Question: how useful is reader response criticism in understanding a community’s relationship with its ‘sacred texts’? In what ways does reader response criticism challenge the meaningfulness of the term ‘sacred’?
A book does not read itself. Meaning does not happen when there is no one there to make it.
Reader response (RR) criticism or theories can demonstrate that the text does not have inherent meaning of its own, but rather created by the reader and shared between individuals and communities. An accepted interpretation of a particular text is very much a reflection of the community’s context and motivated by what the community wants to see or at least thinks it sees in the text. What RR theories can also show is the instability of meaning of the text, and that interpretation of the text can evolve, be accepted and rejected, or completely disappear over time. And thus with regard to ‘sacred’ texts, the sacredness is to a certain extent created and maintained by religious communities. Outside such communities, the meaning of sacredness in the text is understood differently, perhaps not as ‘sacred’ at all. RR criticisms challenge the ‘sacredness’ of a text when they highlight the constructed nature of interpretation that exists, inter alia, in the mind of the individual reader or as a group interpretation of the text (influenced by compromise, politicking, and other biases because we’re all human with interests to protect) instead of something that is received in a supernatural and decontextualised manner. By implicating the reader in the meaning-making process that bestows upon the text its ‘sacredness’, this means that the ‘sacredness’ of the text is not autonomous nor it is pre-formed and waiting to be found. RR criticism calls into question the ‘sacredness’ of the physical book that sits on the shelf or the desk unread. Instead it considers the ‘sacred’ nature of the book that only ‘materialises’ when reading it is tantamount to a religious experience. In other words, ‘sacredness’ is an event that occurs in a particular time and place rather than something that just is.