Seaborn Hall, 1/18/20
To reiterate and restate from Part one, dreams are a language, a symbolic language. A symbol can have a single meaning or a field of meaning. Words and pictures in dreams can both be symbols for meaning. In certain cases, words or pictures may represent the literal things themself, rather than acting as symbols. This complexity illustrates Joseph’s statement in Genesis that ‘It is God that determines interpretation.’
Language either means one thing or nothing. That is, statements are either anchored in a historical and literary context with a primary, understood meaning – or they mean nothing. No one can say, ‘This statement has an infinite number of meanings’, or ‘This statement means what I want it to mean.’
Meaning in statements, sentences, or dreams is governed by historically controlled and understood cultural symbols. The meaning of all of them is further governed by one simple rule: ‘Context, context, context.’
Dream Context, Life Context, Biblical Vocabulary, Personal Vocabulary
As we alluded to above, Dream context is the most important aspect of interpreting – context is the most important aspect of interpreting anything.
If more Biblical teachers and pastors would pay more attention to context and worry less about impressing their congregations with the ‘literal’ meaning of this Greek or Hebrew word we would all understand the Bible a lot better. Greek is ‘literally’ the last thing that you need to understand or teach the Bible at a level of excellence.
That is not to say that understanding Greek and Hebrew isn’t helpful in the final analysis. I studied the Bible in the original languages for over a decade, and I still use this knowledge and experience. But, there is so much interpretive work to do before you ever get to the language just to understand the context. Most Bible teachers don’t even come close to getting there.
Dream context is just what it sounds like. It is the context of all of the elements in the dream, especially how the dream opens, but everything else as well: The relationship between the symbols and parts. Are there any significant breaks? Does one scene end and another begin? Is the dream so complex that there are several stories or dreams within the dream or is it a simple dream with a shorter statement? What are the colors and how do they relate with each other? And we could go on and on.
The opening of the dream will usually tell you a lot about whether the dream is about the dreamer or about someone or something else and it sets the context for the rest of the dream. This is why I always ask someone several times about the opening and make sure I understand some of the possibilities of what the symbols in the opening mean to the dreamer.
What the dream is about is the focus of the dream. John Paul Jackson talks a lot about the focus of the dream and how to determine it and we like what he says. However, we prefer to emphasize the context more because that will get you in the habit of paying attention to context throughout the interpretation. Meanings of symbols can change according to context even though the focus will usually stay the same – though not always.
We also like to determine up front whether a dream is objective or subjective. We follow Jung in this perspective – though not intentionally. This is merely a ‘common sense’ way of looking at the material of dreams, probably how Jung came up with the idea. Jung believed that dreams were a way of helping the dreamer develop his or her whole persona – that they were developmental in nature. Was Jung onto something, in a partial sense at least? We believe that he was. God is more interested in our development into mature, whole individuals than Jung was.
Objective means that the dreamer is watching events unfold before their eyes, much like an audience member watches characters on a stage in a Broadway play. Subjective means that the dreamer is involved in the action and not just an observer. This is more like when the cast of the play comes down into the audience and engages the audience in the events of the play. Not too many plays do this, so this isn’t a perfect example. Subjective dreams are usually dreams where the dreamer is either the protagonist, driving the action of the dream or a supporting character, being acted on by the protagonist of the dream, but involved with the action.
Objective/subjective is one step to get to before you determine focus and for us it helps us not to get ahead of ourselves and incorrectly choose ‘focus’ before it reveals itself. Objective dreams are usually more prophetic in nature. Subjective dreams can be prophetic but are primarily warnings, problem/solution dreams, or developmental dreams. They are almost always personal dreams as opposed to universal dreams meant for the larger Body of Christ. Again, there are exceptions to this just like there are with most anything.
Life context is also an important element in interpreting dreams. Many times the meaning of certain symbols will not be apparent unless the interpreter knows the life context – what is going on in the life of the dreamer.
A lot of ‘prophetic’ people will balk at this concept and suggestion, but it is still a good one. Prophetic people sometimes like to engage a person without knowledge so that the person engaged will know a prophetic word is really from God. This also helps them be more objective in their delivery of the ‘word.’
Dream interpretation is a little different. Symbols are flexible in nature and there is more than one possible meaning for many symbols. Sometimes, to determine which meaning is appropriate you need to know a little something about what is going on in a person’s life. Usually, these personal questions will come straight out of the dream itself as you engage the person and the dream interpretively.
As we said there is a Biblical vocabulary and a Personal vocabulary that includes a history of personal meanings and associations as well as cultural associations like Icons that have universal meaning. Biblical vocabularies and meaning are available across a wide array of interpretive books and one combined Biblical/Personal vocabulary is provided in our appendix.
Personal vocabularies are something that you will need to type out and add to and build yourself. Some of our meanings may work for you, but in the end these will be specific to you alone. Icons and universal symbols, like the President, the Statue of Liberty, a snake or a rat are well known and also provided various places, including some in our vocabulary. We include the ‘universal’ element of vocabulary under the designation ‘personal’ for simplicity sake.
Interpreting Others’ Dreams: Can A Dream Mean Anything You Want It To Mean?
A friend once said to me that it is impossible to interpret someone else’s dream because they are the only one who can say for sure what it is saying to them. There are several problems with this statement.
First, what my friend may have been alluding to is the ‘Personal vocabulary’ aspect of dreams.
It is true that interpreting some dreams can get a little sticky if you are not aware of or don’t know the personal symbols of the dream. This is why we all need to be very careful when interpreting public dreams or dreams of others. However, my friend also seemed to be saying that the interpretation is always left to the dreamer. If this were true, why did Joseph and Daniel both interpret other’s dreams? It is God who determines an interpretation – not people (for the complete meaning of this, see this article).
On the other hand, part of the reason for the dream is to give the dreamer time to unravel symbols and learn the meaning of things that he or she may not want to see or may not be able to see about themselves, others, or the world that we live in. The symbolic nature of dreams, like parables, bypasses our conscious thought and our natural defenses and ‘pulls us in’ to the confrontation and ‘surprise’ that the dream has in store. Anyone who wishes to understand this ‘symbolic’ way of understanding should pick up Aristotle’s ‘Art of Rhetoric’, which is also great background for New Testament interpretation.
Any one interpreting a public dream or a dream for someone else should bear the above in mind, and not become overbearing.
Second, we make the same mistakes in dream interpretation that we are prone to make when interpreting the Bible. There is not one mode of Biblical interpretation. Jesus and the Apostles engaged in at least five different methods of interpretation. In the same way, dream interpretation has certain approaches and methodology. The dreamer may or may not be aware of this and may ignore context and project their own desired meaning onto symbols and interpretations. This is a common Biblical mistake, and in our experience, an even more common dream interpretation mistake.
Third, initially, the dreamer is usually the worst person to attempt an interpretation initially because the closer you are to something, especially something symbolic that you want to interpret literally, the more apt you are to misinterpret it. This is known as having a lack of objectivity. The closer you are to something or someone the less objective and the more subjective you are. You are likely to make decisions based on emotions, desires, wants, likes and dislikes. Dreams, on the other hand, are divinely designed to bypass these proclivities and speak to us on another level.
The above is true even for someone who has been dreaming and interpreting dreams for over thirty years, like myself. The first thing I do before interpreting most of my dreams – after either typing it out in a journal or recording it – is let it sit for a few hours to a day or two. This gives your conscious mind time to catch up to your sub-conscious mind and to put some of the symbols, especially any provocative ones, into better focus. Praying in the Spirit can also help with this. Then – if I need to – I ask someone that I trust to weigh in.
Last, if my friend were to say ‘No one can really interpret what someone says because the meaning of their words is really up to them’ would that be a valid statement? Not really, because as we said words have a previously determined historical meaning that most people in a culture agree on and understand. The only time this statement might be true is if you were in a country different from your own with little or no understanding of the words or the culture.
Why A Biblical View Of Interpretation?
When you refer to Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Dream interpretation’ you will find nothing on a Biblical view of interpretation – unless something has been added since this writing. This is strange, since the Bible offers so much for our understanding.
Early on in the modern era, around 1900, Sigmund Freud postulated that almost all dreams were the result of ‘wish-fulfillment’ and ‘day residue.’ Some say that the view that his dreams are primarily the impulse of sexual drives and impulses is a misrepresentation of his seminal work Interpretation of Dreams.
Carl Jung built on Freud and postulated a more holistic view looking at dreams as primarily ‘developmental’ in nature. Specifically, Jung’s view is that “the role of dreams is to lead a person to wholeness through what Jung calls “a dialogue between ego and the self”.” Jung saw dreams as attempting to aid the development of the whole person and offering guidance, solution to problems, and insight into the process.
Ann Faraday was a British born psychologist who may have, with others, brought a Jungian based dream interpretation model more into the mainstream beginning in the 1970’s. Faraday saw dreams as including ‘warnings’ and having a pun-based nature. Before her, Hall, at Case Western University, compiled an anthology of research on dreams.
Other secular analysts have contributed to dream interpretation, something that many Christian interpreters – like John Paul Jackson – have chosen to ignore or label as ‘tainted.’ We believe that insight can be gleaned, with discernment, from everyone that has gone before us. God’s insight is not just limited to believers. His sun shines on everyone. He used and anointed both Cyrus (Isaiah) and Hazael (1 Kings 20f), non-believers, for His purpose.
That said, because we believe in a dualistic universe where good and evil exist, we follow a primarily Biblical interpretive model that depends on Biblically known symbols, universal symbols, or Icons, and a personal vocabulary. Again, these later two categories, universal and personal, we group under the heading ‘Personal vocabulary.’
Dreams have a previously determined historical meaning both through the Bible and through the personal and universal meanings of your life and culture. They have a long history back to the Ancient Near East culture and long before. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were instrumental in building a secular contemporary understanding of dreams and dream interpretation.
Various figures have been responsible for a Biblical view of dreams and dream interpretation but there is probably not one most influential figure. We have built our dream interpretation philosophy and methodology on the foundations provided by Morton Kelsey and John Paul Jackson.
In future installments, we will expand on all of the topics introduced here, and some others, and attempt to bring a clear methodology of dream interpretation into focus.