death of the Author’

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ is one of those bombshell pieces of criticism that sends shockwaves far beyond the literary sphere. In it, Barthes argues that the reader, not the author, is the one who determines the meaning of a text. Given that Western understandings of divinity, Scripture, and creation have long used the figure of the Author as a metaphor for God, it’s not hard to see why Barthes frames his argument as ‘anti-theological.’ But depending on what we mean by ‘god,’ there may be space for the divine even within Barthes’ model of reading. I’ll explain why I think Barthes succeeds in removing God as Author before proposing two alternative metaphors that might help us recuperate a god concept. First, some housekeeping: I will focus on Christianity as the religious context I know best and the one in which Barthes is writing. As Barthes distinguishes between the literary figure of the ‘Author’ and the individual person of the ‘author,’ ‘God’ in this essay refers to ‘God as Author’ and ‘god’ to any alternative notion of the divine. Because the figure of the Author is implicitly male, it feels important not to gender the divine as we look for new metaphors. Beyond that, all bets are off. 

The notion of the Author-God is built largely on the idea that God is the Author of Scripture, an idea which has gained traction in text-based, Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity. Ironically, the Christian Bible is actually a fairly good example of text as Barthes defines it: ‘a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash […] a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.’ Written over of a period of roughly two-thousand years by about forty authors, many of them familiar and in conscious dialogue with their predecessors, the Bible is a tissue of quotations stitched together across vast dimensions of time, space, and culture. In the formation of a biblical canon, individual authors necessarily become secondary to their language as it relates to the text as a whole; in Barthes’ words, ‘it is language which speaks, not the author[s].’ Authorial intent (whether or not Isaiah had specifically Jesus of Nazareth in mind when he wrote about a ‘man of sorrows’ who ‘bore the sin of many,’ for example) becomes largely irrelevant, and indeed must be irrelevant to some degree if we are to speak of the ‘interpretation’ of Scripture. Any interpretation of the Bible as text that applies to all people at all times presupposes that its unity ‘lies not in its origin but in its destination’ (Barthes).  

But this becomes a problem when the text is expected to yield a ‘single “theological” meaning’ (Barthes)—and it is not hard to see why a religion, as it becomes increasingly institutionalized, would be inclined to look for such a meaning. Policing the boundaries of meaning of a foundational text is an excellent way to exert control and consolidate authority within an institution. It is one thing to do this with a text like, for example, the Constitution of the United States, but a text as plural and sprawling as the Bible poses a particular challenge. The easiest way to justify boundaries of meaning around a text is to give it an Author. In Barthes’ words, ‘to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing’. And so God is instated as the Author of Scripture, with religious authorities taking on the role of the Critic, whose job it is to ‘explain’ the work by uncovering the Authorial intent beneath it. Just as ‘the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic’, the reign of the Author-God has been that of those who can claim privileged access to the true interpretation of God’s word. By undermining the concept of the Author-God, Barthes undermines the hierarchy of authority in organized religion.

I agree with Barthes that this is revolutionary, even anti-theological, but I would like to think about how his theory of reading and meaning might help us form other, more flexible ideas about god. This requires us to take a closer look at ‘the world as text,’ a parenthetical aside of Barthes’ that is central to the metaphor of God as the Author, not just of Scripture, but of the world. There is certainly a theological tradition of ‘reading’ the material world to discover the ‘secret […] ultimate meaning’ of reality (Barthes). The author of Romans, for instance, writes that ‘[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made’—a passage often interpreted to mean that the world is to be read as a work bearing the imprint of an Author-God who ‘exists before it […] in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child’ (Barthes). The word ‘relation’ is key; it is important to bear in mind that, by replacing the omniscient, uppercase Author with a limited, lowercase scriptor (Barthes’ word for the writer who puts words on a page but has no say in their ultimate meaning), Barthes is not proposing a change to the material nature of the writing person, but to the relationship between that person and their writing—and more to the point, to how that relationship is understood in relation to meaning. If we were to cast god as a scriptor, it would be possible for god to predate the universe, just as it is possible for JK Rowling to predate Harry Potter, without having the kind of paternalistic role that derives its authority from a clear division between ‘a before and an after’ (Barthes). (Good news! As far as Barthes is concerned, JK is totally irrelevant to her books and Harry Potter means whatever you want it to, so you can join me in rereading The Order of the Phoenix every summer in good conscience.)

Unlike the Author, who speaks through the work, the scriptor’s relation to the text is one of ‘performative utterance,’ a phrase borrowed from JL Austin. Rather than representing some greater truth about the Author or reality, the performative ‘has no other content than the act by which it is uttered’ (Austin). That is to say, it is neither true nor false, because it refers only to itself; the utterance is doing something rather than merely saying it. One of the more famous instances of performative speech—let there be light—comes from the biblical creation myth. God as scriptor is a case of truly performative utterance. In the creation of the world as text, there is no distinction between saying and doing. 

This is not a new idea; theologians Merold Westphal and Nicholas Wolsterstroff have both written about divine discourse as ‘illocutionary speech acts’ (Westphal; ‘illocutionary’ is another word for a perforative utterance). Westphal in particular tries to work out what this theoretical, possibly even metaphorical idea of divine speech might look like on a more concrete level. ‘God as scriptor’ and ‘the world as text’ are useful as shorthand but tricky to spell out. The world may be text for Barthes, but it is clearly text of a different order than Harry Potter, and the question of whether a textual model of the world should be taken as literal or as mere analogy becomes important when we are trying to figure out where god might fit into the picture. Westphal can help us here though his argument that divine speech is both literal and analogical. ‘It is analogical,’ he writes, ‘because divine discourse is both like and unlike human discourse; but this is not a metaphor, because the performance of illocutionary acts belongs properly and primarily to God and only derivatively and by participation to human creatures.’ In other words, while we can have an idea of god that is very much like Barthes’ idea of the scriptor, it is an imperfect comparison because the texts in question are qualitatively different. By Westphal’s reasoning, however, it is more appropriate to say that Barthes’ idea of the scriptor is very much like this idea of god, since divine speech is more truly and intrinsically illocutionary. 

Which brings us back to ‘the world as text.’ Barthes is drawing here on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory that what we perceive as reality is mediated entirely through language. For Saussure, language does not name objects but forges links between ‘concepts’ and ‘sound-images’—to use his example, the idea of a tree as a thing with branches and leaves, and ‘tree,’ the combination of shapes that we recognize as standing in for a particular sound. Without the linguistic sign uniting these two parts, the concept of ‘tree’ as we understand it does not exist; there are no ‘ready-made ideas’ before words (Saussure). To see the world as text, then, is to see that meaning, even apparently self-evident meaning like ‘this is a tree,’ is completely dependent on agreement within the linguistic community. There is ‘nothing beneath’ the text, nothing recorded, represented, or depicted apart from language, which ‘ceaselessly calls into question all origins’ (Barthes). But it is a little more complicated with the world as text. After all, even if we accept that what we think of as a tree would not exist outside of language, there would still be something there. It may be impossible for us to imagine a tree without relying on linguistically determined concepts like brown, green, sun, water, up, down, atoms, electrons—but presumably the tree does not have access to these concepts, and its materiality persists. Language precedes meaning, but clearly something precedes language. Barthes has not done god any harm if god exists at a level of reality which continues to be even if it has no meaning whatsoever within a linguistic community. The power of language to mediate our reality—to, for all intents and purposes, create our world—explains why people like Westphal and the writer of Genesis use divine speech as an analogy to explain the creation of the world. Language calls the universe into existence for us, which is the nearest we come to creating material reality. 

This is starting to feel like a pretty good case for god as scriptor instead of God as Author. Barthes, however, is not nearly as interested in the scriptor as he is in the reader. The reader is the point at which multiplicity of meaning is focused, ‘that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which a written text in constituted’. This, I want to suggest, is another role we might give god within Barthes’ epistemology: god the reader. If we return to our tree, I argued that the tree’s materiality is independent of our linguistic sign. Certainly this would seem to be the case—but mightn’t it just be that our concept of ‘tree’ has many characteristics, including the characteristic of continuing to exist when not perceived? If all meaning is socially and semiologically constructed, that includes inferences drawn from sensory data such as, ‘I saw this tree here yesterday, I see it here today, therefore it has been here all along because everyone knows that is how trees behave.’ In actuality, though, it is impossible to know anything about the tree without observing it—impossible even to imagine it without imagining yourself in the role of an observer. And what if the tree were to fall and there was no one around to hear it? The jury is still out on whether or not it would make a sound. If we follow the analogy of the world as text, as the material ‘language’ of god’s speech-acts, then it does in fact need a ‘reader’ to sustain its reality, just as written text needs a reader to create its meaning. If the unity of the text, and the world as text, ‘lies not in its origin but in its destination’, we might call that destination ‘god.’ In fact, the idea of god the reader is not really so different from the idea of the divine as the sustaining force of the universe, one which is important in Hinduism and pantheism, and present also in Christianity and Islam. I may have talked myself into a circle here, where god as reader presupposes god as scriptor; but perhaps one way to think of god is as both at once, a circuit of meaning in which ‘there is no other time than that of the enunciation’ and reality is ‘eternally written here and now’ (Barthes). 

Of course, this whole thought experiment begs the question of power. If god is omnipotent, what happens to their authority when we cast them as scriptor or reader? What is the nature of divine authority, anyway? Is it the authority to make meaning, and if so, is god as reader really so different from God as Author? These are questions for much smarter people to explore at much greater length. For now, I’ll just note that I do not think the possibility of god the scriptor or god the reader makes Barthes’ way of reading any less revolutionary. It is still antiauthoritarian and anti-theological—or at least anti- any theology which presupposes an Author-God. Nor does the fact that the Author-God is only one possible conception of god among many make it any less powerful as a cultural force; if anything, the fact that our understanding of the world is mediated entirely through language gives metaphors a terrifying amount of power, and Barthes’ attack on this one is all the more ambitious and impressive. But I believe that, just as death of the Author leads to the birth of the reader, Barthes’ deconstruction of this particular god concept opens the door to new and potentially more productive ones. 

Works Cited: 

Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. Harvard University Press, 1962. 

Barthes, Roland. ‘The Death of the Author.’ In Image-Music-Text. Fontana Press, 1977. 

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Balley & Albert Sechehaye, 1916. 

Westphal, Merold. “On Reading God the Author.” Religious Studies Vol. 37, No. 3 (Sep. 2001), pp. 271-291. 

Coggin Galbreath is the content editor at TruThink and a fourth year undergraduate studying English and Comparative Literature at the University of St Andrews.

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