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What is structuralism?


Structuralism is the idea that human beings assign meaning by noting the differences between fundamental ideas. This implies that the structure formed by the interaction of individual components provides proper context for communication and understanding. Structuralism has been applied to various disciplines, most successfully in language and literature, including biblical literature. Structuralism is considered an important perspective in drawing meaning from passages of the Bible, a process known as exegesis.

The primary assertion of structuralism is that people allocate meaning to a basic set of fundamental ideas, and communication is primarily achieved by expressing the differences between those individual ideas; the differences and interactions of those ideas form an overarching pattern. In other words, the individual components of a language, book, or story can only be properly understood as part of a whole—according to their place in the structure.

Two examples dealing with color and sounds can help explain why structuralism is a meaningful concept when interpreting the Bible. In both examples, we see that people assign meaning based on an assumed structure of concepts. When something is not clearly distinguished within that structure, it is effectively invisible to people operating under that framework.

Example 1. Researchers have studied how various cultures perceive colors, based on their native vocabulary, finding that, when a culture has no specific word for a particular color, members of that culture often do not “see” that color. They may be otherwise adept at seeing subtle shade differences in other colors, but they ignore colors that they have no word for or lump them in with other colors. For most of human history, blue and green were simply considered shades of the same color, and most cultures had no word for “blue.” And the English language did not have a word for the color orange until the 1540s, when the fruit called orange was imported from Asia to Europe—before then, the color was simply glossed over as “yellow-red.”

Example 2. The words rink and link are identical except for the letters r and l and the sounds they make. So, in English, the words rink and link are differentiated, perceived as separate sounds with separate meanings. However, in the Japanese language, there are no words distinguished solely by the change from an r sound to an l sound. Rather, Japanese features a single sound vaguely similar to both the English r and the English l. For this reason, native Japanese speakers may struggle to enunciate a clear l sound and a clear r sound when speaking English. In fact, they may find it extremely hard to hear the difference between those sounds. This is not because of deficient hearing or a faulty tongue but because the structure of language used by native Japanese speakers does not distinguish between those sounds.

In short, structuralism says that individual ideas are only meaningful when understood in context. Trying to read red letters on a red background is difficult, as there is not much to distinguish the individual letters from each other. Similarly, when an idea is not properly distinguished within a larger structure, it effectively does not exist for those operating under that structure. In order to grasp how a person assigns meaning to an idea, the idea must be understood within his particular structure.

This concept becomes useful in studying the Bible as it relates to context. According to the structuralist approach to Bible interpretation, in order to properly understand the intended meaning of the text, one must understand the structure of worldview and language the writer lived under. This is similar to how we must interpret the Bible according to its historical, cultural, and grammatical context.

So, for instance, when Jesus indicates that those who do not “hate” their father and mother cannot be His followers (Luke 14:26), this must be understood in the context of that era’s language and communication—their structure. In that era, differences were typically expressed in binary terms. So, what modern readers see as hyperbole (exaggeration), Jesus’ original audience would have simply heard as a distinction: “You have to be willing to choose Me over everyone else.” Just as modern eyes see blue as a completely different color from green, but ancient eyes merely saw shades of green, modern readers parse “hatred” and “preference” as totally different ideas, while the ancient mind instead thought in shades of distinction.

In an example of the opposite effect, Scripture presents the concept of slavery in various situations. Most modern readers have a single, immediate (and negative) interpretation of the idea of slavery. This is mostly aligned with the chattel slavery of the Atlantic Slave Trade. However, in the culture Scripture was written in, there were many different forms of servitude. Most were not the racial, lifelong, inhuman form of slavery modern people think of. Just as English parses the difference between r and l, while Japanese does not, modern minds differentiate between “chattel slavery” and “indentured servitude,” while ancient language integrated those ideas using a single word. To assume that all references to “slaves” in the Bible imply the kind of slavery practiced in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, then, would be inappropriate simply on the basis of lingual structure.

As useful as structuralism is in properly interpreting the Bible, it can be abused or misapplied as much as any other philosophy. Taken too far, the idea that the parts cannot be understood without a clear understanding of their relationship to the whole can become an inverted form of reductionism. While reductionism dismisses the whole as “nothing but” the sum of the parts, extreme structuralism dismisses the parts as “nothing but” components of the whole. For instance, to conclude that all songs on the radio are “the same” because they all feature rhyming lyrics and a repeated chorus would be an inappropriate form of structuralism. So would the suggestion that all religions are the same since they all feature some supernatural entity and have rules.

As applied to the Bible, structuralism teaches that people assign meaning based on a certain set of interconnected ideas. In order to understand the meaning of any text or communication, a person needs to know how those pieces fit into the structure assumed by the speaker or writer. Attempting to interpret a biblical text using a modern structure, then, would mean drawing conclusions from Scripture that the author never intended.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022