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Reflection: Interpretation with Hermeneutic Shock

Subject: Study of Religion. Course: Early Christianity. Study level: Bachelor 2nd semester. Class size: 90-100.


An elementary ascertainment of the fact that our students have very poor prerequisites for fundamental hermeneutic considerations about texts written in a different time and place other than their own.

Central learning outcomes for the course

The students must obtain broad empirical knowledge of early Christianity.

In addition, they must methodologically obtain a range of skills that will enable them to relate to texts written in a different epoch and at a different place (vertical anthropology). It is primarily concerned with methods acquired from history and the study of religion, and secondarily with semiotics.

In a theoretical context they must acquire competences that will enable them to reflect on the correlation between methodological objectives and different theoretical frameworks, just as they must have a clear sense of the application of various models, through which various types of methods are filtered. Finally, they must obtain an understanding of the subject and its empirical data as part of a longue durée perspective on the history of religion and the further study of religion.

Central learning outcomes for the activity

The learning goal is to provide the students with an elementary hermeneutic understanding of fundamentally different ways in which historical texts may be read and interpreted. The activity will be applicable in virtually all subjects concerned with textual interpretation, but in particular in the disciplines in which there is a special interest in analysing texts in the light of their original communicative situation.

Description of the activity

I show the students different cartoon drawings from the past decade, which are characterised by their very integral use of codes. The idea is that the students should reflect on how the cartoon drawings are understood from

  • a child's perspective
  • a foreigner's perspective
  • a non-contemporary perspective.

They must thus achieve a more profound ability to reflect on the problems that are involved in the interpretation of historical texts and thereby also the interpretation of cultures and society.

The cartoon drawing is e.g. a picture of a goldfish with former prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen's face, placed in a blender with a knife that is drawn as the Liberal Party's logo, along with a text with reference to the specific date for the general election and the caption "Who turns it on?"

Goldfish in a blender is a reference to Marco Evaristti's much talked-about exhibition "Blender and veiltailed goldfish" at Trapholt Museum of Art in 2000. Read more here (danish). 

A picture such as this settles in the minds of the students in such a way that older students still talk about it many years after. In many ways the students get a veritable hermeneutic shock, which subsequently functions in a very constructive and mentally activating manner for their work on the interpretation of texts from the past. The iconic accentuated representations have the advantage of cognitively storing themselves in such a manner that subsequently I may refer to them - both during class and at the exam - and thereby get the students activated to enter into deeper hermeneutic considerations. I use a maximum of three well-chosen drawings in the course of a term, but they achieve an almost canonical character for some of the overall points that I want my students to grasp.

I would recommend that teachers spend a great deal of time selecting of pictorial material and integrating this with the more fundamental theoretical and methodological points that she or he wishes to bring forth in connection with their use.

Outcome of the activity

The idea is to shock the students by presenting them with material at the beginning of the course which they are completely unprepared for and which they do not understand how to use.

The shock effect, however, must be conducive to some simple subsequent considerations, which are stored in such a manner that the students - when later confronted with parallel scenarios, but now in relation to the material studied - are capable of reactivating the initial shock effect and its complementary hermeneutic insights, so that they may use them in all kinds of other contexts.

Reflections on the activity

You must feel in control as a lecturer. You have to be very free in relation to your subject matter and you have to always know exactly where you are in relation to different groups of students.

Metaphorically speaking you must be mentally behind them, together with them and ahead of them, if this is to be more than just a showing-off.

Cartoon drawing for the activity

The cartoon shows former prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen's face, placed in a blender with a knife that is drawn as the Liberal Party's logo, along with a text with reference to the specific date for the general election and the caption "Who turns it on?"


Anders Klostergaard Petersen

Professor with Special Responsibilities
H 1451, 531
P +4587162431