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What is Reader Response Criticism And Is It Valid?

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Reader Response Criticism is a literary theory focusing on the reader's interpretation and response to a text. It suggests that the meaning of a text is not fixed and objective but rather subjective and dependent on the reader's experiences, beliefs, and cultural background. The reader plays an active role in creating meaning from a text, and their interpretation is just as important as the author's intention. It encourages readers to analyze their own responses to a text and examine how their personal biases and perspectives affect their understanding of it. It emerged in the latter half of the 20th century with roots in the work of Louise Rosenblatt and Stanley Fish.

The theory posits that a text is not a fixed entity with a single meaning but rather a dynamic creation that takes on new meanings with each reading. According to this approach, the meaning of a text is not solely determined by the author's intention but is also shaped by the reader's interpretation. The reader enjoys an active role not in identifying meaning but in its creation. It provides a framework for analyzing the reader's response to a text. Readers are encouraged to examine their own biases and perspectives and to consider how their personal experiences affect their interpretation of a text. This approach requires readers to engage with a text on a personal level and to consider how their unique position in the world shapes their response to it. By doing so, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the text and appreciate how it speaks to their own experiences and beliefs. 

What spurned this brief introduction to Reader Response Criticism was a quote that I came across a quote from Joel Green, 

For many postmoderns, on the other hand, “truth” does not exist as an abstract reality apart from human knowing. Thus, for students of the Bible, “meaning” is not simply a property of the text that the reader must discover or excavate but is somehow the product of the interaction of readers with texts.

Positively, this criticism imbibes much of postmodernity's overshadowing of modernity's Biblical interpretation methods, such as form or source criticism. It is a useful critique against methods that simply did not provide meaningful ways of interacting with the Biblical text by showing that postmodern scholarship rightly called modern scholarship into question and found it not worth adapting. Negatively, it contains some peculiar statements that seem to undermine its own position. 

For starters, it does not appear to consider the existence of other modes of truth outside of literary categories. This can be seen by the tree that falls in the wilderness. Before the tree is allowed the chance to fall and make a sound, which is done even if no one is around to hear it, the tree exists in the forest. The stubbornness of the tree's existence is seen in the fact that it exists whether I know about that tree or not. What I have just said also carries with it another layer of disagreement with Green's assessment. The very statement itself presents a truth that also exists whether the reader knew about it in the first place or not. Both the concept, the tree's existence, and the assertion about the tree's existence contain truth regardless of its knowability. 

To complicate matters even further, the fact that Green's statement exists in and of itself further confirms how suspect his assertion is. He seems to present an idea in absolute terminology that he would logically think is true; otherwise, why would he have made the assertion in the first place? Green allowed for truth claims to exist independent of the reader's knowability to provide the meaning and truth of it. His statement suggests a category for truth and meaning, which is irrespective of the reader's participation. 

The Bible cannot be placed in a category outside of modern texts where its meaning and truth cannot exist apart from the reader's contribution simply because it is an ancient text or it contains religious claims or religiously motivated ideologies. Much like the tree's existence cannot depend on how close I am to it or what type of tree it is. Postmodern interpreters would need to concede this point, or else it would be equally problematic for them. If the truth depended on proximity and genre, then a postmodern exegete's claims could not depend on the interaction between authorial intention and reader participation. There would be something inherently true about the text, controlling its interpretation. 

The Bible contains timeless truths preserved throughout millennia. Its messages are clear and can be understood by any interpreter willing to understand its intended message. The Protestant Reformation did much to place the Scriptures in the hands of the reader but sought to preserve the message. The preservation of the message was extremely important to them, as it has been and continues to be for believers throughout all generations. The idea the reader is needed or even has the ability to participate in the generation of the text's meaning is unfounded. The reader seems to be less generating meaning and more making up meaning in order to suit their social contexts and worldviews. Participating in meaning may initially seem attractive as one can justify their views from a monumentally important text. What happens instead is that the life-changing, life-saving message of the Scriptures is lost. Historical criticism did much to generate widely divergent interpretations where the reader saw themselves in the Scriptures. Post-modern criticism, while rightly rejecting much of modern criticism's faulty methods, did much to adopt the same approach where the reader finds what they want to find in the Scriptures and that being themselves.