V for Vendetta and the Problem of Eisegesis
Another November 5 has come and gone, and with it contemporary culture’s annual celebration of James McTeigue’s 2005 action film V for Vendetta, which popularized the Guy Fawkes mask often associated with digital surveillance protests and the Anonymous hacking collective. And every year, I find it exceedingly fascinating that the film is embraced and celebrated by individuals across radically different political traditions. Leftists praise the rising of the common people against an oppressive, Eurocentric-fascistic hierarchy. Liberals point to the film’s criticism of institutional religion and advocacy for LGBT equality as a defense of secularism and tolerance. Libertarians trot out the film’s condemnation of leering statism and celebration of human autonomy. As for conservatives…well, there’s not much in V for Vendetta that’s “conservative” in any traditional sense of the term, but some have piggybacked on the film’s generally anti-statist themes.
This phenomenon exemplifies eisegesis, a mode of interpretation in which one’s preconceived message is read into a given narrative (the converse being exegesis, or an attempt to derive meaning from a narrative). The exegesis/eisegesis problem is particularly pronounced in the legal field: where constitutional interpretation is concerned, one’s theory can have colossal ramifications.
It bears mention up front that V for Vendetta is a film that lends itself particularly well to eisegesis, due in large part to its dramatic disconnect between substance and style. Ideologically speaking, the movie is not particularly coherent or well-thought-out (consider, for example, its suggestion that violent terrorism is the best form of resistance against an oppressive regime, and that said terrorism will magically usher in a rebirth of the democratic order). Instead, V for Vendetta succeeds because it is well-acted, engagingly filmed, and suffused with some incredibly powerful thematic imagery.
The process of eisegesis can occur on at least two levels: first, decoupling the work from the context in which it emerged; and second, fixating upon key elements of the work which tend to reinforce one’s own preconceived beliefs. Where V for Vendetta is concerned, the first tendency is by far the most pronounced: the film is based on a graphic novel by British artist Alan Moore, which set out to critique the perceived “fascism” of Margaret Thatcher (Ronald Reagan’s UK counterpart). Given that Thatcher is perhaps best known for her advocacy of laissez-faire economics, treating V for Vendetta as in any way a libertarian parable is dramatically inconsistent with authorial intent. Yet such eisegesis persists.
The danger of this eisegesis underpins many of my concerns over an uncritical embrace of the Reformation’s sola Scriptura principle. While the latter form of eisegesis (selective verse-snipping) may occur under any circumstances, rejecting Church tradition as ex ante irrelevant dramatically increases the risk of the first form (decontextualization from the breadth of history). In other words, under an unmoored approach to interpretation, one’s natural human tendency to read Scripture to “see what one wants to see” is amplified. For instance, the Reformed characterization of Romans 9 as entailing “predestination to damnation” constitutes, in my view, a significant departure from both the traditional Church understanding and the broader arc of Scripture as a whole. Similarly, Matthew 7:1 – “Judge not, lest ye be judged – is routinely yanked from context to suggest a de facto moral sanction of virtually any conduct, irrespective of historical Church stance or broader Scriptural narrative.
Just as virtually no V for Vendetta fans could likely even define Thatcherism, few contemporary Christians are likely familiar with the early splinter philosophies to which the Pauline epistles responded, such as Judaization (persistent applicability of the Mosaic law) and Gnosticism (strict conceptual bifurcation of an “evil” material world and a “pure” spiritual world). Yet philosophies do not arise in vacuums, and uprooting them from their origins risks fundamental misunderstandings of the issues involved.
In short, context always matters: where the heritage of biblical texts is concerned, the corpus of Church tradition serves as a bounding principle that prevents such texts from collapsing into postmodern meaninglessness. Working to understand the intellectual and theological heritage of the Christian tradition (and indeed, the heritage of any text one seeks to interpret) is thus of paramount importance for anyone who seeks to avoid the ever-lurking eisegetical problem.
Image courtesy of Alan Crompton.