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Dad, Peggy Sue and Exegesis

October 15, 2010

“BE HOME BY TEN,” Dad said.

“Sure, Pops,” you had replied, racing out the door to hop into Johnny’s roadster.

But here you are now at the soda shop. It’s 9 pm. And you are sitting across the table from Peggy Sue, who is here—alone. She is on the rebound, having just given Biff his walking papers. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished (not that kind of consummation–get your mind out of the gutter). Johnny is with Judy, his steady, of course, and he points out that the second feature at the drive-in starts in thirty minutes. Why not make it a double date?

The moment calls for…exegesis.

Fortunately you are quickly able to muster your interpretive options:

1. The first thing to look out for is false assumptions. Many people assume that the word “ten” refers to 10:00 pm. But the word is ambiguous, isn’t it? It could mean 10 pm, but it could also mean 10 am. The context really does not make it clear which is meant. If Dad had wanted you to understand 10 pm, he could certainly have stated this clearly. As it is, one is as valid as the other. And say you come home at midnight… Why, that’s ten hours early, according to the “10 am” view.

2. Next, it is important not to overlook culture. Remember, Dad is an old Navy man. The military has a language of it’s own, and Dad tends to think in military terms. It is his culture. One thing that is often overlooked by those outside that culture is that 10 pm, in the original military, is 2200. 10 pm is never expressed using the number “ten.” Culturally, “ten” refers to 1000, which is pronunced “ten hundred hours.” And it refers, always, to 10 am. Cultural considerations actually rule out the “10 pm view.”

3. Another thing to consider is genre. This expression: “Be home by ten” is what is known as a Dad-ism. One who is familiar with the genre knows the “rules of the game” for dealing with this genre. Dad, doing his Dad thing, pronounces the customary Dad blessing as you, the son, sally forth into Saturday night. It is really a way of saying “Have a good time.” Those who understand the genre know that Dad is not thereby setting a curfew time, though people unfamiliar with the genre might jump to that conclusion.

4. And one has to factor in figures of speech. A lot of people get hung up on the “literal” meaning. However, you know Dad freqently uses figures of speech. Last time he saw your report card, he told you you’d better start “hitting the books.” Now, obviously, he didn’t mean you to punch out your copy of Jude the Obscure. Duh. And last week he said get the grass cut, or “heads will roll.” Now, come on. He wasn’t literally threatening decapitation. Dad tends to express himself in metaphor, hyperbole, and the like. By “ten” he essentially means “sooner or later.”

5. Look, you’ve got to look at the historical setting. I mean, it isn’t about the big hand and the little hand on the clock. And it isn’t that your Dad is cinematophobic. It’s about drag racing. That’s right, drag racing. It’s all about last month when you and Johnny were out on the outskirts of town racing for pink slips (car titles–nothing to do with underwear). Turns out, it’s technically illegal. Who knew? Right. So that’s what this “ten o’clock” thing is really all about. Because Dad knows the races start around eleven. But you won’t be anywhere near there. You’ll be at the movies. So it’s all right.

6. Another thing. You really don’t think Dad’s purpose is to construct a chronology of your Saturday night’s activities. It isn’t like his concern is with numerology either, like if ten were some kind of sacred or magical figure. The important thing is the function that he has in mind. That is, that you do, in fact, come home. He is expressing it in verbage that accommodates to customs of his day (back then there was nothing for teenagers to do after ten, anyway). So recognizing the teleological realities within his instructions, you will accordingly return home upon completion of your evening’s entertainment.

7. Above all, the most important thing is not the “what,” like “what time you get home.” Or the “how,” like “how late you stay out.” Your focus needs to be on the “who.” The point is hold your Dad in high esteem. The way to do this is to make sure and hold warm feelings for him in your heart as you and Peggy Sue sit in the back seat and “watch” the movie.

So, wow, that’s like seven-to-one against the “10 pm” view, isn’t it? Doesn’t that make it a “minority view”?

Yeeeah… Well, it ought to be a clue when you can find seven different ways to choose from that all achieve the same goal. It kind of suggests the presence of a goal. Having an extraneous goal is in de facto competition with the task of hearing Dad’s words and doing them. It’s search for authorial intent vs search for a loophole I can use.

Seven potential loopholes have in common the one thing they are all avoiding: the “10 pm” view. This common avoidance is tacit recognition of the priority of the obvious, which brings us to some take-home points:

1. In interpretation, the obvious has a certain level of priority. It isn’t a level playing field, for the most part. There is usually a reading that you have to consider first, before you get past it to an alternative. Call this the obvious one, or the apparent one, if you like. Other names include “straightforward,” “simple,” “plain,” and that all time favorite “literal.” Sure, you may find yourself going for the alternative, but there ought to be a good reason for rejecting the “obvious.” Hots for Peggy Sue is not among the “good reasons.”

2. Now as Sherlock Holmes says “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” (Of course, later in the same episode he lands on a solution, stating that it is obvious.) What seems obvious at first may well be “only apparent.” Here’s where the exegetical skills come in. All the things I lampooned above: semantics, culture and language, genre, rhetorical devices, history, literary analysis, centrality. These are tools to help us distinguish the true meaning. They are powerful in that regard. The same power can be (mis)used to help us justify ignoring Dad in favor of Peggy Sue, however.

3. So I’m arguing that along with building a skill set, there is a certain exegetical intuition to cultivate. Or call it self-awareness. If you start your interpretive process singing “I Know Where I’m Going,” you may indeed get there, but at the cost of intellectual integrity.

4. In the medical profession we say, “If you hear hoof beats, expect a horse, not a zebra.” Common things occur commonly. Obvious things also usually are really obvious. So much of exegesis today seems to be trotting out not just zebras, but unicorns. Or so it seems to me.

So… Am I talking about you? Not necessarily. It’s an “if the shoe fits” kind of thing. The shoe can fit me as well as anybody else, no question. But maybe you thought I had you in mind, or think it. Well, maybe. But I bet you can think of examples of Peggy-Sue exegesis you see others doing. No doubt it’s easier to see in others than in ourselves.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 1:21 pm

    Excellently presented and a most pertinent truth.

    Well done.


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