October 8, 2016

Gospel Narratives *ARE* Historical Representations

In New Testament Narrative Criticism, as far as I've seen, the prevalent trend for at least 34 years has been to isolate individual aspects of narrative theory. Published studies of Gospel texts invariably focus their observations through the lens of one traditional "element of literature"; so they write about plot or characterization or settings or rhetoric or narration. The great contribution of these studies has been to focus on "the whole text", a simple practice which NT Historical Criticism (bizarrely) made difficult long ago. By the 70's and 80's, Hans Frei, Norman Petersen, David Rhoads, Donald Michie, and Mark Allan Powell (among others) were charting the new route to study "the whole text". But here I come, an unpolished amateur in 2016, to complain that they did not turn our focus toward appreciating "the whole story".

They talk about story worlds, but they eschew bringing in much historical context. The whole program seems to have been designed specifically to prevent readers from imagining events in the narrative as if they were actually taking place in the real (remembered) world of the historical past. Obviously, the new field was born with a need to set itself distinctly apart from historical studies, but consider the fact that Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative came out in the same year as Hayden White's Metahistory. We've learned a lot since 1974, but I don't think anyone (except Steve Mason) quite realized until recently how to properly differentiate between history and literature, when reading narrative in context. In the early 80's, the NT NC foundation was not built upon recognizing the intricate relationship between history and literature. Instead, it did everything in its power to build a Berlin Wall in between them. If you understand the things I've been blogging about recently, then I'm asking you to agree. It's time to tear down that wall.

I've been building my case slowly in recent blog posts, since my deeply felt objections finally became clear to me while working through Frank Ankersmit's Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. (Ankersmit, by the way, may be the world's leading expert on Hayden White, and stands as something of a successor, except he seems devoted to ending the confusion which White (thankfully!) started.

Here is my contention about the NT NC problem in one sentence. By confusing reference and representation, while attempting to bracket out consideration of historicity, they have misunderstood not only non-fiction narratives, but fiction narratives also. Historical criticism had convinced them that historical judgment must precede exegetical reconstruction. Like Steve Mason and Brant Pitre, I believe we need to reverse that sequence.

Texts convey stories. Discourses evoke story worlds. But those worlds are constructed by audience memory and imagination. The imagined world of the remembered past is not referenced. It is represented. We read the writings of historians as hypothetical representations of the actual past. We ought to do no less with the Gospels themselves. Anything less is not studying the Gospels as narratives. Fact or fiction, narrative is not narrative unless it offers itself to be taken as representation.

If you want to read more of my thoughts about this, here are several recent posts (July - Sept):

Description vs Representation
Propositional Truth vs Representational Truth
Suspending Historicity while Reading Narratives Historically
Narrative is Representation
Exegesis before Historicity
Truth and Change
The Real and Represented World(s)
Gospels as Narratives: Reference vs Representation

There should be, hopefully, much more to come...


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