Wednesday, October 02, 2013

History and story

Nowadays, narratology, narrative poetics, or literary hermeneutics, is popular in Biblical hermeneutics and commentaries in that vein. Pioneering exponents include Jewish scholars like Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg. A NT counterpart is Alan Culpepper. A more recent exponent is David Lyle Jeffrey. This approach also intersects with the comparative mythological approach of scholars like Northrup Frye, Marcea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. 

These scholars have a liberal or secular approach to Scripture. More theologically orthodox proponents include Leland Ryken and Richard Pratt. I notice that in his commentary on Genesis, Bruce Waltke has applied these literary techniques to the text.

Now, this approach can be a useful counterbalance to the way many commentaries were traditionally written. Oftentimes, commentators, especially Bible "critics," spend their time taking the text apart. Ferreting out the imagined underlying sources. Spend their time on the minutiae of grammar. Or comparative literature. And so on.

Basically, they treat the Biblical text as a cadaver to be dissected and harvested for spare parts. An exercise in literary anatomy. 

The benefit of the newer approach is that it respects the "final form" of the text. Genre, setting, viewpoint, plot development, characterization, intertextuality, literary conventions. 

Commentaries in this vein are more readable–even gripping They give the reader a good overview of the book in question. Where it's going and how it got there. Because scholars in this vein focus on the personal dynamics (e.g. foil characters), it's easier for the reader to relate to the experience of the characters. 

A good representative of this approach is James Resseguie's The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. If you feel lost when you read Revelation, his commentary is a useful guide. 

There are, however, limitations to this approach. For one thing, it's utility is pretty much confined to Biblical narrative. Less adaptable to other genres. 

A more serious limitation is that exponents of this approach frequently treat the Bible as fiction. Now, because creative writers have so much leeway, since they aren't constrained by the facts on the ground, commentators who view the Bible this way are apt to discern very ingenious, artificial patterns in the text. Patterns we wouldn't expect to find if this is history. For in writing about the past, a historian is constrained by what really happened. 

In addition, exegesis does require the commentator to sometimes get bogged down in tedious linguistic analysis. That isn't exciting, and it results in a choppy style, but it's necessary to determine the meaning of a passage. So that can't be avoided.

Of course, the most serious downside to treating the Bible as fiction is that if the Bible is historical revelation, then the commentator is like a man at a farmer's market who admires the produce, praises the variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, but starves to death because he forgets to eat. It's all surface admiration. He eyes the produce. Handles the produce. Smells the produce. But never takes  a bite. It might as well be plastic. 

One reason some commentators treat the Bible as fiction is because they are atheists, or at least functional atheists. But another reason is because they are deceived by adventitious similarities between history and fiction. 

The term "history " is ambiguous. It can mean the past, or it can mean writing about the past. 

There are parallels between history and fiction. Fiction has a setting, plot, and characters. But so does history. Time is linear. Due to cause and effect, one thing leads to another. Past events have a concrete setting in time and space. And in human history, human agents are causes. Human agents set goals. Human agents have means of achieving, or striving to achieve, their goals. 

Critics and commentators who get carried away with the "literary" features of historical narrative overlook the fact that what they take to be "literary" features could just as well or better be historical features. 

Historical writing strikes a balance between fact and fiction. Historical writing is based on what really happened, but it's selective. It sometimes rearranges the actual chronology into a more logical or topical series. So we need to distinguish between real time and narrative time. It's generally chronological, but it may contain flashbacks. And because the historian knows how the chain of events will end, he can foreshadow the ending. 

In the case of Bible writers, who under inspiration may assume the viewpoint of an "omniscient narrator," the reader is privy to the hidden psychological motives of the agents. Moreover, the depiction goes beyond the empirical level in another respect to make allowance for invisible agents (God, angels, demons) who are driving or directing events behind-the-scenes. 

In that respect, Biblical history is more historical than secular history. Secular history omits many key factors, for a secular outlook can't register anything that doesn't impinge on the five senses.  

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